Newport Folk Festival Returns, In A Year Defined By Uncertainty
Updated July 30, 2021 at 2:52 PM ET
When Cheyenne Shaffer walked onto the grounds of the 2021 Newport Folk Festival, she was dressed for the occasion. "I mean, it's so cheesy — but it's like a homecoming!" she gushed, wearing a Newport Folk trucker hat and a bandana emblazoned with the festival's logo, a flying seagull clutching a guitar case by the handle. A regular patron since 2012, Shaffer broke out her beloved official merch for the long-anticipated return to Fort Adams State Park on Friday, along with a DIY garment: a sleeveless denim shirt with four words embroidered across her back in royal blue, reading IN JAY WE TRUST.
Shaffer was referencing the "sacred trust," as longtime producer Jay Sweet often calls it, that helps sustain the festival, spiritually and otherwise. Artists trust Sweet to curate a singular event that lives up to its substantial legacy. The Folk Family, a particularly devoted community of performers and superfans who make the annual pilgrimage to Fort Adams State Park, trusts him to not only live up to that legacy but to extend it, booking an increasingly diverse array of talent hoping to redefine what folk can be. Sweet, in turn, trusts the performers to deliver exceptional performances they wouldn't bring to other festivals, or to curate a star-studded collaborative set, as Brandi Carlile did in 2019 and Allison Russell did this past Sunday. This summer, following 16 months where the stages at Fort Adams were empty due to the coronavirus pandemic, that trust is being put to an extreme test. As the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus surges across the country, is it safe for fans to attend any music festival right now, is it safe for artists to play them, and is it possible, in a climate that changes hour-by-hour, to even pull them off?
"I feel like I made the decision to come up here and play this because I trust the institution of the Newport Folk Festival more than I trust other institutions, and because the reward is so high," says Jason Isbell, a longtime member of the Folk Family and frequent Newport Folk performer. "The risk may be the same or lower than some other spots, but the reward is very high in terms of, how, as an artist, it feels to play for these audiences on these stages in this set. For me it's always a risk vs. reward thing. I wouldn't risk my life to go play in a bar, but I might risk my life to go play at Newport."
Sweet also trusts the Folk Family in return when it comes to their financial support: the festival often sells out before a single act on the lineup is announced, largely due to the its curation and track record for delivering the unexpected, which began in 1965 when Dylan went electric and continued on Sunday after Chaka Khan, who was invited by Russell to join her set, led the best dance party Fort Adams may have ever seen.
In the months leading into this year, Sweet spent nearly as many hours on the phone with the Governor of Rhode Island and the state's Department of Health as he did with various talent buyers, agents and promoters, all looking to Newport as an indicator for how the upcoming festival season might go. The first decision he made — to give artists the choice as to whether or not they wanted to announce their sets, or keep them a surprise until their arrival — was one with the trust and comfort of the artists in mind.
"One of the greatest attractions for the artist to say yes was the trust they had in us to do it right, as America's first music festival, and being the first one of note back, and knowing that we were gonna really go above and beyond," said Sweet backstage at the festival on Sunday. "Even when the rules started falling away and protocols were no longer necessary in order to get the okay to do this, we stuck to our guns and said, 'Well, we still think it's important.' "
Even though the pandemic canceled the 2020 festival season and left the fort empty last year, Sweet did what he could to support the artists and the fans in the interim. A superstar contingent of the Folk Family, featuring Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Jim James, Gary Clark Jr. and more, filmed performances for Our Voices Together, a digital benefit for the Newport Festivals Foundation. Sweet also made what most in his position would consider a terrible business decision, but one crucial for the health of the community: he emptied the foundation's budget into a COVID-19 relief fund and proceeded to dole out over $200,000 in grants for artists who had played either Newport Folk or its sister festival, Newport Jazz.
When Sweet and his staff cautiously began planning for the 2021 event, they followed pandemic precautions and the guidance of the local government and Department of Health. Daily capacity was reduced from 10,000 to 6,000, including artists and staff; they decreased the number of stages from three to two, and stretched the usual three days' worth of programming across six in order to disperse crowds. With over 70% of the population fully vaccinated, Rhode Island's infection rates are among the lowest in the nation, which prompted Governor Dan McKee to give an encouraging green light to the festival, saying that if Newport Folk wanted to, they could sell more tickets and get the crowd back up to its pre-pandemic number.
"The state said, 'You can go back to where you were; you can have 10,000 people a day,' " explains Bruce Gordon, the president of the foundation's board of directors. "And we said no. This is not about the buck. Not to say that money doesn't matter to a not-for-profit like ours – we're a tiny shop. Every penny counts. But we declined the opportunity to sell 4,000 more tickets a day because we knew it wasn't the safe thing to do."
Many musicians on the 2021 Newport Folk lineup came from states with surging infections and low vaccination rates. (One, William Tyler, had to back out of his performance after testing positive for COVID-19 the week prior.) For Isbell it came down to choices, but the choice to play a gig in this current moment was not an easy one for him to make.
"I'm not quite able to just let go and enjoy myself at this point – but still, the high points are there, they're just often tempered by anxiety," Isbell said backstage before his set on Saturday. "I made the decision to come here and play, and once I've made the decision, I'm only reacting to a decision I've already made. So I come here and I try to have the best time I can, and be safe, and do the best job I can. Those are my choices; I'm not qualified to assess the safety or the risk of this kind of an environment, but on a basic and instinctual feeling, it feels scary, and dangerous to me. With that said, I think there's a point of diminishing returns, and I think people need psychological and emotional health in the same way that they need physical health. I think a lot of us right now are trying to negotiate where that point of diminishing returns falls."
Margo Price can relate. On the one hand, she was thrilled to be back at Fort Adams with flowers in her hair, and debuted new material like "Fight to Make It," a feminist anthem with gospel undertones that was backed by Russell, Adia Victoria, Kam Franklin, and the Resistance Revival Chorus. On the other, she had recovered from COVID-19, as did her husband and collaborator, Jeremy Ivey, and she is still very much mourning the April 2020 death — from COVID-19 complications — of John Prine, (a mentor, friend from Nashville, and patriarch of the Folk Family) who introduced her on the festival's mainstage and performed alongside her in 2018.
"With the new strains, I still have a little bit of trepidation about the future, and anxiety about things closing again, or tours getting canceled — I don't think I would mentally be prepared for that again," she said. "I'm really trying to stay positive. All the shows we've done up until now have been podded or distanced, so this was really the first time we were trying to gauge, do I elbow bump, do I handshake, do I hug? Everybody, just jumping back in, you think there's going to be a little revving up to it, and it's like — nope. Foot on the gas. We're going full-throttle."
"I feel safer here in Rhode Island because there's a much higher vaccine rate here than in Nashville," said Alison Russell, who performed at multiple points throughout the weekend and curated Sundays' Once and Future Sounds, a spectacular tribute set inspired by folk and blues icon (and founding Newport Folk lineup member) Odetta which featured performances from Khan, Yola, Carlile and a robust number of powerful black, queer and female voices. "None of us have been in close proximity in 18 months! Yesterday, I sat in with Margo Price for her set, and I think all of us were feeling like, this is so weird — no masks and singing together, okay! We're all double-vaccinated and tested negative, but it still feels transgressive somehow, because it's the inertia thing... I think people are very tender in a way, and all of us have gone a bit feral, I think. How do we be together again?"
Russell finds it impossible to proceed without acknowledging what's transpired since her 2019 performance at Newport Folk, with her folk supergroup Our Native Daughters. "There's grief involved in realizing how much we've lost since the last time," she said. "In 2019, John Prine was alive. In 2019, 600,000 Americans were alive who are not... It's intense. It was surreal to step back into the fort, because it felt like stepping back into 2019 almost, but then the cognitive dissonance of, 'This is an intense, ongoing world tragedy' and all of the inequities bound up in that. I really felt all of it when I stepped onto the grounds: all of these things are true at the same time."
That dissonance no doubt contributed to some noticeably subdued (and occasionally jittery) performances, along with some stumbles in communication. Raw nerves were palpable through the festival's first weekend — backstage and onstage, anyway. The crowds at Fort Adams appeared unfazed: Newport Folk required all guests to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test through the Crowdpass app before arriving at the Fort, so they were jubilant, attentive, and largely unmasked. (Though the festival recommended patrons wear them at "pinch points" where the audiences concentrated under the stage tents and in high-traffic areas, few took them up on the suggestion.) The artists reflected the gravity of the current moment in different ways: some, like Devon Gilfillian's tribute to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Yola's lung-busting hour of euphoric soul, hosted cathartic jams, while many performed stripped-down acoustic sets in lieu of their typically raucous live shows. Isbell was joined by Shires and guitarist Sadler Vaden instead of his usual full-band arrangement; Shakey Graves and Phosphorescent also presented solo or minimalist renditions of their respective folk-rock repertoires.
Price, known to switch off between guitar, keyboard, and the drum kit over the course of a set, favored her acoustic guitar and keyboard instead. She initially wanted to bring her full band, but was under the impression she couldn't; Isbell, too, indicated he was initially told the same, and was later surprised to see full bands on site over the weekend. Sweet explains that this misunderstanding was created by the rapidly-changing parameters of the pandemic: Isbell, Price, and a number of Folk Family members had been booked when the festival intended to stage a more intimate event, well below the 6,000 they eventually settled on — but artists who joined the lineup later were given less restrictive guidance. Still, Price was thrilled to present renditions of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez standards, as well as "Fight to Make It," which she wouldn't have been able to do had she approached the set with her band. Isbell leaned into the acoustic change-up as well. "We're playing right after Randy Newman," he said, "and I know Randy is probably going to be up there by himself, just absolutely laying waste to everybody who thinks they've ever written a good song."
A separate misunderstanding involving another act later came to a head on Twitter. Emma Swift was bumped, with little notice, from her set on Sunday to a different time and location – a move that appeared, at first, intended to accomodate a last-minute performance from Newport Folk mainstay Middle Brother. Swift was dismayed, and tweeted that her set was "erased because three men who were already playing the same festival on a main stage arrived early wanted a bonus set." The tweet went viral, Sweet apologized, and the error was chalked up to a breakdown of the communication chain. Swift accepted the festival's apology and its offer to play her set on Tuesday morning, this time on the larger mainstage.
Swift's situation stood out because it felt like a betrayal — of her, but also the Folk Family and the values championed by Sweet and the festival, which has made a point to address inequities that play out across the industry on its own stages. Social justice is a tenet of Newport Folk going back to the earliest days of the festival, when co-founders George Wein and Pete Seeger invited Civil Rights activists to Newport throughout the '60s and encouraged peaceful protests in the tony summer destination's streets. Gender equality is a cause Newport Folk has championed from the onset with Carlile's female-forward closing set in 2019 serving as a refutation of the sexist norms and booking practices that keep women from the top slots on festival bills. Racial equality and inclusion remains a top priority, too, and Newport Folk's lineup is one of few where at least half of the bill's artists are from underrepresented groups. Russell's Once and Future Sounds is both a celebration of that and a reminder that this work has deep roots that go back generations. She notes, pointedly, that gender and racial inclusivity were part of a genesis for the festival that isn't always recalled by folk as a genre.
"It's clear to me that there's been a real attempt to be more representative and inclusive of what 'Folk Family' means," she said. "There's a funny thing with folk festivals where they got whitewashed for a long while, and now there's acknowledgment afoot: those roots are just as black as any other American song," she continued. "There are Black women at the root of every genre of American song. That's just demonstrably true." Russell's set, which featured Khan, as well as Yola, Celisse, Yaz and Carolin Randall Williams, Adia Victoria, Carlile, Price and scores of other performers across the festival, also received a flood of support and demonstrated trust from her fellow artists. Carlile's nonprofit organization, the Looking Out Foundation, and Nathaniel Rateliff's Marigold Foundation both donated resources to make the set possible. (Sweet stresses that this was without the encouragement or involvement of the Newport Festivals Foundation, and that other artists, like Billy Strings, as well as Prine's Hello In There foundation, have also supported the festival through their philanthropic initiatives.)
After two years of trauma, grief, uncertainty, and caution, Newport Folk is navigating uncharted territory — through the pandemic, but also as a leader in the festival space that's using its platform to effect social change. Artists and the Folk Family wrestled with holding space for many things at Fort Adams this year. It is possible to celebrate incredible achievements while wondering, and worrying, about whether or not a music festival can turn into a superspreader event even with precautions, required proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests, and the mindful cooperation of thousands of people. One could weigh the risks and rewards and realize they're maybe one and the same. The circle may be scuffed and dented, but it remains unbroken.
"This is the kind of allyship and coalition happening to make this festival and set happen," Russell said. "There's something really beautiful and hopeful about that, too — that Newport is all of us willing it to be so, in a sense."
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Brandi Carlile's nonprofit organization was incorrectly named the Lookout Foundation; it is the Looking Out Foundation.