Joni Mitchell has been a performer for nearly six decades, so at this point it’s safe to assume that she doesn’t get super nervous on stage, even during her first full-length live set in more than 20 years. Which explains why Mitchell’s surprise festival closing set at Sunday night’s (July 24) Newport Folk Festival — officially billed as “Brandi Carlile & Friends” — was not super nerve-wracking even though it marked the folk icon’s first gig at the beloved gathering in 53 years.
“No, I’ve never been nervous about being in front of an audience,” Mitchell told CBS Mornings Anthony Mason on Monday (July 25) about her feelings about the 13-song set that included a stage full of special guests on hand to pay tribute to the beloved 78-year-old singer who has struggled with health issues and rarely appeared in public since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015. “But I want it to be good. And I wasn’t sure I could be. But I didn’t sound too bad tonight!”
There was good reason for Mitchell to feel comfortable, as the stage was set up like the singer’s California living room, where she has been holding a series of “Joni Jams” with other musicians for the past several years as she recovers from the aneurysm. Her first visit back to Newport in over five decades found Mitchell playing guitar, something she wasn’t able to do again until fairly recently due to her health issues.
“I’m learning,” she told Mason. “I’m looking at videos that are on the net to see where I put my fingers, you know. It’s amazing what an aneurysm knocks out – how to get out of chair! You don’t know how to get out of a bed. You have to learn all these things by rote again. I was into water ballet as a kid, and I forgot how to do the breaststroke. Every time I tried it, I just about drowned, you know?. So, a lot of going back to infancy almost. You have to relearn everything.”
It was Carlile’s idea to stage a live “Joni Jams” at Newport, something she said she’d been dreaming about for a while. “The first time she opened her mouth and sang ‘Summertime’ and I saw Herbie Hancock burst into tears and everybody in the room catch their breath because she had decided to sing, really decided to sing, you know, I knew. I knew she’d do it at Newport. I can’t really say how I knew it. I just pictured her out there. I pictured the water and the fort and the boats.”
The Newport set kicked off with Mitchell — seated regally on a gilded throne — singing along to songs such as “Carey” from Blue, with Carlile, as well as “Come in From the Cold” with Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and included some beloved throwback pop covers, including the Persuasions’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and the Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9.”
“No one brings folk singers together like the humility of trying out a new song in front of Joni fucking Mitchell,” said Carlile in the introduction to the Newport set she curated, which also featured support from the all-star group of superfan performers including Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Lucius, Wynonna and more; longtime fan and friend Carlile covered Mitchell’s landmark 1971 Blue album in full at Carnegie Hall in Nov. 2021.
Carlile and Mitchell also collaborated on Mitchell’s iconic 1969 song “Both Sides Now,” playing a hushed version of the ballad as the stage full of musicians sat in awe at the master class, with video of the performance catching country singer Wynonna dabbing away tears during the emotional performance anchored by Carlile’s bandmates, Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Other highlights included versions of “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Carey,” “Amelia,” “Help Me,” “Shine,” a live cover of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess classic “Summertime” and the set-closing Court and Spark staple “The Circle Game.”
Mitchell, who survived a bout of polio that left her briefly paralyzed as a child, said recent accolades including a Kennedy Center Honor and the MusiCares Person of the Year award earlier this year have her feeling the love. “I think having a brush with death like that kind of softens people towards me!” Mitchell said with a laugh.
This story first appeared on billboard.com