Some of the celebrities invited to Joni Mitchell’s private hootenannies swore she had been an enthusiastic participant in the salon sessions at her Santa Barbara-area home. But until now, most fans had to take these reports on faith. At the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, a concert tribute to Mitchell’s stars turned out to also include a surprisingly comprehensive return to public singing by the star herself.
The 13-song “Joni Jam” got Mitchell off the hook with a little help from guest vocalists Marcus Mumford, Celisse, Wynonna Judd, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and set organizer Brandi Carlile. But Mitchell was clearly the vocal star of the set as she took numbers from the classic originals “Both Sides Now”, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game” to some of her favorite songs: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “Summertime,” and “Love Potion #9” by Gershwin.
As they sat for most of the set – like those around her, in a set that also included Lucius, Allison Russell, Blake Mills, Shooter Jennings and Phil and Tim Hanseroth – she and the others sat down. held upright for moments like a long piece of guitar. she did on “Just Like This Train”.
It was Mitchell’s first performance at Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival since 1969, but it was the least of the historical statistics that surprised enthralled festival-goers.
Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 but had been largely pulled from public performance before then, making her last full gig when she finished her final tour in 2000 and only short, sporadic appearances thereafter.
Mitchell’s return to health was evident during the MusiCares salute ahead of the Grammys earlier this year, during which she participated in group sing-alongs and woke audiences up with a few solo readings. But that was a far cry from the full song readings she did in Newport on Sunday.
As far as attendees in Newport know, the culminating set of the three-day festival was going to be “Brandi Carlile & Friends”, before the telltale term “Coyote Jam” came out, until it finally got its proper noun. “This scene will forever be known as Joni’s jam from now on!” Carlile said at the start.
Initially, it seemed to the crowd that his participation would be mostly in the singing mode of his recent MusiCares appearance, as the show opened with a group-sung version of his song “Blue” “Carey”, complete with Mitchell’s chime. . with only isolated solo lines. But soon in the set she became his main lead vocalist.
Wrote NPR’s Ann Powers after attending the Newport ‘jam’, describing the current strength of Mitchell’s voice and range: ‘When she turned to the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime’ – according to some insiders the One of the first songs she covered while recovering from her illness — Mitchell sounded a bit like Nina Simone, or her longtime heroine Annie Ross in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.” It wasn’t the first new Joni to emerge in the 21st century. Two decades ago, Mitchell surprised fans with a low register made evocatively dark by years of smoking. Here’s another revealing voice, showing the scars of her recent health issues and her determination to recover, staggering in her honesty.
Carlile was Mitchell’s constant companion and consigliere throughout the show, seated next to her on a similarly intimate throne and particularly standing out on “Big Yellow Taxi”, but featured appearances came from Celisse on “Help Me”, Mumford on “A Case of You” and Goldsmith on “Come in From the Cold” and “Amelia”.
Mitchell wasn’t the only music superstar to step back from touring to make a surprise appearance at the festival. Earlier in the weekend in Newport, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats did a headlining set consisting entirely of Paul Simon covers, with Simon himself appearing for four songs. It was the legendary entertainer’s first-ever appearance in Newport.