Innovation Ecosystem

Hope comes to Newport

Generations of music performers find common ground in the civil rights anthems from an earlier era

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Rachael Price performs at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival.

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Mavis Staples performs at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, including on a star-studded finale, "A Change Is Going To Come."

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite perform at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival.

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Jon Batiste performs at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival.

By Steve Klamkin
Posted 8/6/18
The 2018 Newport Folk Festival unified around a message of hope, embracing a new era in the tradition of musicians championing civil rights.
What lessons can be learned from the successful word-of-mouth marketing campaign for the Newport Folk Festival? How important is music as a common denominator in our cultural history, particularly as legendary performers such as David Crosby, John Prine and Mavis Staples joined younger performers on stage? Is there an opportunity for the city of Newport to highlight its planned innovation district in efforts to build a place-based future at future festivals?
The scenes at the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival provide a far different image of America than what occurred at the recent political rallies orchestrated by President Trump. The music festivals promote diversity and hope and the joy of singing together, something often missing from our current political scene, and not the hatred and divisiveness often on display at the Trump rallies.

NEWPORT – “Hope,” the Rhode Island state motto, might well have been the theme of the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, which, like past festivals, highlighted star after star, ending with a massive jam session titled: “A Change Is Going To Come.”

The 1964 Sam Cooke hit, which became an anthem of the civil rights movement, threaded its way throughout the three days of performances at the harbor side Fort Adams State Park, culminating with the much-awaited closing set.

“A change is going to come, celebrating the long, long-standing relationship between the festivals and civil rights,” said Jay Sweet, executive producer of the nonprofit Newport Festivals Foundation, which produces the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, often called the ‘granddaddy’ of music festivals, which began in 1954.

“I think it’s a bittersweet thing that we still have to make it the forefront of the closing set at Newport,” Sweet said.

“Do you remember when we had to have marches to have civil rights, we had to have civil disobedience for civil rights? Remember when we used to have to do that? And what’s pretty sad is it’s just as timely to worship the songs in today’s day and age. It’s magical, but I wish we didn’t have to do it.”

The uplifting Sunday night finale was led by Newport veteran Jon Batiste, bandleader of CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” backed by the Dap-Kings.

Unannounced performers abound
Among a long list of featured and unannounced performers were Mavis Staples, Leon Bridges, Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers, Valerie June, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes and more. They sang songs from the civil rights era, including: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” “Jesus Is On The Main Line,” and the title song, “A Change Is Going To Come.”

It was a weekend filled with musical surprises and combinations.

Surprises included Friday’s unannounced appearance of David Crosby, who joined Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and the legendary John Prine joined Margo Price.

Guitarist Ben Harper teamed with harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, which was on the bill, but a performance by Wilco’s guitarist Nels Cline was unexpectedly joined by Warren Haynes of Government Mule and the Allman Brothers Band.

Mumford and Sons was the unannounced guest act capping Saturday’s performances on the Fort stage, playing their hits, and joined by Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers and Phoebe Bridgers.

There were plenty of musical revelations.

“I’m trying to contain myself, said Michael Trotter, half of the powerhouse gospel duo The War and Treaty, along with his wife Tanya Trotter. “Very first time here, physically, I’ve been here many times in my own head,” he joked.

He had a powerful reaction to performing. “It just touched both of our hearts. Just to see the human spirit at its greatest form, which is when we’re all working together. That’s just major for us. And seeing people being in that moment, it was a beautiful thing.”

“Just connecting with people, you know, you look into the eyes of people in the audience, it’s very, very special,” said Tanya.

“The thing that I believe that Tanya and I bring most is unity,” said Michael. “Love and the courage to love, even when it seems like it’s not loving you back, that’s sometimes it’s hard to do.”

First timers
The hard rocking band Low Cut Connie was another first timer at Newport, with a high energy set led by singer Adam Weiner, who climbed atop his piano to bring the energy.

“You’ve got to,” Weiner said after their set. “Twenty three hours of waiting and … Kaboom! You’d better make a big splash, you know?”

“You never know what to expect when you walk out on stage, but when I saw the 11 a.m. Newport crowd, I said, you know what? These people are ready for action. They don’t want to be sitting on their hands. They don’t want to be mellow. They’re here for action, and I’m here to provide it.”

Women performers to watch
From the rollicking R&B of Tank and the Bangas, to rockers Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher, to folk stalwart Kaia Kater, country and pop influenced Nicole Atkins, to the serene Bedouine to St. Vincent who is in a class all her own, all feature women to watch.

Little wonder the Newport Folk Festival sells out in a matter of hours, even without advance notice of any of the performers. Producer Jay Sweet is already thinking about and planning for next year’s festival.

“Oh yeah, it started in May, last May,” Sweet said.


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