No Rules Newport
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #159. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath and David Shimomura, who add any typos or factual errors that might appear within.
An undeniable highlight of each summer is Unwinnable’s can’t-miss coverage of the Newport Folk Festival. Yet in 2022, it was nowhere to be found.
Did Unwinnable sit out a year that included legendary surprise performances by both Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell? Did the Rookie of the Year lose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dance with the Wife of the Year to Joni’s performance of “Amelia” – which happens to be the Wife of the Year’s name (and his ringtone for her)? Did Unwinnable not shed a single tear during any of this?
No! Unwinnable was there! Unwinnable danced! Unwinnable cried! Unwinnable did not write about it!
It’s time to rectify that. Because something else happened at the most recent NFF – Sylvan Esso debuted their as-yet-to-be-released and previously-unheard album, “No Rules Sandy” – for the first time. They performed it in its entirety, as we danced under a blazing hot sun. And guess what? It’s my 2022 Album of the Year.
Amelia is also the name of the voice of Sylvan Esso, Amelia Meath. Leading into her performance I had been wondering why so many musicians insist on dressing in unseasonably warm attire at these shows. Newport is not a place where one would be judged for cargo shorts. And so, when Amelia Meath took the stage in a suit jacket and bra, she’d already won me over. When she removed the suit jacket, she became practically heroic.
She needed the fresh air. As I said, it was hot that day. I was covered in dirt from dancing in the dusty ground in front of the Fort stage. Amelia Meath was under cover and clean, but she moved like it was her first and last show, and her husband, bandmate, Nick Sanborn (the Sandy in the album’s title) made his bleeps and bloops with just as much enthusiasm.
I’m a latecomer to Sylvan Esso’s music. I had “Ferris Wheel” on repeat heading into Newport, to the point where my two boys started requesting the “knees are bruised” song in the car. And while there might not be a song on “No Rules Sandy” quite that infectious, many come close – like “Didn’t Care” or “Sunburn” or “Alarm”. There’s also arguably my favorite track, or at least the one that initially drew me in, called “Your Reality” which the duo has described as being a mashup of two very different ways of seeing the song. The result is splendid and not only suits the lyrics, but the album itself, a less-than-highly-polished post-pandemic parade of quickly written and recorded songs separated by short in-studio doodles and even a voicemail message from Mom.
The cover, too, is just the track list – black type left-justified on a white background (in iTunes the song titles disappear and reappear on a loop). It’s clear my inaugural recipient of the Executive Producer of the Year Award wasn’t consulted, though perhaps that’s for the best. The mixtape mashup of “No Rules Sandy” doesn’t have the gravitas of the Album of the Year runner-up – Shearwater’s quiet but powerful “The Great Awakening” – but it’s a ton of fun.
Listening to it, Unwinnable is right back at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. Hearing it for the first time with everyone else. Crying to the “The Sound of Silence.” Hugging the wife as a legend performed in front of a crowd for the first time in years, and for the first time at Newport since the 1960s. When it comes to the lineup, or the set lists, there are no rules at Newport. Not for Sylvan Esso last year, and certainly not for the other artists delivering unforgettable surprises.
We didn’t write about it then. Now we have.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.