“I just realized Joni is the least nervous person here,” exclaimed Brandi Carlile midway through a historic Newport Folk Festival set that paid tribute to Joni Mitchell, in her first concert appearance in two decades.
Over 13 songs, Mitchell, who last appeared at the festival 53 years ago in 1969, held court as a team of star musicians (Carlile, Blake Mills, Lucius, Wynonna, Celisse, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford and more) sat on couches on stage playing a medley of her favorite old classics (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by The Persuasions, “Love Potion No. 9” by The Clovers as well than an array of Mitchell masterpieces.
Seated on a throne, Mitchell began the set by occasionally singing her own songs, accompanied by vocalists like Carlile, (“Carey”) Goldsmith, (1991’s “Come In From The Cold”) and Celisse (“Help Me”). But at the end of the hour-plus performance, the 78-year-old singer who only recently performed on stage for the first time in nearly a decade stood up, played a long guitar solo (“Just Like This Train”) and sang soulful baritone vocals on Gershwin’s “Summertime” as well as heartbreaking takes on “Both Sides Now” and “Circle Game.”
The premise: to recreate the recently infamous “Joni Jams,” the informal gatherings of top musicians at Mitchell’s Los Angeles home in recent years, where everyone from Carlile and Elton John to Herbie Hancock and Bonnie Raitt, rallies around Mitchell and exchanges songs and stories in the years following Mitchell’s aneurysm. “No one brings folksingers together like the humility of trying a new song in front of Joni fucking Mitchell,” as Carlile, who organized and organized the entire set, explained in the performance’s introduction.
As the set ended, Carlile uttered the night’s eternal significance: “Joni Mitchell,” she proclaimed, “is back.”