When your Saturday ends with Jack White shedding a tear as the sun sets on a giant, waterfront sing-along, it’s hard to look back at the day’s events with anything but awe. I kicked things off with The Oh Hello’s, a band that shocked me with their capability of moving between soft, whispered vocals and booming choruses that shook the very fort itself. Echoing percussion on set opener “The Valley” attracted a crowd immediately, and the number of onlookers only grew as this enormous 14-person band continued to barrel through their set. Here’s to hoping these guys give us some new music in the coming months, because their set was energizing in a way I haven’t seen in a while.
After The Oh Hellos, the festival gods were against me as Shovels & Rope, J. Roddy Walston & The Business, and Benjamin Booker all battled it out for our attention. Shovels & Rope, second-year Newport Folk act and a force to be reckoned with on any stage, opened with the title track to 2012’s excellent O’ Be Joyful, giving the crowd a taste of the country-fried folk-rock that has earned them top spots on plenty of best-of lists. They knew their history, too: “Dammit, if we don’t love rock-n-roll,” exclaimed the lovely Cary Ann Hearst, commenting on Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric at the fest 49 years ago before launching into “Hail, Hail.”
I walked over to J. Roddy Walston just in time for him to call the crowd to action: apparently, it was time for us to get sweaty. His barn-burning rock-n-roll was exactly as impressive as I remembered, but given all the recent praise I’d heard for Benjamin Booker I couldn’t help but run over to the Quad stage after a song or two to check him out. I wasn’t disappointed: Booker worked the stage like a pro, his dexterity on the guitar along with the set’s sheer volume drew a crowd that continued to grow until the last note echoed over the fort.
Houndmouth’s a must-see at any festival, not only for their hard-rocking folk sound but for their unpretentious air on stage. The band kept the party going on the Quad stage with multiple sing-alongs, a highlight being single “On The Road,” and it was obvious that the crowd was familiar with the band, whether it was from their memorable appearance at least year’s fest or the constant touring they’ve kept up since.
Between their Rhode Island roots and annual after-parties, Deer Tick has essentially become Newport Folk’s house band over the past couple of years and their reception reflected that title. Clad in nautical outfits and running through scream-able tracks like “The Rock,” ultimately closing out with widespread favorite “Ashamed.”
After Deer Tick, I was able to catch the tail end of a packed set from Lucius, who brought out the weekend’s guest of honor Mavis Staples for “”Go Home. One of the best parts about seeing Lucius live is the strength of their catalog, which may not be large but consists of almost entirely songs that make for strong singles. I spent the entire set thinking, “You know what? I think this is actually my favorite song.” They closed out the set with “Two of Us On The Run,” which left the crowd (or at least me) awestruck once again by not just the vocal chops of leads Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, but the dynamic of the entire group.
The main event Saturday, though, was headliner Jack White. White may make a new news headline every day with his constantly-changing setlists, vinyl goodness and curfew-snubbing encores, but this set was notable in its unwavering respect for the audience, the festival and the Newport Folk performers of years past. You could tell it was a different kind of weekend altogether for White, who commented on the unique environment at Newport, one that allowed him to wander the fest and catch other bands without feeling bothered. White ran through songs from all over his catalog: The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” and “We’re Going To Be Friends;” The Raconteurs’ “Top Yourself” and big solo tracks like “Blunderbuss.” But perhaps most moving were the cover songs White selected, which ranged from Jimi Hendrix (“Hear My Train A Comin’”) to the emotional high point of the set, Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene.” White dedicated the song to Pete Seeger, shedding a tear as his voice cracked in the final verse and the sun began to dip behind the water and he led the crowd in a sing-along. It was an unforgettable moment that served as a crowning end to an unforgettable day of music.
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John C. Reilly
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Shovels and Rope