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‘Joni Mitchell at Newport’ Is the ‘Photos or It Didn’t Happen’ Proof of a Resurrection: Album Review Print-ready version

by Chris Willman
Variety
July 28, 2023

Joni Mitchell FOMO: it's a real thing. Or it was a year ago, when she made a surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, and again this summer, when Mitchell booked an appearance as part of a Brandi Carlile mini-festival in Washington state, which was advertised and had tickets sold in advance but instantly sold out. After the serious health problems that had seemed to put a permanent halt to her singing career, these comeback appearances seem almost mythical to those who wanted to be there and couldn't, or even to some of us who were for one or the other. As Patti Smith might say: Renew our subscription to the resurrection.

"Joni Mitchell at Newport" is the "photos or it didn't happen" proof that Mitchell really did battle her way back onto a stage against near-impossible odds, and that, to quote Genesis instead of Patti, it was good. Yes, there've been scores of YouTube clips and such as documentation since July 24, 2022, but it says plenty about the quality of the concert that it's now out as a live album. Maybe it's not one you'll wear out like you did quite like "Miles of Aisles" or "Shadows & Light" (because we have digital files now, and they don't degrade, duh), but those albums weren't miracles, and "Newport" is a record you might put on for a personal triumph-of-the-human-spirit lift as much as the musicality. Fortunately, the musicality is really something, too. And if I had to put on any one officially released Mitchell live track going forward, it'd probably be her cover of the Gershwins' "Summertime," from this album - not out of any isn't-she-recovering-nicely handicapping, but because it's great.

Few of us in the outside world are privy to what kinds of decisions go on behind the scenes in formalizing a "Joni jam" for a stage presentation instead of a real jam in her living room. But we can kind of guess that, maybe for the purposes of allowing her to feel comfortable or warm up, she is presented as part of the all-star ensemble first and then pushed out front more as a soloist as the set goes along. So, listening to the album, you can kind of get a feel for the cascading series of surprises that the audience at Newport 2022 felt, not really knowing what to expect out of Mitchell, once they got over the shock that she was there at all, for the first time since 1969.

Just a few months earlier, when Mitchell was saluted as the MusiCares Person of the Year at a pre-Grammy event in Las Vegas, there'd been an all-star tribute in which she was mostly an observer; even when she came on stage for the last couple of numbers to sing along, the other singers dropped out only for the guest of honor to end "Big Yellow Taxi" by delivering a very low-throated "...put up a parking lot." That climax from MusiCares is exactly how "Joni at Newport" begins, all the way to having the star deliver that one line. Could the Rhode Island audience expect much more out of her, or would it just get the mild joy of watching her bask as figures like Marcus Mumford, Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith, Lucius, Celisse, Wynonna Judd and obviously Carlile took the lead? It was some of both, but by the end of the show, it felt very much Joni-centric, not just for having her enthroned at stage center but by having her actually singing full lead vocals, as well as some numbers on which she is essentially co-lead with Mumford, Goldsmith or Carlile. Her voice sounded sturdy and practiced, that of someone who is in command of her instrument and knows exactly where it can go and what would be ear-tickling to do with it there, as an interpreter (although "Summertime" is the only one of the three covers she did that evening to make the album) and self-interpreter.

She has two twins throughout this set, as captured. Goldsmith, surprisingly, is easily mistakable for Mitchell herself in her lower, more mature range, and so when they're paired up for "Come In From the Cold," it sounds effectively like the modern Joni double-tracking herself. And Carlile, her foremost late-life enabler and evangelist, has the falsetto that makes her sound like young Joni's ghost, happily flitting in to do a dance around Mitchell 2022, either echoing her or preceding her on Carlile's own personal Mitchell favorite, "Shine," as well as being a welcome third wheel alongside Joni and Taylor on "Come In From the Cold."

Of course it'd be nice to hear Carlile do a Mitchell cover by herself, and maybe someday we will get a release of the full-album cover of "Blue" she performed on a few very select dates. She doesn't have the hubris to do that here, yet she is generous enough - or Mitchell is - to have one track that is fully given over to a guest singer, "Help Me," sung (and played on guitar) expertly by Celisse, who is bound to come out of this a bigger star somehow. Hearing Celisse's version of a hit that would not be nearly in Mitchell's own range now and not very many people should attempt to cover, you think: Great call. Otherwise, it is Mitchell's spotlight to command, or to share in duets or group-sings.

"Summertime," as mentioned, is the real keeper here - jazz lover and classicist that Mitchell is, she makes it sound like the singin' is easy. But her guitar-instrumental version of "Just Like This Train" is truly another marvel - something she apparently pulled out as a surprise even to some of the participants, according to Cameron Crowe's liner notes. Her famous tunings, just like the voice, were not a casualty of the aneurysm, or at least are there for the hard-fought reclamation.

And then, although it is a choral vocal, not an individual standout showcase, "The Circle Game" is hard to beat as a closer... even as its very message is that there is no closure. The momentum of seeing something familiar come back around, in however altered a form, is a familiar human pursuit and bittersweet pleasure - encapsulated in lyrical form by Mitchell when she was a teenager and none the less wise for the wear when she is singing it with friends from a throne in 2022.

This June's Joni Jam at the Gorge in Washington state was certainly bigger, at more than twice the length, and arguably better, so our best hope would be that "Newport" is not a one-off as a release but might be followed in a year's time by a package based around that show, too. Are "jams" in other cities possible, too? It seems unlikely that Mitchell is going to actually a lot more miles of aisles on her itinerary, but surely she knows her fans have that ongoing FOMO (Fear of Mitchell Out). For now it may have to be enough to listen to the recordings and hear something that's as endearing as her singing voice: her constant laugh, as if all this veneration and renewal were just endlessly delightful and amusing to her. Because it's a nice surprise to know that, among all the other things she has recovered after the fire, as it were, Joni Mitchell gives good chuckle.

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Added to Library on July 30, 2023. (985)

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