Joni Mitchell Reclaims Her Voice at Newport
The singer-songwriter’s surprise return to the stage at the folk festival she first played in 1967 was an act of bravery, joy and reinterpretation.
July 26, 2022
This summer, quite unexpectedly, two of music’s brightest stars haven’t been fresh young upstarts, but a pair of semi-reclusive female elders whose brilliance is being reaffirmed by a new generation of fans.
The 63-year-old pop legend Kate Bush’s 1985 anthem “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” is a legitimate contender for Song of the Summer — it currently sits at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, nestled between recent smashes from Harry Styles and Jack Harlow — thanks to its prominent use in the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.” And on Sunday night, Joni Mitchell, 78, stunned attendees of the Newport Folk Festival (and the countless people who have since watched viral cellphone videos of the event) when she performed in public for the first time since her 2015 brain aneurysm, playing her first full-length live set since 2000.
Acting as an ecstatic master of ceremonies, the 41-year-old musician Brandi Carlile asked the crowd to welcome her friend Mitchell “back to the Newport stage for the first time since 1969” — which was 12 years before Carlile was born.
“Joni hasn’t always felt the appreciation that exists amongst humanity for her,” Carlile said in a CBS News interview, explaining her idea for a performance that would mimic the laid-back “Joni Jams” that Mitchell has for the past few years been hosting with peers and younger musicians in her Los Angeles living room. “But I wanted her to feel that.”
Carlile has done plenty to help her friend and idol feel that love, and to assert Mitchell’s rightful place in the canon. “We didn’t live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven,” Carlile said during one of the several recent concerts she’s given in which she’s performed Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” in its entirety. “But we live in the time of Joni Mitchell.”
Especially since surviving that near-fatal aneurysm in 2015, Mitchell’s work has been enjoying a widespread critical reappraisal. (“Having a brush with death kind of softens people towards me,” she told CBS News with a chuckle.) In the past year, she has received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors and was named the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Person of the Year, as well as begun an ongoing project called the Joni Mitchell Archives, which will see her releasing rich collections of previously unheard music.
Even though these recent accolades have brought Mitchell back into the public eye, the performance videos from Newport have had a rare and profound power. In some sense, they are simply reminders of the euphoric potential of live music, an experience that was all but silenced for many months during the pandemic.
Beyond that, though, the past two-plus years of seemingly unending illness, sacrifice and loss have left so many people hungry for stories of resilience, hard-won strength and new beginnings. After the aneurysm, just as she did when she contracted polio at age 9, Mitchell had to teach herself to walk again. This time, though, she also had to rediscover her singing voice and relearn how to play the guitar — which she did, triumphantly, onstage at Newport during an instrumental performance of “Just Like This Train,” from her 1974 album “Court and Spark.”
Before Mitchell picked up her guitar, Carlile prepped the audience, announcing, “She’s doing something very, very brave right now for you guys,” adding, “This is a trust fall, and she picked the right people to do this with.” Carlile was talking to the Newport crowd, but she might as well have been saying it to the other musicians onstage — including herself. Even when she was singing lead, tackling these complex songs with a soulful ease, Carlile’s gaze was attentively fixed on Mitchell, ready to catch her in case she stumbled but more often just letting Mitchell guide the way.
There was an intergenerational tenderness to the performance, the way that some of the younger musicians (Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius) appeared to be in palpable awe of what was happening even as they kept time and in tune. The whole thing had a loose, communal spirit about it, too, reminiscent of the coffeehouses in which Mitchell got her start performing folk songs in the mid-1960s. The spotlight was shared (the singer and guitarist Celisse Henderson had a particular star turn when she sang lead on “Help Me”) but, as Mitchell sat regally in her high-backed, gilded chair positioned in the center of the stage, it was always apparent who was the one holding court.
When Mitchell first came out onstage, she seemed a tad overwhelmed, clinging to her cane and backing up Carlile, who took the lead on a breezy, celebratory “Carey.” But over the course of that song, a visible change came over Mitchell. Her shoulders loosened. She began to shimmy. And all at once she seemed to regain her voice — her voice, sonorous and light, seeming to dance over those balletic melodies at a jazzy tempo all her own. She eventually relaxed enough to sing lead on several numbers, including a sumptuous version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that allowed her to luxuriate in her velvety lower register.
The highlight of the set, though, was “Both Sides Now,” a song that a 23-year-old Mitchell wrote in 1967, the same year she played Newport for the first time. Back then, some critics scoffed at the lyrics’ presumptive wisdom: What could a 23-year-old girl possibly know about both sides of life? But over the years, the song has revealed itself to contain fathomless depths that have only been audible in later interpretations.
When she was 57, Mitchell rerecorded a lush version of “Both Sides Now” on her 2000 album of the same name, backed by a 70-piece orchestra. Her voice was deeper, elegiac and elegantly weary. “It’s life’s illusions I recall,” she sang at the end of the song, “I really don’t know life at all.”
That version was considered a tear-jerker (and used to this effect in a classic scene from the movie “Love, Actually”), but then again, it’s easy to find pathos in getting older. Aging inherently brings suffering, debilitation and loss — this is not news. What Mitchell’s 2022 performance of the song asserted was that it can also bring serendipity, long-delayed gratification and joy. Ever an expert re-interpreter of her own material, Mitchell breathed new meaning into some of her most famous lyrics. “I could drink a case of you, and I would still be on my feet,” she sang with Carlile, the line becoming not only a challenge to a lover, but a survivor’s boast to life itself.
Part of what is so heartening about Mitchell’s recent pop cultural revival, like Bush’s surprise chart resurgence, is that it allows a beloved if somewhat underappreciated artist to receive her laurels while she’s still living. (Wynonna Judd, still grieving her mother Naomi’s death, was also onstage with Mitchell and wept openly throughout “Both Sides Now” — a visual reminder of a crueler fate and the inherent dichotomy of the song.) In a culture that excessively scrutinizes women as they age, or simply renders them invisible and erases their influence, it felt like a quietly radical act to honor Mitchell in this way. Younger artists got the chance to pay earnest homage to their elder; a mature woman who was not yet finished reinterpreting her life’s work reclaimed the stage.
Surrounded by an adoring crowd of friends, fellow musicians, and admirers — many of whom were not yet born when Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now” — she seemed to sing it this time with a grinning shrug: I really don’t know life at all. As if to say: You never know — anything can happen. Even this.