Sunday was a day full of highlights. Just like the other days, I didn’t see everything, or even most of it, but what I did see was spectacular. It began with one of my favorite bands, Dawes, playing on the Fort Stage. Have you ever followed a band from early in their career and enjoyed seeing them grow into a tight, road-tested unit? That’s how I feel about Dawes. I think I first saw them about five years ago, and I fell in love with their sound, which harkened back to the great southern California music of the ’70s. They played well from the start, but each of four members has grown immensely as a musician since then.
The Dawes set included crowd-pleasers like “That Western Skyline,” “Time Spent In Los Angeles,” “Fire Away,” “A Little Bit of Everything,” and fan favorite “When My Time Comes.” Each song featured Goldsmith’s readily identifiable lyrics. When they played a great new song called “Things Happen,” a friend said that even if had heard the song without seeing the band he would have known who it was because of the lyrics. Dawes is a band that continues to make my heart happy.
Stream the full Dawes set at NPR Music.
The festival began winding down on a day which had been cloudy, seen some rain, and even threatened lightning strikes. There was no need to worry though, because Jeff Tweedy was on hand. For some reason I thought the Wilco front man would be playing solo, but he brought along a fine band, which featured his son Spencer (remember that little boy in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart?), on drums. Many of the songs were from a new album that Tweedy father and son had recorded. The senior Tweedy reflected on the irony of being at Newport on “a beautiful summer day full of clouds and rain, playing sad songs written in the dead of winter.”
The new songs included “Diamond Light,” “Flowering,” and “Summer Noon.” Tweedy and his band were joined by Wolfe and Laessig of Lucius, who sang on the new Tweedy album, for “Honey Combed,” “New Moon,” “High As Hello,” and “Low Key.” There were also fine solo acoustic versions of Wilco favorites “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” and “Jesus etc.”
Mavis Staples had been a constant, wonderful presence at the festival for all three days, getting up on stages to sing when it was least expected, and thrilling the audiences each time. When she got up with Tweedy, it was no surprise. The pair had worked together on the two most recent Staples albums. Together they performed an uplifting versions of the Credence classic “Wrote a Song For Everyone,” and “Only the Lord Knows.”
There was one final song for Tweedy to play, and that weather issue to resolve. Resolve it he did when, in the midst of a wonderful version of “California Stars,” the sun made its first appearance of the day. Like Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy looks like a guy who has put his problems behind him. When I posted a photo of him playing, a friend who wasn’t there asked “how is he?” My response was “happy.” It does the heart good to see artists you admire in such a good place in their lives.
Stream the full Jeff Tweedy set at NPR Music.
And then, it was time for the last set of the festival, the one that everyone had been looking forward to. Despite the fact that Mavis Staples had celebrated her 75th birthday a couple of weeks earlier, everyone, including Staples, was treating the festival as her birthday weekend. Having just read Greg Kot’s terrific biography of the Staple Singers, I was looking forward to her appearance even more than I have in the past.
It was 50 years ago that the Staple Singers first played the Newport Folk Festival. Very few, if any, festivals can lay claim to that kind of tradition. Mavis Staples knows where she comes from, and family and tradition remain key elements in her life and work. Her set on Sunday went back to the early days of the civil rights struggle in the ’60s with powerful versions of Pop Staples’ “Freedom Highway,” and the movement anthem “Eyes on the Prize.” Staple Singers classics “Respect Yourself,” “Let’s Do It Again,” and “I’ll Take You There” sounded as fresh as the day I first heard them, with the legendary Muscle Shoals keyboard player/songwriter Spooner Oldham joining in on the latter two songs.
It was great to see Staples and Oldham playing together as they did 50 years ago or more, but Oldham wasn’t the only guest. Norah Jones, who was at the festival with her band Puss & Boots, stepped up for “Circle,” and “The Weight,” which also featured Taylor Goldsmith, Tweedy came back to sing on the title track from You Are Not Alone, one the albums he produced for Staples, and the ladies of Lucius returned to the stage to sing on “Slippery People.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mavis’ sister Yvonne, who was a member of the fine trio of backing singers, which also included Deacon Donnie Gerrard, and Vicki Randle. Yvonne played an important role in music history, as a member of the Staple Singers, and as the person who convinced Mavis to continue her career when she wanted to give up after the death of Pops Staples. We have Yvonne to thank for the great music that Mavis continues to make.
The presence of Pete Seeger loomed large at this year’s Newport Folk Festival. Seeger, who passed away in January, was one of the festival’s founding board members, and his loss was keenly felt throughout the grounds of Fort Adams. As I mentioned earlier, tradition is important to Mavis Staples, and she demonstrated that once again by calling all of the musicians up to the stage to sing the festival finale “We Shall Overcome,” just as Seeger had done so often. At that point I gave up trying to hide the tears that were rolling down my cheeks.
Another Newport Folk Festival has ended, and we begin to look forward to next year’s festival. There have been a lot of changes in recent years, and change is not always easy. But one thing I realized this year is that as long as I’m here, and the festival is here, I’ll be there when the first note sounds.