Saturday, the sunniest of the three days at Fort Adams for the Newport Folk Festival, saw a lot of face-offs: Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear vs. Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn; Nikki Lane vs. Jason Isbell (vs. Courtney Barnett); Brandi Carlile vs. The Decemberists; and Tommy Stinson and Sturgill Simpson having the awful luck of having sets surrounding an Unannounced set on the Fort stage that turned out to be the one and only James Taylor. Choices, choices, choices.
Bouncing back and forth (and back again) throughout the day, I was able to catch a good amount of most of these sets and more (sadly, though, I missed the entirety of Sturgill Simpson’s set). Of all the amazing music I witnessed throughout the day, these were the five best acts…
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1. James Taylor
Even though he only played a half-hour set at 3:50pm, James Taylor was the real headliner on Saturday. Returning 46 years after having his ’69 set cut short due to the moon landing, Taylor drew a massive crowd to the Fort stage for a short and (very) sweet set that found just about everyone singing along. As Taylor himself even observed, it was a very beautiful day.
2. Brandi Carlile
Even though I missed her Led Zeppelin and Avett Bros. covers late in her set, it was still one of my very favorites of the weekend. She came out strong and stayed that way, bringing passion, energy and happiness to a wonderful, crowd-please set.
3. Langhorne Slim
Langhorne Slim, for one reason or another, simply just wasn’t on my radar. I’d heard of him before, had been told to listen to his music before, but just never actually did anything about it… before. Then he hit the stage. If Brandi Carlile was energetic, Langhorne Slim was a hurricane. But the best part of his set came when he slowed it down for Song For Sid, an emotional ballad for his grandfather. If a tear didn’t grace your cheek, you’re heartless.
4. Courtney Barnett
After blowing me away at The Sinclair in Cambridge back in May, Courtney Barnett was one of my must-see sets of the weekend. Thanks to phenomenal songwriting, fierce guitar playing and an amazing attitude onstage, Barnett managed to blow me away once again.
5. Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear
If I was able to catch more of their set, they’d likely have fallen higher upon this list.
Upon greeting the audience, Mama Bear commented on how beautiful a place the Newport Folk Festival is. It was a genuine sentiment, as she was clearly bursting with love, and it set the mood for the entire set. After that, the music began, and once Madisen Ward belted out the first line of the first song, the audience members who didn’t quite know what to expect gasped (as did a few of the photographers around me)… it was a beautiful moment.
Bonus: The Decemberists
Normally, a set like this coming from a band like The Decemberists that sounded as good as it did would’ve topped my list. But sadly this year just wasn’t their year, as they had the bad luck of being the headliner sandwiched between Roger Waters and a Bob Dylan celebration which was rumored to boast many, many surprises. Not to mention the fact that James Taylor already brought the house down on this very same stage just a couple hours earlier.
But that didn’t stop The Decemberists from trying, and they put on one hell of an effort.