“She’s doing something very, very brave right now for you guys. This is a trust fall, and she picked the right people to do this with.” — Brandi Carlile introducing Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival, 2022
Comeback queen Joni Mitchell stunned fans with her recent appearance at the Newport Folk Festival this summer, her first full public concert since 2000. In Newport tradition, surprise stars make an appearance every year. Former guests have included Dolly Parton, Chaka Khan, and Mitchell’s friend David Crosby. Mitchell’s arrival this year was a revelation. She appeared out of the blue, when most people reasonably assumed she’d never perform again after suffering a debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her unable to speak or walk.
Yet, as we pointed out in an earlier post, Mitchell’s return to the stage has been years in the making. Since her aneurysm, she has confounded even the neurosurgeons with her recovery, teaching herself to play guitar again by watching online videos and learning to sing again not long after she re-learned how to get out of bed. When Mitchell’s longtime friend Brandi Carlile announced her arrival on the stage with, “This scene shall forever be known henceforth as the Joni Jam!,” Carlile referred to years of recent musical get-togethers in Mitchell’s living room.
The “Joni Jams” at Mitchell’s Los Angeles home included “a very special circle of friends,” music writer and radio host Aimsel Ponti notes, including “Herbie Hancock, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Bonnie Raitt. Mostly, from the way Carlile described it, Joni would crack jokes and take it all in rather than participate all that much.” But she was listening, learning, and becoming inspired by her peers and the younger artists who joined her onstage: Carlile, Wynonna Judd, Marcus Mumford, and others. As Carlile finished her own Newport set, the stage filled with cushiony chairs and couches, and several more musicians.
“We’re here to invite you into the living room,” Carlile says in her passionate introduction (above), while the audience holds their breath awaiting the announcement of her special guest. Then Carlile “told us about all of Joni’s pets and her many orchids and the hidden door to the bathroom,” writes Ponti. “Then she told us how it doesn’t feel complete without Joni there to crack jokes and nod with approval.” Then her hero took the stage to gasps, in a blue beret and sunglasses, and hundreds of fans born too late to see her in her glory days wept as she joined with Carlile on the first song, “Carey.” The New York Times’ Lindsay Zoladz describes the moment:
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.
The first time Mitchell took the stage at Newport in 1967, she came at the behest of Judy Collins. She was a young unknown, about to become a folk goddess. When she returned to Newport in 1969, she was a star in her own right. Over the decades, she has left fans with memories of her performances that they have guarded like treasures as they’ve aged with her. (The Guardian has collected a few of these poignant reminisces.) Now she’s an inspiration to an entirely new young generation and, one hopes, to older artists who might feel they have little left to contribute.
“The 78-year-old Mitchell’s performance,” Kirthana Ramisetti writes at Salon, “showcased an artist transcending the challenges of aging and serious health issues…. To hear music written in the full blossom of her youth, yet performed with a weightiness and knowing perspective from having weathered so much in her life, arguably gave these songs a greater power than when they were first recorded.”
Such is often the case with artists as they mature beyond youthful sentiments and grow into their youthful precocity. (It has been so for Paul Simon, whose own reappearance at Newport this year seems overshadowed by Mitchell’s comeback.) Ramisetti quotes Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” with which she closed out her surprise set — “We’re captive on the carousel of time / We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came.”
Watch Mitchell’s full live Newport set (in jumbled order) at the top of the post (or on this playlist), and see the setlist of originals and classic covers from her historic performance just below.
Come in From the Cold
Case of You
Big Yellow Taxi
Just Like This Train
Why Do Fools Fall in Love
Love Potion #9
Both Sides Now
The Circle Game
How Joni Mitchell Learned to Play Guitar Again After a 2015 Brain Aneurysm–and Made It Back to the Newport Folk Festival
Joni Mitchell Sings “Both Sides Now” at the Newport Folk Festival: Watch Clips from Her First Full Concert Since 2002
Hear Demos & Outtakes of Joni Mitchell’s Blue on the 50th Anniversary of the Classic Album
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.