Vocalist Rhiannon Giddens performs with Dirk Powell, Hubby Jenkins, Jason Sypher, and Jamie Dick at the Newport Jazz Festival August 5, 2017 in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by: EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images.

Newport Folk Festival 2022 Recap: Taj Mahal, Brandi Carlisle With Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon & A Crowdsurfing Singer

After taking two years off from their normal format, Newport Folk Festival returned with much heart. From Rhiannon Giddens’ soul-stirring performance to special guest appearances by Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, GRAMMY.com recaps three days of joy.

By Kelly McCartney for GRAMMY.com


Newport Folk Festival is so much more than just another music event. At its heart, it’s actually a family reunion — both on stage and off — with moments you simply will not experience anywhere else. As Christopher Capotosto, the festival’s chief creative officer told GRAMMY.com, “We don’t make the magic that is Newport; the artists do that.”

But the Newport team does make and hold the sacred space to foster that magic. The artists know that, and so does the audience. And, after taking two years off from their normal format due to the pandemic, the 2022 Newport Folk Festival was as magic-filled as ever. Here are some highlights:

The Living Legends

Newport came out blazing by giving Lee Fields the first Fort Stage set of the weekend. Reminding the 10,000 folkies in attendance why he’s nicknamed “Little JB,” the legendary soul man worked through songs from across his 53-year career, being sure to touch on his latest single, “Ordinary Lives.”

At one point, he seemed to sing so hard that his mic cable detached. Pro that he is, Fields quickly sorted it out and got right back to asking the crowd, “Where’s the party?” while he scanned the sea of revelers dancing before him.

Later in the day, Taj Mahal returned to Newport’s Fort Stage for the first time in 34 years. Like Fields, Mahal proved that he’s still got it, as he treated the audience to classics like “Queen Bee” and “Corinna.” Although Mahal has been singing his hits for seven decades now, they never get old.

The Troubadours

Even though Newport Folk Festival is known for far more than folk, singer/songwriters still stand at the heart of the event. This year, that torch was held high by Anaïs Mitchell, John Craigie, Madi Diaz and the Dead Tongues, each of whom brought new releases to vibrant, beautiful and occasionally hilarious life.

Mitchell was also supposed to perform with Bonny Light Horseman, but the band had to cancel their set a couple of days prior. In its stead, Mitchell led “Clusterfolk,” with Natalie Merchant, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Lukas Nelson, Robert Ellis, and others all chipping in with a song or, in Merchant’s case, “Legacy artists get two songs,” Merchant said, much to the delight of the Quad Stage’s packed house.

The Outliers

Friday’s audience at the Quad Stage witnessed two incredibly special performances. First, Arooj Aftab blended stunning art and sardonic wit with songs from her gorgeous Vulture Prince album. The Pakistani singer (whose songs are primarily in Urdu) told the captivated crowd, “These songs are about being drunk and not in love, in case you couldn’t tell.” Aftab closed her utterly mesmerizing set with “Mohabbat,” her 2022 GRAMMY-winning “banger,” as she likes to call it.

Rhiannon Giddens and the Silk Road Ensemble took to the same stage a few hours later and owned the day with their rendition of “O Death.” It was hard to know how they could follow themselves after that opener, but the group somehow continued to raise the musical bar, with each ensemble member having moments to shine.

The Rabble Rousers

If Rhiannon Giddens won Friday, Adia Victoria made an early case for her own victory on Saturday. Victoria set the Fort Stage ablaze with a blistering set that sparked off with “Far From Dixie” and went on to include more from her stellar A Southern Gothic album. This might’ve also been the only performance of the weekend that included a crowd surfing singer.

Joy Oladokun moved mountains of emotions during her time on the Quad Stage Sunday afternoon, introducing “I See America” with a teary speech about how it’s simply not okay that trans and queer kids are no longer safe in this country. But Oladokun didn’t just leave it there, she channeled her rage against the right-wing machine, moving from “I See America” directly into a bit of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” her fans responding in appropriate grunge fashion by bouncing up and down.

The Soul Restorers

Sunday morning started strong with a Spiritual Helpline Gospel Revue curated and led by Phil Cook with the Guitarheels plus special guests Sister Lena Mae Perry (who is 83 years old), Thomas Rhyant, the Union (Leslie Gardner and Simone Appleby), and others.

Cook met these astounding gospel singers in North Carolina and is working with them to release live records through his indie label. And live is most definitely how they should be experienced. After a thoroughly rousing set that included gospel classics like “You’ve Got A Friend/Precious Lord” and “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired,” the group invited some onlookers (Natalie Merchant and Valerie June, among them) to join for the soul-giving finale of “This Little Light of Mine.” To borrow from Cook, everyone left that performance feeling better than they did before it.

The Surprise Guests

The closing sets on Saturday and Sunday of every Newport Folk Festival famously include special surprise guests that attendees spend their weekend trying to surmise. This year, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats recruited Paul Simon to make his Newport debut by joining their American Tune Revue (which also featured Marcus Mumford, Lee Fields, Courtney Marie Andrews, Lukas Nelson, Adia Victoria, Natalie Merchant, and others).

Together, the group thrilled the crowd with Simon classics like “Cecilia,” “You Can Call Me Al,” “Homeward Bound” and many more. Simon then joined the band for “Graceland,” before duetting with Rhiannon Giddens on an updated version of “American Tune.” Against a glorious Newport sunset, a solo Simon closed the evening with “The Sound of Silence.”

It’s hard to imagine that Brandi Carlile could somehow match that magic on Sunday night, but she darn well did by bringing Joni Mitchell to Newport for the first time since 1969. Along with Wynonna, Taylor Goldsmith, Celisse, Allison Russell, Sista Strings, Lucius and others, Carlile recreated the “Joni Jams” which she has been organizing at Joni’s house for the past few years. The musicians all sat in a semicircle with Mitchell at the summit sporting a glass of wine and a huge smile. Everyone took turns — Mitchell included — singing songs from her catalog, along with a few standards.

Mitchell eased into it all, singing a line here and there, eventually playing an instrumental version of “Just Like This Train,” which Carlile proclaimed was her best attempt yet. Before the night had ended, the stunned audience had heard “Both Sides Now,” “Come in from the Cold,” “A Case of You,” “Carey” and “The Circle Game,” among others, from one of the most brilliant artists of our time who, very likely, was responsible for introducing so many to folk music in the first place.