This year, the Newport Folk Festival curated a lineup with surprise guests that no one ever would have imagined. Maybe not even the festival organizers themselves. Witnessing Paul Simon come out of retirement to perform on Saturday night, and then Joni Mitchell—another legendary singer/songwriter icon whose last appearance at Newport was in 1969—make her return to the festival and closing it out on Sunday night, was just mind-blowing.
Thanks to Jay Sweet (the Executive Producer /Director of Newport Folk & Jazz) and Grammy-winning artist Brandi Carlile, who has helped to bring artists to the Fort over the years, magical things have been happening. This year, the closing set for Sunday night was billed as “Brandi Carlile & Friends” but, when Brandi approached the stage and began her introductory speech, the conversation went from the power of folk music to talking about Joni Mitchell and spending time in her California home playing with other artists—such as Paul McCartney and Elton John—in what was referred to as the “Joni Jams.”
(Questlove, of the Roots, captured much of her brilliant speech, and the excitement of the moment, on his phone/video, from the photo pit. He posted it on his Instagram, and I get chills again re-watching it. It was heart-warming to see him taking a video of her performance.)
The stage was set up to recreate Joni’s living room, with a gilded gold “throne,” surrounded by friends and musicians. No one knew that Joni was backstage, and Brandi wasn’t entirely sure that Joni would come out to sing and play, but, when she emerged, it was almost as if time suddenly stood still. I never imagined that I would see Joni Mitchell in my lifetime, especially after she suffered a debilitating brain aneurysm back in 2015, which left her unable to walk and talk, let alone sing and play the guitar. Watching and hearing her sing “Both Sides Now” (watch on Brandi’s Instagram) took on a whole new meaning and brought most of the ten thousand in attendance to tears. I think Brandi Carlile described it best, ”Joni’s looked at life from so many sides and she came out of the storm singing like a prophet. After all she’s been through, she returned to the Newport Folk Fest stage after 53 years and I will never forget sitting next to her while she stopped this old world for a while…I will never be over this.”
There were other significant and memorable performances this year. The Roots performed just before Brandi and Joni, marking the first hip-hop act to play a full main-stage set at Newport Folk, and they were incredible as always.
Ukrainian artists, DakhaBrakha, dubbed as the “ambassadors of free Ukraine,” performed to a standing ovation and Ukrainian flags waving in the audience. They have been performing for years, but are using this tour, which started just after Russia invaded Ukraine, to deliver an urgent message to the world: “Stop Putin” and “No War.” It was a powerful reminder of what is still happening in their country.
Rhiannon Giddens performed with the Silkroad Ensemble, which was previously led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It’s a culturally diverse, 14-member ensemble. When the tabla player, Sandeep Das, introduced the song “Ekla Cholo Re,” he surprised the audience by saying that Rhiannon would sing it in Bengali. It was a stunning performance.
Nashville Rockers, Illiterate Light, hosted daily acts on an environmentally conscious small stage powered by five bike riders and solar energy. It was clever and fun, sparking conversations about alternative energy, and featured artists such as Bendigo Fletcher, Madi Diaz, and a lesser-known but very lively band called Palmyra.
The Black Opry Revue featured even lesser-known artists, except for blues artist Buffalo Nichols, who played a couple of sets. Every artist on the stage was supremely talented. Autumn Nicholas, Julia Cannon, Chris Pierce, Leon Timbo, Lizzie No, the Kentucky Gentleman, and returning artist Joy Oladokun played individual sets and then came together for a memorable finale.
The Linda Lindas, a punk rock band from LA, and some of the youngest performers I have ever seen at Newport (ages 11 to 17), put on one of the most raucous sets at the festival. At one point, kids of all ages came up to the stage to sing and dance along with them.
And lastly, there were the sweet blues of Taj Mahal, desert instrumentalists Hermanos Gutierrez, the soulful pop of Maren Morris, and the synth vibes of Sylvan Esso. The National surprised the audience by coming into the crowd, Japanese Breakfast performed one of the final festival concerts—complete with a “breakfast” of croissants/scones—and The Backseat Lovers, Neal Francis, John Craige, Sierra Ferrell, and Goose all had the crowds on their feet
This was the first year since 2019 with a full line-up and a full three-plus days of music, and it was glorious. I can’t help but wonder who the surprise performers will be next year? Only one way to find out.
Check out the next Newport Folk Festival on July 28-30, 2023. Tickets traditionally sell out fast, so keep an eye on their website and their social media for updates: https://newportfolk.org