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Spirit Family Reunion were the second band to play Newport’s Harbor stage this weekend, and even with being so early in the lineup, they delivered a performance I’m sure to be using as a standard for others for the remainder of the festival. The six-piece New York City group induced much hand-clapping during their set and the crowd spread far beyond the shady perimeter of the packed tent. With four of them huddled around the center microphone at any given moment, the band members shelled out sweet harmonies and engaged the crowd during and between songs.
This is something the band strives for– creating a sense of inclusion and community not only amongst the musicians themselves, but also with the audience, who were strongly encouraged to dance and sing. Vocalist and acoustic guitarist Nick Panken said early on in the set, “I’d better see some dust kickin’ up from this floor, how ‘bout that?” He and the other bandmates– Maggie Carson, Stephen Weinheimer, Ken Woodward, Peter Pezzimenti, and Mat Davidson — utilized a host of great instruments during their performance, including an upright bass, a washboard, a banjo, and a fiddle.
Penken admitted he and the band had only arrived to the festival about 20 minutes prior to their scheduled set time, but if they were frazzled at all, it wasn’t apparent in their performance; they sounded like a band who had gotten a good night’s sleep and had already held a practice session that morning, after a well-balanced breakfast. The crowd clapped their hands in time during “Alright Prayer” as the band sung “I’m gonna talk with my mouth wide open / I’m gonna sing for all the angels in the sky.” Later on in the set, Penken got cozy with the New Englanders in the crowd, saying that he’s met “some of the finest people” while touring around the area with the rest of the band.
One of the show’s highlights was when fiddle player Mat Davidson jazzed up the crowd by belting out “Who do you love?” over and over again, nailing some high notes as he did so. But their heartfelt enthusiasm and obvious passion for folk music was a highlight in general; it’s plain to see that Spirit Family Reunion are a group of genuinely talented performers, and they managed to encapsulate the whole sentiment of Newport Folk Festival during their brief set. They brought the audience to their feet after the second to last song, and after the last song– which didn’t turn out to be their last song.
They wrapped up with “When My Name Is Spoken”, which ended with the audience singing along with the band: “Don’t worry about me, I’ll find a way.”