Joni Mitchell makes a gleeful comeback in At Newport — album review

The venerated singer-songwriter’s feel for melody remains intact in this live recording

by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
Financial Times
July 28, 2023

Live albums have a bittersweet quality for those who weren't at the recorded concert. We get to experience second-hand what we can never experience in person. It's "fomo" with a stereo remix.

This feeling of having missed out is particularly pronounced at the start of At Newport. We hear the audience's whoops and cheers reach a giddy peak at a sight we can't see. It's Joni Mitchell in a beret and sunglasses, making a surprise comeback at the Newport Folk Festival in 2022 for her first full-length show since 2000 - and also, more significantly, her first since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her unable to talk or walk.

The return of the venerated singer-songwriter took place when she was 78. It has since been cemented by another gig this June in Washington state. Her resilience is considerable, having relearned how to sing and play guitar despite concerns she might do neither again. She has also benefited from supportive collaborators, particularly Brandi Carlile. The US singer-songwriter has played a crucial role in Mitchell's recovery, organising musical get-togethers called Joni Jams at the Canadian's Bel-Air home.

It's Carlile who introduces Mitchell to amazed onlookers on the live album. The show mimics a Joni Jam, with Mitchell accompanied by a cast of musicians. A cheerful version of Ladies of the Canyon's "Big Yellow Taxi" is dominated by indie band Lucius, while guitarist-singer Celisse Henderson performs a powerful rendition of Court and Spark's "Help Me" with scarcely any contribution from Mitchell.

Carlile leads Blue's "A Case of You" with a beautiful approximation of the older woman's once soaring tones. When Mitchell adds her voice to the song, she sings in a lower pitch than before. However, her phrasing and feel for melody remain intact. The cheering that greets her refrain, "I'd still be on my feet," is as much for the way in which she delivers it as the fact she's delivering it at all. Her solo rendition of George Gershwin's "Summertime" is a husky, jazzy highlight. The album ends with a series of redemptive gospel-tinged numbers. The final one is Ladies of the Canyon's "The Circle Game", with which Mitchell also ended her previous visit to the Newport Folk Festival in 1969. This time, she concludes her paean to the passage of the seasons with peals of laughter and the words, "So fun!" Even in the hobbled format of the live album, her glee is infectious.

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