Newport Folk Festival executive director Jay Sweet introduces Brandi Carlile at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival. Adam Shanker/Shutterstock.com

Although there has been a bit of a revival of live music lately with some terrific drive-in shows and small-audience performances, it continues to be a brutal slog for us live-music lovers without touring acts coming through Maine for the foreseeable future. I would even have been willing to stand next to a loud-talking beer-spiller just to be shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of you at Thompson’s Point seeing Norah Jones with Mavis Staples last week, but that show, like all others, was canceled.

You can, however, partake of several virtual live-music experiences this weekend by way of the Newport Folk Festival. It too, of course, was canceled this year, but its organizers have put together a number of unique experiences, some free and some ticketed, with the latter benefiting the Newport Festival Foundation, which supports music education programs around the country, as well as artists in need.

Newport Folk Festival was founded in 1959 by George Wein and was the site of that 1965 iconic music moment when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar. The cancellation announcement came on April 29, and although I knew it was coming and fully supported the decision, seeing it in writing was a crushing blow. I’ve gone to the festival the past two years, and those were by far the most fulfilling live music experiences I’ve ever had (and I’ve had many). But this year, thanks to COVID-19, there will be no gate-opening rush at Fort Adams, no high-fiving fellow folkers, no jockeying for a good spot, no “out in the wild” musician sightings, no near-fainting moments when surprise guests like Dolly Parton are brought on stage, no singing “The Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog and 10,000 other fans and no festival-ending, multi-musician  “Goodnight Irene” singalong to close things out on Sunday night.

But the spirit of the festival can’t be squelched, and it will live on this weekend in four different ways.

Courtney Barnett at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

First, there’s the Newport Folk Revival Radio, which is three days of streaming some prime audio of performances from several festivals. Artists include Courtney Barnett (2018), Jack White (2014), John Prine (2017), Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings (2010), Our Native Daughters (2019) and Dolly Parton with The Highwomen (2019), among several other glorious songs and sets from festival alums. For real, don’t touch that dial!

Mavis Staples performs at The Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. on July 28, 2019. Carl Beust/Shutterstock.com

On Friday night, you can watch an absolutely tremendous performance that was filmed on May 22 of last year at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. The occasion was the 80th birthday of Mavis Staples, and along with queen Mavis, the show/celebration featured Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Ben Harper, Trombone Shorty, Grace Potter, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucius, M.Ward, Joe Henry, Taylor & Griffin Goldsmith, Son Little, The War & Treaty, Deva Mahal and Christopher Paul Stelling.

The Newport vibe continues on Saturday night with the Deer Tick & Friends In-Your-House-Party featuring performances recently filmed at festival site Fort Adams State Park. As for those friends, it’s an impressive list featuring Leon Bridges, Robert Ellis, Sharon Van Etten, The Tallest Man on Earth and Courtney Marie Andrews.

It all wraps up on Sunday evening with the online screening of an original film by Josh Coleman. It features never-seen-before performances from Brandi Carlile, Jim James, Roger Waters with Lucius, Jason Isbell, Tom Morello, Our Native Daughters, Langhorne Slim, Molly Tuttle, Devon Gilfillian, John McCauley, Chris Funk and special guests. I’ve seen just about all of these acts live at least once, and this film sounds like it’s going to be quite memorable.

I’m already counting down the days until the 2021 festival, but in the meantime, the Newport Folk Festival is presenting some carefully curated and thoughtful events that can be experience online. If you join in on any of them, be sure to keep the four tenets of the festival close to your heart: Be present, be kind, be open, be together.


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