People are still talking about Ryan Adams’ set, and probably will be for quite awhile. Many are calling it the best set of the festival, and I wouldn’t argue with them. Adams, recently back from a three-year absence, was playing only his third gig with his new band, but you would never have known it. They’re not quite the Cardinals yet, but they certainly have the potential to reach that lofty place.
The set itself consisted of a number of songs from the new Ryan Adams album, which is due in September. Despite the fact that people were unfamiliar with the songs, each one connected strongly with the audience. Among the new songs were “Gimme Something Good” (the album’s first single), “Stay With Me,” “Shadows,” “Catherine,” and “My Wrecking Ball” which he told the festival crowd that they would like because it was a protest song, before adding that the song was protesting the death of his grandmother.
It wasn’t all new songs though, as Adams performed songs from several of his albums. These included “Magick,” and “Fix It,” from Cardinology, “Dirty Rain,” and “Do I Wait,” from Ashes & Fire, and “Let It Ride,” and “Beautiful Sorta” from Cold Roses. Two classics from Heartbreaker were included as well, a lovely version of “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” and the popular (despite the fact that Adams jokingly described it as “stupid” in his introduction) closer “Come Pick Me Up.”
The commentary between songs was almost as good as the music, with Adams holding forth on everything from lobster rolls, to Michael McDonald (complete with McDonald impersonation), and the yachts out on the bay that he could see from his spot on the stage. Whatever problems Adams has had in the past, and they are well-chronicled, he seems to have moved past them. He is in great humor, and writing and playing on a very high level. What we’re seeing is nothing less than Ryan Adams finally fully living up to the potential that he’s always had.
Stream the full Ryan Adams set at NPR Music
Saturday began with a very nice set by the Haden Triplets, who dedicated their performance to their father, jazz great Charlie Haden, who passed away recently. The traditional folk music that the trio performed was far removed from jazz, but as Tanya Haden explained, it was their father’s roots music. Tanya, Rachel, and Petra Haden sang in the kind of tight harmony that sometimes only seems possible among siblings. There were songs from their album, which was released in February, including “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “Making Believe,” and, particularly wistful given their father’s recent death, “Memories of Mother and Dad.” It was a beautiful, almost spiritual way to welcome the new day.
Benjamin Booker was on high on my “must see” list as the weekend began. Like Reignwolf, the young musician from New Orleans has not yet released an album (due in a month or so), and like Reignwolf, his music stretched the traditional definition of folk music. Holding forth on electric guitar, and joined by bass/fiddle player Alex Spoto, and drummer/mandolin player Max Norton, Booker’s set blended punk, garage rock, and R&B into a scintillating, high-powered mix. There were powerful takes on Otis Redding’s “Shout Bamalama,” and Booker’s own “Violent Shiver.” Watch out for Benjamin Booker. He’s going to be a star.
Aside from Reignwolf, the other pleasant surprise of the weekend for me was a group from Brooklyn called Lucius. Fronted by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, in matching platinum hair and ’60s inspired dresses, Lucius plays a brand of electro-pop, heavy on percussion, that wouldn’t normally appeal to me. But those vocals, reminiscent of the Ronettes, and even the Beach Boys at times, really drew me in. Besides, they brought Mavis Staples up for a cameo on “Go Home,” and how could that be bad? I think it’s fair to say that most people, including me, considered Lucius the pleasant surprise of the festival.
Kurt Vile and the Violaters rolled in from Philadelphia for their Saturday afternoon set. At first I wondered how they would fit into the folk thing, but while listening I realized that their music can certainly be considered folk-rock. Their appealing set included “Walkin’ on a Pretty Day” and “KV Crimes” from Vile’s 2013 album Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, and “Jesus Fever” and “On Tour” from the 2011 album Smoke Ring For My Halo.
Jack White headlined on the Fort Stage on Saturday. I don’t have a good thing to say about him. He arrived at the festival and immediately forbade all professional photographers from taking his photo while he played. When a friend took a photo while he was watching someone else’s set, his thugs flipped her off and cursed at her. I’m not much of a fan of his music to start with, and after the bad vibes he brought to Newport, I’m not much of a fan of him as a person either. Enough said.