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12 artists who should play the 2023 Newport Folk Festival

By February 17, 2023No Comments10 min read

The Newport Folk Festival has one of the longest and most storied legacies of any festival in the United States. Starting in 1959, the festival became a showcase for singer-songwriters and folkies like Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and especially Bob Dylan. After the 1969 edition, the festival went on a long hiatus and didn’t return to Rhode Island until 1985. While the festival showcased great performers through the 1980s and ‘90s, it didn’t really experience its national resurgence until the late 2000s. Now, Newport Folk is one of the biggest festivals of the year, famed for its surprise acts and the quality of its performers.

I grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, and I remember the ‘90s when the festival would regularly book great musicians, but it wasn’t really considered cool or must-see the way it is now. Newport Folk, along with its older sibling the Newport Jazz Festival, are once again economic engines for my little seaside hometown, and I have a lot of fondness for both of them.

Here at InBetweenDrafts, we’ve made a list of twelve great performers who have never performed at Newport Folk, at least in the iteration in which they are listed. Some of those names might surprise you, while others are newer and haven’t had a chance to be booked just yet. Tickets for the 2023 Newport Folk Festival went on sale on Feb. 1, as always before the organizers announce a single performer, and they’ve already sold out. The lineup is revealed slowly, one by one, over the course of the next few months, so we have plenty of time to see whether our predictions bear out. So far, they’ve announced Billy Strings, The Beths, Jonathan Richman, Jupiter & Okwess, and Caamp for this year’s lineup, but not any of these performers – Ryan Gibbs

Bon Iver

For his mixture of folk groves with electric accentuations, you’d think Justin Vernon and co. would’ve had some kind of breakout moment at the Newport Folk Festival. Alas, the alt-rock collective shot to fame merely on word-of-mouth and Vernon’s pension for out-there collaborations. Speaking of collabs, Vernon has been busy the last few years mixing it up with Big Red Machine and Taylor Swift while Bon Iver releases have been scarce. Now back on tour overseas and coming to the American festival circuit this summer, this could be the perfect time for Vernon to visit Newport and hear how his layered melodies fit in the festival’s stripped-down setting. It would certainly be interesting to hear the deeper emotional resonance of more stripped-down performances of recent cuts like “Hey, Ma,” “Naeem” and “PDLIF.” Vernon may lose some of the electronic effects on the vocals and synths he’s been using as of late, but hearing clearer horn sections that can fill those voids would be a reminder of Vernon’s skill as a composer. – Jon Winkler

Taylor Vick

Bay Area musician Taylor Vick has made a splash as Boy Scouts, an introspective indie folk project that isn’t too unakin from Newport powerhouses like boygenius. Her artistic development is laser-focused on intertwining with the human condition—as is evidenced by her last album, Free Company. She excels with weaving relatable threads for just about any listener, offering a shoulder to lean on and a reminder that it’s okay to just be still for a while. Her music excels in the way that Phoebe Bridgers or Elliott Smith’s have, in creating a space for listeners to embrace the rawness of life. Songwriters of her acumen have certainly earned their space at the Newport Folk Festival before, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Boy Scouts feature now. – Jonathan Frahm

Tracy Chapman

Here’s a surprise that I had to double-check with the well-sourced list on the Folk Fest’s Wikipedia page, and through newspaper archives. Tracy Chapman was one of the biggest new singer-songwriters of the 1980s, and her songs like “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” became instant classics that helped her win the Best New Artist Grammy in 1989. Although many of her late ‘80s folk contemporaries like Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls, and Shawn Colvin became Folk Fest regulars, Chapman herself has never played the stage at Newport, even after she had a resurgence in popularity in the mid 90s with her hit “Give Me One Reason”. Chapman hasn’t put out a new album since 2008, but she still performs widely, and she’d be a great addition for any year she’d want to perform. – Ryan Gibbs

Bruce Springsteen

Yup, despite his titanic star power, considerable ability as a lone performer and occasional dips in stripped-down sounds, The Boss has never visited the Newport Folk Festival. While his recent album of soul covers might make him more fit for the Newport Jazz Festival, Springsteen still has plenty of prime cuts to fill a set of the Folk Festival. As proven by The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils & Dust and his Broadway performances, Bruce could easily carry a show with just him on acoustic guitar harnessing the power of hits from “Thunder Road” all the way up to “The Rising.” Hearing cuts like “Nightshift” from his latest, Only the Strong Survive, Newport might be the right stage to ease off the studio polish of that album and add a more natural spirit to Bruce’s favorite soul songs. Whatever the setup, Springsteen delivers 9.9 times out of 10 and it’s unlikely Newport would be the stage he misses. – Jon Winkler

Mdou Moctar

One of the best parts of the Folk Festival has been its inclusion of artists from around the world performing a variety of different styles. Mdou Moctar, the Tuareg virtuoso guitarist from Niger and his band of the same name, have yet to appear at the Folk Festival following the release of their stellar 2020 album Afrique Victime. His style might be a little heavier and spacier than one might expect from the festival, but Newport Folk hasn’t ever shied away from the electric guitar aside from that one time in 1965 (There are differing accounts as to what happened after Dylan plugged in for what it’s worth). Moctar’s haunting songs and expressive, psychedelic guitar playing make him stand out as one of the best guitarists in the world right now, and he’s been touring pretty widely over the past year or so. A stopover at Newport would be a great showcase for the Afrique Victime material or even any new compositions he’d bring to a festival setting. – Ryan Gibbs

Taylor Swift

I mean, c’mon. She named an album Folklore for Christ’s sake! But seriously, Midnights was proof that her stripped-down pair of pandemic records were just ways for her to pass the time and not the artistic reset Swift has desperately needed since 2017. She’s about to embark on her gigantic Eras tour this year with overblown pop tunes reaching the nosebleeds of stadiums around the world, so a stop at Newport would be a great way to break up the glut of everything. It would certainly be nice to hear tracks from Folklore and Evermore finally played in front of a live audience, turning “Mirrorball” into a country-tinged slowdance or embracing the rootsy influence of “No Body, No Crime.” Hell, commit to the Newport location by playing “The Last Great American Dynasty.” It’s also the chance to add some more intimacy to her back catalog like “Lover,” “Our Song” and “Wildest Dreams.” And sure, why not strip down the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” before she has fighter jets fly over Gillette Stadium with red color streaks while she plays it there. – Jon Winkler

The Accidentals

The Accidentals have come a long way from high school orchestra, picking up a steadfast percussionist and harmonist
in Michael Dause along the way. The Michigan trio have grown into a wildfire on the folk-rock scene, definitively and chameleonesquely equal parts both of that tag, bending the molds of genre traditionalism however they see fit. On one hand, their stage presence is second to none, owning every movement with raucous instrumental processions like the best violin and cello-centric rock band you know. On the other hand, their folk sentiments are well-placed, developing into a “Time Out” series that has seen them work with such luminaries as Dar Williams, Tom Paxton, Kim Richey and more. It’s only a matter of time before these innovators find their way onto the Newport bill. – Jonathan Frahm

Tedeschi Trucks Band

This one came to me after hearing their great 2016 song “Anyhow” in a Chevy commercial a dozen times a day. Tedeschi Trucks Band, the blues rock jam band led by husband-and-wife singer-songwriter-guitarists Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks has never played at Newport even though they’re the exact kind of roots-adjacent rock band that the festival loves to book. Tedeschi Trucks are a band that changes their setlists with every performance, all but ensuring that a Newport set would be unique even without the historic and scenic setting. Plus both leads have played the festival before, albeit not with TTB: Susan Tedeschi played there in 1999 just before her Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, while Derek Trucks was there with the Allman Brothers Band in 2007. If the Allmans can play at Newport Folk, even be one of the headliners of that year, the Tedeschi Trucks Band would fit right at home here. – Ryan Gibbs

Nefresh Mountain

Just as impressive as their instrumental wizardry is the breath of fresh air that Nefesh Mountain brings to their stage banter. The quiet moments spent between trailblazing traditional and progressive folk and bluegrass jams are had with a reverence for love, community, and acceptance in a genre that is—to put it lightly—not always the most receptive to new ideas. “Nefesh” is a Hebrew word that, at its crux, is an expression for the “animated spirit” in all living things—a beauty that is showcased so well in the band’s music and overall presence. A refreshing, humanistic turn for their respective genres, Nefesh Mountain would bring a light to the Newport stage that we all need right now. – Jonathan Frahm

The Hold Steady

Since the 2000s, Newport Folk has regularly showcased indie rock bands that while not folk exactly, have connections to the genre through their lyrics or musical style. There’s been louder bands like Dinosaur Jr and Pixies (who, granted, played acoustically) and more singer-songwriter oriented and rootsier acts like Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, and Frightened Rabbit, and also bands that combine the two like The National. The Hold Steady have never been in the Newport Folk lineup, and they’d be a great continuation of that lineage. Craig Finn’s verbose, witty lyrics totally fit in with the festival’s showcasing of great songwriting talent and the Hold Steady’s bar band sound isn’t totally out of step with the rock bands they like to feature. Finn also showed up at last year’s festival as a surprise guest in an impromptu showcase called Clusterfolk that filled in for Bonny Light Horseman. Now that his band has a new album in 2023, it might be time for the rest of the Hold Steady to play at Newport too. – Ryan Gibbs

Raye Zaragoza

It’s been a lightning quick five years since Raye Zaragoza began garnering national attention. Since then, her festival circuit portfolio has substantially grown, featuring appearances at the Woody Guthrie, Susquehanna Folk, and Tucson Folk Festivals amongst others. When she’s not playing shows at iconic venues like the Rockwood Music Hall or touring with the likes of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Rising Appalachia, Raye is writing songs for the Netflix show, Spirit Rangers. Her writing chops are met by a resonant voice and penchant for activism that keep her in the same arena as stalwarts like Brandi Carlile. (Sooner than later, she’ll be winning Grammys, too.) This tour de force of the indie folk scene is a natural choice for Newport. – Jonathan Frahm

Neil Young

With the recent golden anniversary of Harvest and the recent passing of old friend David Crosby, Neil Young may be looking further into the past than ever before. Why not journey through the past (for lack of a better phrase) with the heartfelt environment of Newport Folk? Young’s vast back catalog and frequent solo acoustic performances make him more than qualified for the festival, a fitting environment for everything from the lonesome soul of “Old Man” to the southern romance of “Harvest Moon” to the brass-backed stomp of “Prairie Wind.” With Crosby’s passing still fresh in everyone’s mind, it could also make for a fitting tribute to the era of CSNY – Jon Winkler

Featured image album cover of Decade by Neil Young courtesy of Reprise Records

Ryan Gibbs

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