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The Best of the 2011 Newport Folk Festival

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Until 2011, the Newport Folk Festival had never sold out. Not even in 1965, the year Bob Dylan performed his then-blasphemous electric set that shook the foundation of both folk music and rock & roll. Aside from sporting more body ink than a tattoo convention, no one at this year's festival (held over two picture-perfect weather days in Newport, RI, over the weekend) was quite so revolutionary. But that didn't matter to the 10,000-plus fans that showered acts -- a mix of folk and acoustic-leaning indie rock acts alongside a few touring legends -- with more love than we've ever seen at a music festival. Here's how the fest broke down:

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Best Set: The Carolina Chocolate Drops delivered a raucous mix of traditional old-timey folk with a neo-soul twist, swapping out the traditional drummer/washboard-er with a human beat-boxer. The Drops' cover of Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style," rearranged as a bluegrass standard, threw the still-arriving main stage crowd into a frenzy. You get the feeling they're a Barack Obama endorsement away from a Grammy.
Listen: Via NPR

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Best Effort: On Sunday, Elvis Costello -- who just last weekend made the mostly jam-band lineup at the Gathering of the Vibes look like imposters -- did the opposite of Dylan, unplugging for a special (mostly) acoustic set that sparkled in the sun. Despite temperatures flirting with 90 degrees, Costello sipped a cup of hot tea during his set to soothe an ailing throat. Ever the consummate showman, Costello still stopped a song when he felt the "pretty women" in the crowd weren't singing along loud enough.

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Best Fans (tie): Tegan and Sara turned the side stage within Fort Adams' walls into their very own Storytellers set, filled with screaming, adoring devotees ("It's hard to start a song when people yell out, 'I love you,' " Tegan said). M. Ward, who last played the Newport Folk Festival with Zooey Deschanel as She & Him in 2008, got the most out of his diminutive frame, slapping his guitar and stomping his feet during an instrumental opener that had the late afternoon crowd silently transfixed. Later, though, they participated in a singalong during "Rave On" from Ward's stellar 2009 Hold Time.
Listen: Tegan and Sara via NPR

Biggest Diva: There were a few, most notably Southern septuagenarian rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, scattered throughout the weekend. But Mavis Staples' glistening church gospel soared, even it felt a little premature in her late Saturday afternoon slot. No matter -- the folkgoers were already converted, obeying every call-and-response as Staples baked orders to her band like James Brown. "I'll be back," she assured the crowd as she left the stage for her band to finish the set-closing "I'll Take You There."
Listen: Via NPR

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Best Headliner: The Decemberists did their best impression of Christmas in July on Saturday, but it was Emmylou Harris who closed the two-day festival with the sun setting across Newport harbor, paying homage to Gram Parsons ("for taking a chance on me"), Bill Monroe, and Merle Haggard with several covers alongside originals, including the sublime "Red Dirt Girl."
Listen: Via NPR

Best of the Rest: Several of the side stage acts shined, too. Seattle's the Head and the Heart played a high-energy set that bordered on indie pop. Trampled by Turtles broke out bluegrass and northern roots music thicker than their beards. The Devil Makes Three, a drum-less trio from Santa Cruz, California by way of Vermont, played original folk songs with bright instrumentation and spiky three-part harmonies to counter Satanic imagery in their lyrics. Mountain Man, an all-female trio from Vermont, too, closed their set early Sunday afternoon with traditional a cappella hymns that were so well-received, the crowd demanded an encore.
Listen: The Head and the Heart, the Devil Makes Three, and Mountain Man via NPR.

Dylan Stableford (@stableford) is a reporter for Yahoo! News' media blog, The Cutline.

[Top photo: Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage.com; All other photos: Dylan Stableford]

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