Folk fans, get ready. The mecca of folk fests, Newport Folk Festival, is right around the corner, with dozens of artists on multiple stages over the course of three days. If you are one of the lucky ones to have tickets to the sold-out fest, the opportunities to see live music at Fort Adams July 22-24 are dizzying, but don’t fret: I’m here to help. Here are six artists you can’t miss.
The man, the myth, the legend.
Born Henry St. Claire Fredericks Jr. in Harlem in 1942, Mahal actually has local roots: His family moved to Springfield when he was a little kid, and he later studied agriculture and animal husbandry at UMass Amherst. There, he joined a campus party band, the Elektras. (I love all of this.)
After graduating, Fredericks went out to L.A. and, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, took on the stage name “Taj Mahal” in 1964. He joined the Rising Sons and opened for Otis Redding, the Temptations and Martha and the Vandellas; “mingled with” Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sleepy John Estes, according to his website.
Today, the 80-year-old’s voice has patinated into a rough, near-raspy growl, tailor-made for back-porch blues. At times, his rumbling voice strikes me as almost Louis Armstrong-esque. “TajMo” — his 2017 Grammy-winning album with Keb Mo,’ Mahal’s third win to date — is outstanding. A must-listen: “Diving Duck Blues.” July 22
All hail the new Queen of Country.
It feels like Morris, 32, quietly and slowly built up a following until she exploded as a solo star. In April, her album “Humble Quest” set a global Amazon Music record for most first-day and first-week streams for a country album by a female artist.
Being a fan of both John Prine and Dead & Company, I’m in love with her cover of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” and dug her duet with John Mayer on his solo tour (she’s also featured on his “Last Train Home”). But it was her work with the supergroup The Highwomen — including Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires — that hooked me. (Yes, it’s a female take on Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson’s outlaw supergroup The Highwaymen. Love it.) I also love this Insta video of the band duetting with Dolly Parton at Newport Folk Fest in 2019. Listen to their Grammy-winning track "Crowded Table." And if you missed The Highwomen jam with Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell and Yola at Newport Folk in 2019, catch two of the Highwomen solo this year: Morris and Carlile. July 24
Brandi Carlile & Friends
Newport Folk was a special fest for John Prine and his fans, and many know Carlile via Prine, between live duets or her backing on his albums — most notably on his last-ever album. (Her tribute to Prine at the 2021 Grammys was beautiful.)
Carlile is, of course, a certified folk/country star in her own right — from playing SNL to hosting The Ellen Show to co-starring in the rock doc now making festival rounds “The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile.” The six-time Grammy winner and 17-time Grammy nominee is also a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ causes. She told NPR in 2018: “I think in America our politics are particularly personal… So when I sing about politics, it's intertwined with my marriage, which couldn't have happened just a number of years ago.” I’m not sure who “the Friends” are here — they’re not billed on Newport Folk’s site – but you’ll want to see Carlile. A strong personality who speaks her mind and sings her heart out. For a taste, listen to "Broken Horses." July 24
Whether you’re a bluegrass fan or just appreciate genius when you hear it, two words: Béla Fleck. The 15-time Grammy winner and 36-time nominee is considered the most technically proficient banjo player in the world. Get close to the stage for this one. The virtuoso is a spectacle to behold, deft fingers that can appear to flash over banjo strings at the speed of sound.
Born in New York City and named after classical composers, Béla Anton Leoš Fleck first fell in love with banjo when he heard Earl Scruggs on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” After a career that’s taken him through many genres — including a Latin Grammy award-winning collaboration with late jazz master Chick Corea — Fleck’s latest album “My Bluegrass Heart” is a return to his first love, bluegrass. For a taste, listen to the classic breakdown, with Billy Strings and Chris Thile, "Slippery Eel" and finger-picking stand-out “Vertigo.” July 22
Fort Adams will be dancing to the beats of these legends out of Philadelphia. The house band on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” the hip-hop/soul/alt rap band has been throwing down funk since the late ‘80s. Groove throughout a live set from founders Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and drummer and Oscar-winner Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson. The three-time Grammy winners and14-time nominees brought down the house – well, the Fort – at Newport Jazz Fest in 2017. They’ve collaborated with everyone from Erykah Badu to John Legend, and their 2020 Grammy performance with Gary Clark Jr. was intense. Their hits are the stuff of epic workout playlists. July 24
Valerie June first landed on my radar some 10 years ago when she played Fall River’s Narrows Center for the Arts. Since then, her star has truly risen. Her stellar latest album, “The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers,” includes covers of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” I also love her ethereal cover of “The Blues Run the Game.”
Everything about June is unique. Her voice can sound almost other-worldly, almost similar to that way Alison Krauss’s can; she’s a helluva finger-picker and banjoist. I would love to see her bring out her big ol’ resonator guitars. In her Instagram bio, she calls herself a “yogi, healer, poet, illustrator and creative.” Poet for sure, and her music can feel like a healing balm for the soul. I could listen to June sing the phone book — and I’m not alone. In a 2017 interview posted to his website, Bob Dylan said he’s a June fan. (Bob, what should we call ourselves? “June bugs?” You can get back to me.) July 24
And a few more:
I told you I’d name six, and a promise is a promise — but here are a few more. Catch ‘em if you can.
- Black Opry Revue (July 23)
- Bonny Light Horseman & Friends (July 23)
- Dinosaur Jr. (July 22)
- Durand Jones & the Indications (July 23)
- Lucius (July 23)
- The Felice Brothers (July 22)
For more information, to join the ticket wait-list, or for FAQs, visit the Newport Folk Festival’s website.