George Wein's 51st Newport Folk Festival offered a wealth of riches, weather included, with a well-chosen mix of young and old talent performing on three stages, topped off each day by a revered throat-cancer survivor: John Prine Saturday and Levon Helm Sunday.
The definition of "folk" for the weekend was generous too. On Saturday you had teenage bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz (who had performed with Steve Martin at the festival-opening concert the night before) leading off at the Harbor Stage opposite singer-songwriter Nneka's Fort Stage mix of soul and hip-hop. Later on, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile would be covering "Folsom Prison Blues" on the Fort Stage while on the Quad Stage (inside the Fort) the heavily tattoo'd bassist Jesse Newman hopped like a madman as he contributed to the tight, frenzied musicianship of the punk-folk group O'Death. And three of Sunday's most killer acts were the indie-folk ensemble Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros (whose performance required modifying the Harbor Stage to accommodate an overflow crowd), the soul group Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Three simultaneously operating stages — not to mention the engagingly edgy Providence brass band What Cheer? Brigade, which marched through the festival grounds at random intervals and on Sunday led Elvis Perkins in Dearland off the stage and on a raucous parade across the grounds — sometimes meant hard choices. Late Saturday afternoon, you had Los Angeles country-rock group Dawes on the Quad Stage, arty multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird on the Fort Stage, and 87-year-old folk legend Doc Watson on the Harbor Stage. Bird was backed for part of his set by Calexico, the group who'd preceded him. But for much of his performance, it was just Bird and his violin loops — which included "bits and pieces" of new compositions-in-progress. Watson, meanwhile, was performing some very old songs, joined mostly by fellow pickers David Holt and Doc's grandson, Richard Watson. Some of the set, though, was just Doc and his guitar, a highlight of which was his cover of Merle Travis's "I Am a Pilgrim."
Prine's closing set Saturday with long-time associates Jason Wilber and Dave Jacques featured a guest appearance from Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket. Yames, who had played a quiet, primarily solo set earlier in the day, traded verses with the headliner on Prine's "All the Best." Prine also slipped in political commentary via his Vietnam-era "But Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore." "For some reason or other," he told the crowd, "this song won't go away."
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger added some politics on Sunday with tunes associated with his grandfather Pete Seeger. First came his band's up-tempo cover of "Bring 'Em Home." Later, he closed out the Preservation Hall Jazz Band set by leading the crowd on "We Shall Overcome." Other guest vocalists for a tune or two apiece on that crowd-pleasing, generation-mixing set included Daniel Martin Moore, Cory Chisel, Bird, and Yames.
Helm handed off a lot of the vocal duties on his festival-closing set to others: Larry Campbell, Brian Mitchell, Teresa Williams, and his daughter, Amy Helm. They covered a mix of tunes associated with the Band and others, among the latter Lead Belly's "The Bourgeois Blues," which was propelled by Helm's high-octane drumming and a raucous horn section. Richie Havens and the Swell Season's Glen Hansard joined them on "The Weight," and too many others to count came on stage to sing along to Helm's moving, hoarse finale of "I Shall Be Released."