Newport Folk Festival Concludes with All Star Pete Seeger Tribute

Posted on July 28, 2014 | by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Newport: Rodrigo Y Gabriela

On the last day of a sold-out event dominated by young bands playing to an equally young audience, the Newport Folk Festival wrapped up with a bow to its venerable history with a performance by Mavis Staples—who sang here with the Staples Singers 50 years ago. 

Leading up to Staples’ appearance, the festival continued to deliver a tremendous range of music. Representing New Orleans were the Deslondes and their pals Hurray for the Riff Raff, both giving a fresh voice to traditional country, gospel, and blues. Valerie June, picking the banjo, banjo uke, and guitar in a glittery sequin dress, opened with a mesmerizing version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” before turning to her own old-timey songs like “Tennessee Time” with fiddle and bass accompaniment. 

Other highlights were the Minnesota string band Trampled By Turtles, showcasing material from a new album, Wild Animals,with a more contemplative, midtempo sound than the bluegrass-inspired burners they’re known for; and the singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, who matched his observant songs with finely detailed guitar work. On the rock side of the spectrum, the day featured strong sets by Dawes, Conor Oberst (backed by Dawes), and Jeff Tweedy, performing songs from a new album, Sukirae,that he recorded with his teenage son Spencer on drums.

Many songwriters at Newport, and in the booming roots/Americana scene in general, are content to strum the so-called cowboy chords and focus on storytelling rather than explore the range of their instruments, and that leaves a lot of guitar territory uncovered. Those hankering for more six-string intensity got what they wished for in a fiery set by the Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, who needed nothing more than two nylon-string guitars to get throngs of Newport fans dancing.

At the end of the day, Mavis Staples, celebrating her 75th birthday at the festival, sang stirring renditions of Tweedy’s “You Are Not Alone” (joined by the songwriter), Pops Staples’ “Freedom Highway,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Norah Jones and Trampled By Turtles, “The Weight” with Jones again plus Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and “Let’s Do It Again” and “I’ll Take You There” accompanied by Muscle Shoals songwriting/keyboard legend Spooner Oldham.

In honor of the late Pete Seeger—who performed at Newport ten times, more than any other artist—Staples led many of the festival performers as well as the audience in a sing-along of “We Shall Overcome.” It was a sweet coda to a weekend celebrating the tremendous vitality and diversity of a new generation of folk.

For an album of images from the festival, click here

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