Posted Jul 31st, 2015 (7:00 am) by Theresa Flanagan
Newport Folk Festival 2015
Image by Theresa Flanagan

More so than any other festival we've attended, Newport Folk Festival is all about the music. Not about particular artists, but about the music of the event as a whole.

Back in 1959 when Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein started the festival with a board made up of Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, and Albert Grossman, one of the stipulations was that every artist be paid $50. Room and board, transportation, and $50. The known names were supposed to draw in the audience, but the real idea was to introduce the folk world to new faces, authentic folksters found all over the country (and sometimes world). Unfortunately, the festival fell on hard times towards the end of the '60s. Some blame the decline directly on that fateful day 50 years ago when Dylan "went electric," but no matter the cause Newport Folk went on hiatus from 1971 until 1985. SInce then, it's run continuously in a similar but undoubtedly altered form. In 2011, the festival was able to return to its non-profit roots and is now maintained by the Newport Festivals Foundation.

As we've mentioned throughout our coverage, there were several unannounced slots this year. From Joan Baez as a guest for Bob Gibson during that first festival in 1959, to her introduction of Bob Dylan in 1963, to Lucius' Holly and Jess popping up all over the festival for the past two years, Newport has always had artists show up unannounced on stage. However, it's usually been during another artist's scheduled set rather than an entirely blank slot in the schedule. Festival producer Jay Sweet thanked the festival attendees for their trust in the festival this year, and based on the response to the mystery it seems likely it's a tradition that will continue. This year, a large number of those spots were filled by members of the festival's board of advisors. Those present included The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, Gillian Welch, Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith, Deer Tick's John McCauley, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. The only one actually on the bill was Colin Meloy!

We were looking forward to coming back to this festival, and it certainly didn't disappoint. So now, down to the nuts and bolts of what makes this festival special.

Festival Production
The festival takes place at the "NASA of its day" Fort Adams, making for a few organizational quirks. There's only one entrance to the state park, and while we never had too much trouble getting in the gates it could take some time to get back out again at the end of the day. Since the park has sunrise to sunset hours, the festival wraps up around 8 PM each night. This means that while you're inching out of the parking areas, at least you've got an absolutely gorgeous view of the setting sun over the harbor.

You only get stuck in traffic if you've chosen to drive into the festival and pay for the $20 parking (up $5 from last year - though you can get it cheaper by buying in advance). Other options included biking or taking the water shuttle in from downtown Newport, or catching the ferry from Jamestown. There is no camping at the park, and hotels in Newport are pricey and fill up fast. However, the festival posts nearby camping sites on their websites, and if you're willing to commute in a bit of a ways there are plenty of other options in the area.

The fort's structure also dictates the organization of the stages such that the main Fort Stage and smaller Harbor Stage are located outside its perimeter, while the Quad Stage is inside. There is only one access point into the fort itself as well, which occasionally needed to be blocked off to allow vendor trucks and artist escorts through. This created a few bottlenecks throughout the weekend, but actually traffic flowed through surprisingly smoothly. The space also offers some cool nooks for surprise shows to pop up in, including the Squarespace Studio at the back of the quad, the Museum Stage between the Harbor and Fort Stage, and the Late July Family Tent out in front of the Fort Stage.

Were there overlaps in the lineup? Of course. But Newport Folk is a festival where you can plunk yourself down on a blanket in front of the Fort or Quad Stage all day, or run around from stage to stage or nook to nook, and be guaranteed to have an amazing experience either way. For food and refreshments, it has one of the most lenient carry in policies of any of the festivals we know. No alcohol or glass containers, but you can bring in a cooler full of anything else you like as long as they search it at the gate. The festival has two beer gardens, which we still have never actually been in. Considering the fact that the festival's partners include Lagunitas and Newport Storm, we're pretty sure they make up some of the options available. The gardens run on a token system, where $7 tokens can be purchased at the front gate or at either garden, to be redeemed for beer, cider or wine. Even though you can bring your own, there are still plenty of food options on site. From local lobster rolls to a Chinese buffet, fine French cuisine to your basic burger and fries with a stop off at artisanal grilled cheeses, there was something for everyone at a whole range of prices. We were so caught up in the music that we barely even stopped by any of the many options, but we saw plenty of other festival goers enjoying grilled pizza, falafel wraps, and tacos to name a few more options.

As far as facilities go, there were "real" restrooms just outside the festival gates, and quite a few temporary toilets scattered around the grounds. While there were obviously lines at times, we never missed out on anything because of it. Festival volunteers were easily identifiable by their shirts and though we never had any questions to ask, it seemed like it would have been very easy to find someone who could answer. The festival security was effective without being oppressive. We watched them do a masterful job of handling a girl who collapsed from heat exhaustion in front of the Fort Stage on Saturday. They quickly lifted her over the barrier without any fuss, and calmly took care of getting her water and bringing over an EMT to check her out.

As for the stage setups themselves, Newport keeps things simple. Transitions are quick; usually there is about fifteen minutes between scheduled sets and the festival sticks strongly to its timetable. The one exception to this was the Fort Stage on Saturday. Things got a bit behind starting with James Taylor's set, during which there were also some feedback issues. But even these few discrepancies were handled well. It's an easy going festival, one where issues are taken in stride as they arise.


Newport Folk Festival is far from flashy. The festival grounds are surrounded by the Narragansett Bay, making for some absolutely gorgeous views.

We've commented on the very simple aesthetic in previous years, and honestly it's something that sets Newport Folk apart. There's no need to dress up a setting that speaks for itself, no need to distract from the true spirit and focus of the festival. It's something we've taken points off for before, but this year we're embracing the fact that the festival has stayed true to roots. This is a folk festival after all; there's no need for psychedelic murals or over the top light shows. Trying to incorporate more would feel contrived, overdone, and out of place.


This year, approximately 12% of attendees biked into the festival, supported by a collaboration between Bike Newport and REI. The bike route from downtown is clearly marked and allows festival goers to skip by traffic and reduce the pollution of traveling to the festival. Additionally, the festival teamed up with Skedaddle to offer bus trips from Boston and NYC to the festival. The NYC bus options included one-way trips in on Friday and out on Sunday, while the Boston route included round-trip options each day.

Recycling and compost bins could be found around the festival, plus a dedicated team of volunteers sift through the trash to pull out the inevitable recyclables that end up in the wrong bin. Apparently, working on one of those crews is how The Low Anthem got their start at Newport Folk Festival in the first place. While volunteering, one of them members got their tape to festival producer Jay Sweet and snagged a spot on one of the smaller stages. Now, front man Ben Knox Miller is on the board of advisors.

Beach balls are prohibited at the festival, since they could end up in the bay and hurt wildlife. We still saw a lone one kicking around during The Decemberists' set, but still that's not too bad. Through their partner Alex and Ani, the festival offers water stations encouraging refilling reusable containers rather than disposable plastic bottles. Alex and Ani also offer up charging stations around the festival, for those who ran their batteries down attempting to show their friends what a good time they were having.

Newport Folk adds small measures each year to reduce waste - this year that meant having attendees rely solely on the application or home-printed schedules. rather than having printed materials available on site. Definitely something to keep in mind as you head into the festival.

They work hard on the environmental policies they have in place, but additional measures are always welcome. Newport Folk Festival has room to grow on this front. Possible ideas include more carbon offset and solar powered stages as seen at Outside Lands and Bonnaroo.

Score: 19/25

Non-musical Entertainment
The reason we include this category in our festival reviews is that many festivals bill themselves as "Music & Arts" events. As Hozier put it during his Sunday afternoon set, Newport Folk is a "real music-lovers festival."

They've never claimed to be anything more. Beyond the three "main" stage scheduled events, there was a lot more going on at Fort Adams over the three days. Lots of that is more music; the aforementioned pop-up shows at smaller stages, open mics at Martin Guitar Jam Tent and free lessons at the Deering Banjos tent. In addition to intimate shows from various artists, Squarespace Studios was showing sneak peeks of American Epic. We already talked a bit about it in our Day Three coverage, but Elijah Wald's talk about the 1965 festival on Sunday at the Museum Stage was an incredible look back at the past. Hearing the memories of several key players present was an amazing opportunity. Finally, there are vendors around the festival whose crafts you can peruse if you need a break from the music. We never did, but it's certainly an option.

Score: 8/10

Overall Festival Atmosphere & Conclusion
There's a reason why so many artists who play Newport Folk talk about it being an honor. It's a special festival, built around a communal love of music and collaboration. There's a reason why tickets for this festival sold out before a single artist was announced, and it's not just that attendance is capped at 10,000 people per day.

Newport Folk Festival may not be for everyone. Sure there's a bit of weed around, but otherwise you're not going to found a crazy scene at the fort. It's a low key and family friendly. It sells out fast because the people who go know that no matter who's playing, there's going to be some great music. Tickets for the festival were $199 for all three days, $159 for a two day pass, $85 apiece for single day tickets. $85 may seem a little on the steep side for a single day, but at $66 per day the three day pass is a total bargain. With the 10,000 per day attendance cap, the festival is busy but not overwhelming. The crowds stay at a manageable size, and everyone is always conscientious.

Situated all the way at the base of Aquidneck Island about an hour and half south of Boston, Newport Folk Festival isn't the easiest festival to get to. But, it's not all that difficult either. Once you get to Fort Adams, it's obvious just how worth the travel this festival is. It's one you have to get to at least once. Once you go, it's hard not to get hooked by the one of a kind experience. History is made at Newport Folk Festival every year, and getting to be a part of that is extraordinary.

Score: 15/15

Final Festival Score: 87/100

Check out our coverage of Day One, Day Two, and Day Three!

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