08. Jim James
Jim James has been one of the Newport Folk Festival’s most prominent voices as it’s redefined itself and the genre over the last few years. He’s rocked out with My Morning Jacket, solo, with New Multitudes, and as a special guest dozens of times, always bringing the massive presence to which his fans are accustomed. So seeing him walk out in front of a packed Quad Stage with just an acoustic guitar was an unexpected turn. The crowd thinned as they realized he wasn’t going to deliver a ripper of a set, but watching James present a series of songs about social awareness (New Multitudes’ “Changing World”), self-care (Johnnie Frierson’s “Have You Been Good to Yourself”), and chasing dreams (MMJ’s “Bermuda Highway”) was a reminder of why this man has been so central to this generation’s NFF. He presented himself as a modern folk champion of spiritual soundness — like his story about finding your spirit animal and accepting the whims of fate — as well as master musician. While some of his solo material didn’t soar in the stripped-down setting (“Same Old Lie”), other bits reached new heights (“We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 2”). There were also rarities like MMJ’s unrecorded “Throwback (When We Were Young)”, and James stayed quirky with playful vocal fluctuations throughout the performance. It all came together for a uniquely Newport set from an artist’s whose importance to the fest can’t be overstated.
07. The Wild Reeds
Young guns really get their shot at NFF thanks to its patient and attentive audiences, and Los Angeles’ The Wild Reeds were gifted two such shots. They played early Friday, but I caught them Saturday evening at the second night of Deer Tick’s infamous Newport Blues Cafe afterparties. There’s any number of harmonizing, female-fronted indie folk bands these days, but the women of Wild Reeds separated themselves by also being true beasts behind their instruments. Sharon Silva, the slightest of the three, proved the most ferocious, admitting herself she was feeling a bit “agro” that night. She captivated right from opener “Capable” while her sisters-in-arms, Kinsey Lee and Mackenzie Howe, traded off the spotlight for most of the set. The true highlights were when they worked off each other, of course, as when Howe bounced back and forth between the others on the outro of “Fall to Sleep” or when they tagged some of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to closer “Only Songs”. It’s tasty edges like that that made the Reeds my favorite discovery of the fest.