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The inside story of Joni Mitchell’s return to the stage Print-ready version

by Cameron Crowe
The Times
July 20, 2023

Joel Bernstein

It was a sweltering July afternoon. The 2022 Newport Folk Festival crowd was abuzz with anticipation. The closing performance of the three-day festival had been billed as "Brandi Carlile and Friends". Carlile had just finished a short set, but it was clear something more was coming. Roadies began moving furniture and lamps onto the stage. One particularly high-backed chair was placed at the centre. There's a long tradition of surprise musical history made at the Newport Folk Festival, but few could have expected this. Sitting in a small room just off the stage, Joni Mitchell was quietly waiting to make her first live appearance in decades, just seven years after suffering a life-threatening aneurysm. Her recovery had been arduous and miraculous. Now Mitchell was about to surprise the crowd with a heartfelt set of some of her greatest songs.

As if on cue, the temperature dipped 15 degrees. A cloud cover eased over Fort Adams State Park. The silhouettes of the boats twinkling on the watery horizon disappeared in a light fog. Carlile began a nine-minute announcement, designed to briefly mislead the crowd into believing the next set would simply be a celebration of Mitchell's music. But when the last stage monitor was moved into position, and the final piece of furniture placed just so, Carlile delivered the real news to the spirited crowd.

"Angels of Newport, let's make history together," she said with growing emotion. "Hold nothing back in this moment and please welcome back to the Newport stage for the first time since 1969... Joni Mitchell!"

Mitchell emerged from the side of the stage, swaying smoothly, in fine summer-style with beret and sunglasses. Her good- natured mood instantly set the tone. This performance would be an intimate gathering of friends, not unlike the Joni Jams she'd been hosting in her own living room over the last few years of recovery. Smiling broadly, Mitchell took her onstage seat alongside Carlile and began the extraordinary performance that was on nobody's bingo card. Within minutes, the news had rocketed around the globe. Mitchell was back, sparkling with enthusiasm, delivering a tender and passionate set of 13 songs, ending with a joyful singalong of The Circle Game.

The Newport Folk Festival has long held an important spot in Joni Mitchell's storied creative journey. She'd first appeared at the festival in July of 1967. Producer-musician Al Kooper had instigated a late-night phone call between Mitchell and the singer Judy Collins the night before. Mitchell played Both Sides Now for Collins over the phone. Collins instantly put the song on hold for her next album. She'd even offered to give 23-year-old Mitchell a ride to the Newport Festival early the next morning. It felt like a wild dream come true . . . until Collins never showed. Finally, the phone rang.

"Get over here," said Collins, calling from the festival. "There's already somebody singing one of your songs."

Mitchell raced to catch a bus, arriving in Rhode Island just in time to land the afternoon spot on the Songwriter's Workshop stage. It's clear from photos of that day that Mitchell had instantly brightened the often stodgy folk crowd. (She would also meet Leonard Cohen that day, beginning a lifelong association of friendship and admiration.) Wearing a yellow and purple minidress and brandishing a sunny spirit along with her own guitar tunings, Mitchell played a three-song set that captured the crowd's heart. Her rousing closing song sealed the deal. It was a singalong anthem she'd composed as an answer to a prematurely melancholy song about growing old, written by a 20-year-old fellow Canadian named Neil Young. Her song was called The Circle Game, and as she instructed the cultivated Newport crowd to join in - "the more out of tune the better" - they saluted the young performer with a standing ovation. Mitchell would return to Newport again in 1969, meeting James Taylor and playing a longer set of new favourites, but the groundbreaking path of all to come began on that first triumphant Newport afternoon in 1967.

The journey back to Newport began with a call from the singer- songwriter Eric Andersen in April of 2017. Joni Mitchell's aneurysm in early 2015 had necessitated a strict schedule of recovery. Her Bel-Air home became a quiet place of restoration. Mitchell's ability to walk and talk again, not to mention sing or play guitar, was then nearly beyond imagination. Music had long flourished in her warmly appointed living room, lined with her favourite paintings and instruments, but for now "the big room" was silent. Then came Andersen, in town for a couple of nights, with a suggestion of bringing his band, which included violinist Scarlet Rivera, to Mitchell's home for some music- making. (Their history is rich. It was Andersen who taught Mitchell the open-G tuning that would long influence her own work.) The night was a success. Sitting in her leather reclining chair, swaying, Mitchell much enjoyed the restorative return of music to her life and home. She mentioned to Marcy Gensic, her close friend and assistant: "Let's do this more often."

"You got it," replied Gensic. "And we'll call it a 'Joni Jam'."

It was the first small step back. Mitchell was still fighting her way to greater strength, and there was much ground to cover, but whenever musicians would visit and play, the artist's spirits would soar. The idea of singing and playing was still too far to even consider, but the dream of Joni Mitchell's return to music had been sparked. Small steps indeed.

At a 75th birthday tribute concert held a year later at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mitchell watched appreciatively and even took the stage as the others sang. One of the stand-out artists was Brandi Carlile, whose touching duet of A Case of You with Kris Kristoferson was a crowd highlight. Mitchell's recovery improved with every passing month, and when Carlile ran into Mitchell at a Grammy event in 2019, they planned a dinner. It was at that dinner with Mitchell, Gensic and Carlile's wife, Catherine Shepherd, that Mitchell invited Carlile, whose musical connections ran far and wide, to curate the musicians who might play regularly in her living room. It was a labour of love built for Brandi Carlile. The small steps took a careful gallop forward.

It began with a basic core: Carlile's band members Phillip and Timothy Hanseroth on bass and guitars, along with Mitchell's longtime friend Rick Whitfield, also on guitar. While never growing beyond the size of her living room, the circle widened, with others joining on subsequent evenings. Herbie Hancock stopped in for a Joni Jam, and later the nucleus grew to include Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Blake Mills, Marcus Mumford and Ben Lusher on keyboards. Sometimes the Jam would host a special guest like Elton John, Harry Styles, Phoebe Bridgers, Chaka Khan or Paul McCartney . . . but intimacy was the watchword for these joyful evenings. Cellphones were ditched, and the small ring of musicians would join Mitchell in passing songs and stories back and forth. And she would begin to sing, dropping into some of the renditions of her songs played by the others.

"When we get together, we sing for Joni," Carlile says. The diverse mix of musicians delighted Mitchell. The songs developed with each remarkable evening, as did the camaraderie among the musicians Carlile assembled. Mitchell, in her later seventies, found herself side by side with younger generations of players who never thought they'd collaborate so closely with their hero. Laughter ensued. Along with the music, the personalities meshed. "It was a privilege," added Carlile, who Mitchell had begun to call "My Ambassador".

At one particularly inspiring Jam in the summer of 2019, Mitchell contributed a moving rendition of George Gershwin's Summertime. Carlile quietly hatched a dream that one day Mitchell might even return to the stage, perhaps participating in a live Joni Jam. Playing the 2019 Newport Festival just days

later, Carlile sent back a photo of herself planting a kiss on a portrait of Mitchell that had been placed in her dressing room. The discussion of a live Jam turned to a tentative reality as Mitchell continued to improve.

The show was set for the summer of 2022, and the musicians were ready. Mitchell had been singing more and more, adding to the songs at the Jams, and the group of players were headed into the Newport performance with a set list filled with opportunities for Mitchell to contribute what felt comfortable for her on stage. Rehearsing the night before Newport in a small room o -site, Mitchell felt ready. "I don't get nervous," she explained, "but I wasn't sure I could be good." At Gensic's suggestion, they even added one more song to the set list, The Circle Game.

Asked what Mitchell saw when she arrived on stage and looked out at the happily shocked crowd of fans, her answer is immediate. "A lot of happy people," she says. "And they stayed happy . . . until they cried."

It was a show filled with unexpected pleasures as Mitchell added her voice to almost every song, more than she ever had before, even pausing to play a solo instrumental rendition of Just Like This Train. (She had secretly decided to add the song just weeks before the performance, working tirelessly on her returning guitar prowess.) Celisse contributed a gorgeous interpretation of Help Me. With a spontaneous blend of vocals between Mitchell, Carlile, and Wolfe and Laessig from Lucius, the show blossomed into a Jam like no other. Mitchell had more than risen to the occasion; she flourished in the spotlight. The emotions rose in the audience throughout the show. With the venue curfew fast approaching, Mitchell closed with the same song that had ended her very first Newport appearance, The Circle Game. And then she laughed.

Less than a year later, on a recent full-moon night in February, Joni Mitchell sits across from Brandi Carlile listening to the final mixes of this very recording. The mix by Carlile and Brandon Bell is immersive and generous. Each musical element is wonderfully alive. At the centre there's Mitchell herself, telling stories, expressing her songs with the power of a life well lived and vital to this minute. Joni Mitchell at Newport is the sonic living room where it all began. As the final notes of The Circle Game ring out, with the crowd warmly chanting her name, both Mitchell and Carlile have a well-earned look of quiet, giddy accomplishment. It's a groundbreaking new beginning for Joni Mitchell, built from the best of the past.

"Who knew?" she asks with a smile. "Who knew this would be the best year of my life?" Joni Mitchell at Newport is released on July 28

Joni Mitchell at Newport - the songs she sang
by Will Hodgkinson

Big Yellow Taxi (1970)

Joni Mitchell's prototype environmental protest classic came after a trip to Hawaii, where she was dismayed to see a vast parking lot filling the space between her hotel and the mountains. As for the old man being taken away by a big yellow taxi, whether he has been busted or is simply walking out on Mitchell she has never divulged.

A Case of You (1971)

From her masterpiece Blue comes one of the singer's most deceptively complex love songs. Is it a boast, a compliment or a dig when she claims "I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet"? Rumoured to be about Graham Nash and Leonard Cohen, it seems more likely to be an ode to a one-night stand, not least when she announces casually: "If you want me I'll be in the bar."

Amelia (1976)

From Hejira, Mitchell's finest excursion into jazz-rock, comes a tale of the aviator Amelia Earhart disappearing over the Pacific Ocean. Mitchell used it as an allegory for her break-up with her partner John Guerin. "From one solo pilot to another," as she puts it.

Both Sides Now (1966)

In an early example of her ability to impart nonjudgmental wisdom within pristine folk pop, Mitchell told us how life and love are subjective experiences and that we make the world with our thoughts. It is a delightfully simple tune, which is why everyone from Clannad to Judy Collins has covered it.

Just Like This Train (1974)

From Court and Spark, an album that Mitchell played in full to Bob Dylan - during which he fell asleep. It meant he probably missed Mitchell's use of a train journey as a metaphor for jealousy, with horn and flute giving a sense of rolling movement while she sings about resigning herself to the open-ended realities of love.

Summertime (1935)

At Newport Mitchell tackled the deathless standard from the opera Porgy and Bess, an attempt by George Gershwin to write in the style of an African-American folk spiritual. Its power lies in the coupling of haunting music with words that are celebratory, on the surface at least.

Carey (1971)

"Oh, you're a mean old daddy but I like you," confessed Mitchell on a tribute to a cave-dwelling hippie called Cary Raditz whom she met on a trip to Crete. The relationship was brief - Mitchell was by her own admission too bourgeois for a life in the sand, devoid of clean linen and French cologne - but it was fun while it lasted.

Help Me (1974)

Embracing the Seventies ideal of the sexual encounter without commitment, as captured by Erica Jong in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying, Mitchell falls for a rambler, a gambler, a ladies' man on this jazzy soft-rock glide. She knows there is no future in it, and maybe that's OK. "We love our loving, but not like we love our freedom," she concludes.

Come in from the Cold (1991)

One of Mitchell's finest lyrical moments, this song is an autobiographical and generational reflection on growing up under the oppression of the 1950s, searching for new liberties, facing up to getting old and accepting that all anyone really wants is to be loved.

Shine (2007)

The title track of Mitchell's last studio album is a twinkling prayer for the world that takes in everything from war to global warming to scientific folly. Mitchell also gives her blessings to anyone who has annoyed her, from the Catholic Church to drivers who jump red lights while talking on their phones.

The Circle Game (1966)

A response to Neil Young's pessimistic ode to lost youth Sugar Mountain (which he wrote when he was about to hit 20), Mitchell's light, folky favourite pointed out that life is made up not just of endings, but of new beginnings, and that accepting this makes for a healthier outlook.

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Added to Library on July 23, 2023. (1260)

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