Sharon van Etten: Saturday Afternoon, Quad Stage
"This is a folk festival, right?" Sharon van Etten asked the crowd at the start of her 3 pm set, Saturday at the Fort Stage, acoustic guitar in hand, backed by her three-piece band. She was billed on the same stage as Iron & Wine and the Guthrie Family Reunion.
Like many of the acts at Newport Folk Festival these days, there wasn't anything distinctly "folk" about Van Etten's set. "I can't believe I'm playing this fest . . . it's weird right?" she asked. "I don't know what that applause means. It's weird."
I'm surely not complaining, though — her performance was a highlight of the festival overall, as she played almost entirely from her most recent album, Tramp, further cementing its status as a potential album of the year. Backed by bassist Doug Keith, keyboardist Heather Woods Broderick (formerly of Efterklang), and drummer Zeke Hutchins (Sarah Lee Guthrie's former touring drummer), Van Etten moved through mostly tracks from that excellent album, the Brooklyn singer's third full-length,and her Jagjaguwar debut.
As a songwriter, Van Etten is mostly introspective, writing about love and loss in a way that is simultaneously crushing and celebratory. "This song I wrote about moving to New York City and falling in love for the first time in a very long time," she said to introduce "Give Out," a heart-wrenching song that's set to end up on many a year-end best-of lists. "It goes out to my very patient boyfriend who is waiting for me in New York."
Van Etten's vocals are defiant and smoky, and her guitar teeters between strummy confessionals and atmospheric soundscapes. She pulled out an omnichord for "Magic Chords" and an electric guitar for the final two songs, "Serpents" and "I'm Wrong." The latter, "I'm Wrong", is one that sounds festival-ready on the album: it's huge, haunting, full of droning feedback, keys, bass, ebow guitar. "It's bad/It's bad/It's bad to believe in any song you sing." As tongue-in-cheek as it is, it's not exactly a song I ever expected to hear at a folk festival. But "Folk" or "not folk," even the most devoted traditionalist couldn't have walked away without being in love.
"It's a real honor to be here," Van Etten said before leaving the stage. "So it means a lot that you're here with us."
Conor Oberst: Sunday evening, Fort Stage
As a music writer, it might be a terrible idea to admit that Conor Oberst was a gateway for me into the music of Bob Dylan — but he was. So it felt fitting to see Oberst play the same stage played in the past few years by Pete Seeger, Gillian Welch, Joan Baez, and Dylan himself, to name just a few.
Oberst's Sunday evening set was an even mix of his old-school Bright Eyes albums and more recent solo material. "It's a real pleasure to be here," Conor Oberst told the crowd at the main stage on Sunday afternoon. "I played here once before. It feels like a lifetime ago, even though it was only six years ago. So its nice to be back."
Oberst played through a set of hits, like "First Day of My Life" (changing up the lyrics, to "This time it's different/I'm really feeling lucky," perhaps a sign of growing happier with age) from 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and "Classic Cars" from 2007's Cassadaga.
From his 2008 self-titled solo LP, he shared "Lenders in the Temple" on acoustic guitar, then inviting out First Aid Kit — a young duo from Sweden — to join him and sing the lady-vox parts on Bright Eyes-fave "Lua". Los Angeles-based Dawes backed him up for the rest of the set. Jim James came out at some point, too.
"This one goes out to all the bands — it's about traveling in a rock band. It sounds really glamorous until you do it," is how is introduced "Moab," another from '08. It was a fitting intro for a song that promises, "there's nothing that the road cannot heal."
Conor ended with two songs from his 2002 Bright Eyes album, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground: "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" and "Make War."
"So hurry up and run to the one that you love," he sang, with help from First Aid Kit, a capella, to end his set. "And blind him with your kindness/And he'll make war, oh war on who you were before/And claim all that has spoiled in your heart."
It's not exactly the kind of wars they sang about at Newport in the '60s, but it was no less fitting.