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LGBTQ at Newport's Music Festivals

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Check out the NewportOUT recap of the 2018 Newport Folk Fest. And while you’re at it, checkout what's planned for the 2019 Folk Fest AND the Newport Jazz Fest, which happen on back to back weekends in the middle of our amazing summer.

It was a weekend of firsts: NewportOUT’s first time at the famed, historic Newport Folk Festival and a record-breaker weekend for the number of people who rode bikes to the festival, thanks to ample bike parking made available by Bike Newport.

It was also the first U.S. music festival played at by Australian artist Jen Cloher.

I mean, it’s just one big weekend of firsts, right? That’s the special thing about a music festival. You’ll never have that same lineup of artists, special guests, curated vendors, beer sponsors, climatic conditions, etc.

We had an eye on (and ears out for) any LGBTQ+ identifying artists playing this year. As the local organizations here in town focused on LGBTQ+ community building and tourism, we were curious to get a sense of the queer vibe of the festival, an event that roots emerge from the folk movement of the 1960’s with veins of political activism and social justice.

LGBTQ+ artists are not at all new to the festival. There are many examples--more than we know of, I’m sure--most notably the Indigo Girls who rocked the festival for many years starting in the 1990’s. But in today’s moment in cultural history and political climate, focusing on the queer presence at the festival seemed to take on a new importance.

Brandi Carlile rocked our hearts and souls with her mainstage set on Sunday afternoon. In short, it was epic. She made everyone watching and listening feel something profound, and not just with the sheer magnitude of her croon, but with her joyful presence and shares about navigating parenthood as a same-sex parental unit. Regardless of familial configuration, she spoke to our human nature. She equalized us all in a beautiful and vulnerable way.

It was Jen Cloher who surprised us, though. Admittedly, we didn’t know Jen till the week before the festival as we were getting up to speed on the artists. Cloher is part of Milk! Records, the Australian record label started by Courtney Barnett (who happens to be Cloher’s partner) in 2012. In our non-connasieru estimate, Cloher’s sound is a little bit moody (the kind you just want to sink into sometimes), a bit punk, definitely rock. Listening to Jen’s eponymous 2017 album (and 4th LP) gives me the same feelings I get listening to Lou Reed. It’s music I can savor without having to jump around in excitement or curl up in a ball. It consists or chords and melodies that I can feel profoundly at home with, ideally with my feet kicked up.

We caught up with Cloher after the festival, on a break from a songwriting session in Los Angeles. We talked about the lineup of artists this year, and the abundance of non cis-white male artists, which still seems a welcome surprise in many spaces and places.

“I was really impressed by the diversity musically and the amount of women playing on mainstages as headliners. Plenty of women of color. A nice percentage of queer artists, as well. It felt like a very inclusive and a reflection of the reality of music today,” says Cloher.

Jen wasn’t at the festival the whole time, but took in some sets on Sunday. When asked about any personal highlights, she noted Bermuda Triangle, the new band of Alabama Shakes frontwoman, Brittany Howard.

Jen, who is 44, noted that the festival felt like a really cool first for her. “First ever American festival experience, even though I’m 44. That’s amazing as well. To be relevant. To be getting great opportunities.”

I think that’s what we most took away from the festival. It’s not about glitz (although Jenny Lewis’s dogwood suit brought some welcome glitz). It’s about community and artistry and appreciation. Appreciating the musical contributions, the amazing setting at historic Fort Adams on the water, and appreciating each other.

We give the whole experience two queer thumbs up, and look forward to seeing how the festival evolves, while rooting for even greater levels of inclusion moving forward. A big thanks to the Newport Festivals Foundation for the amazing event you put on, and your work in the community. And for having us out.

Check out some set recordings with NPR, and Jen Cloher’s eponymous album wherever you buy your music.

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