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There's a box of tissues on my desk right now because it's hard to not cry as I get ready to write this.
I'm one of the lucky ones.
I got to see Joni Mitchell perform an entire set of songs at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, July 24, 2022.
Every single day for the rest of my life will now be considered the "before times."
And not only did I see her sing, I was front row, dead center proudly wearing my JONI cap.
Let me be clear, what I'm about to share is not bragging rights. This is coming from a place of pure, unfettered (to use a Joni word) joy. It's coming from a place of shock, disbelief and profound gratitude.
And it's coming from a chamber of my heart that I didn't know existed. One that has been waiting for just the right moment to open itself. One that has forever shifted what I thought I knew about the live music experience.
I can't not document the experience and if you're reading this, I probably don't have to tell you the significance of Joni Mitchell. I mean my god...
But first, I need to share something. On April 24 of this year my mother Louise was diagnosed with a very large and very cancerous brain tumor. We lost her on May 26 and her funeral was on June 6. I'm mentioning this because losing her, and the way we lost her, also opened up a new part of my heart.
Those two new parts converged on Sunday night. The sorrow and the happiness collided and that salt from the many tears I shed that night likely changed by DNA permanently.
So there's that.
Here's what happened.
First off, this was my fourth time attending the Newport Folk Festival. My first was in 2018. Then came 2019 and the Dolly Parton miracle. The six-day Folk On festival of 2021 brought with it the surprise of Chaka Khan. By the way, I will be writing a separate thing about the rest of the festival! Coming soon! I mean HELLO, PAUL SIMON!
Now where was I?
Oh right. Sunday night.
Nothing could have ever prepared me for Joni Mitchell.
The schedule for the final performance of Sunday night initially said Brandi Carlile & Friends but it later changed into two different things: Brandi Carlile & Friends and then after a quick break The Coyote Set. "Coyote" is a track off of Mitchell's "Hejira" album. Coincidence? Nah.
Every year one of the fun parts of Newport Folk Festival is to speculate based on unconfirmed hot tips and runaway imagination that the likes of maybe Neil Young or Taylor Swift will show up.
I mean shit man, the first time I went, John Prine walked on stage to sing with Margo Price and surprise act Mumford & Sons trotted out David Crosby for two songs. In 2019 Kermit the Frog had 10,000 people, including Jim James from My Morning Jacket, singing along to "The Rainbow Connection" with him. That historic fort is like a field of dreams. Things happen there.
So yes, there was chatter all weekend along about the possibility of Joni Mitchell showing up with Carlile because if anyone could make it happen it's Brandi and her friend, festival director Jay Sweet.
For one of the festival days I didn't even dare say Joni's name aloud as I was legit nervous about jinxing anything.
Plus I was entirely caught up with seeing Natalie Merchant surprise us with a pair of songs. I was caught up with being absolutely slayed by Madi Diaz and Rhiannon Giddens. And I was caught up with every nano second of The Roots.
The Roots ended their soul-quaking performance and shortly after, Brandi Carlile, Tim Hanseroth, Phil Hanseroth and the rest of her band hit us with a five song set that included "The Joke" and "You and Me on the Rock" with Holly and Jess from Lucius on backing vocals. Then Brandi told us all to sit tight for just a little bit. Believe you me, no one was going ANYWHERE.
That's when many people on that stage sprung into action setting up couches, fancy chairs and so many microphones. The set was adorned with flowers, stacks of books and several flameless candles. It looked like a living room. Why? BECAUSE IT WAS.
For the past couple of years, Carlile had been sharing with fans that she was part of a very special circle of friends who would gather in Mitchell's California home for Joni jams. Folks like Herbie Hancock, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Bonnie Raitt. Mostly, from the way Carlile described it, Joni would crack jokes and take it all in rather than participate all that much.
As we all know, Mitchell had a mother of a health scare in March of 2015. A brain aneurysm resulted in her having to relearn just about everything. Remember that? Remember hearing the news and having time stand still because you couldn't bear the thought of Mitchell leaving this earth because it just wasn't her time yet. It was as frightening as it gets.
Still...she persisted. Joni Mitchell was not nearly done gracing us with her presence. And within the last year, as we found out on Sunday night, Mitchell started doing something that I don't think anyone, including her, knew for sure would happen again. Joni Mitchell started singing.
The sun gave way to a cocoon of clouds and Brandi Carlile along with several musicians including her band (Sista Strings, Josh Neumann, Shooter Jennings, Matt Chamberlain, Phil and Tim Hanseroth) along with Celisse, Allison Russell, Wynonna Judd, Rick Whitfield, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, Holly Laessig, Jess Wolfe, Ben Lesser and Blake Mills formed a semi-circle of perfection on that living room set.
Brandi Carlile read a well-prepared speech which the occasion most certainly called for. She spoke about things like the the power of togetherness and how it's more powerful than any government and how radical love is. "If we love one another we might defend one other. " She continued. "To power structures folk music is and always has been utterly fucking destructive. It's a truth teller and it's a power killer." For several minutes Carlile honored the importance of the festival and how the sense of community means so much. She called out places like Sun Studios and Preservation Hall. But when she mentioned Laurel Canyon I felt a seismic shift in the universe. THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN.
Then Brandi told us all about the Joni jams. "We're here to invite you into the living room." She told us about all of Joni's pets and her many orchids and the hidden door to the bathroom. "We are the cast and crew of the Joni Jams." Then she told us how it doesn't feel complete without Joni there to crack jokes and nod with approval. "How are we gonna have a Joni jam without our queen?"
Then Brandi Carlile said the two most important words she's ever said: "WE'RE NOT!"
Please welcome back to the Newport stage for the first time since 1969...JONI MITCHELL!"
And there she was. Flesh and blood. Love and light. Slowly dancing her way to her gold wingback throne placed next to Brandi's. The two of them embraced while the rest of us, fans and musicians alike lost our minds. Because of course we did.
Joni didn't need to do anything. She could have just sat there in her blue beret and sunglasses and taken it all in. But she didn't come all the way from the west coast to sit there. It had been 53 years since she last sang at Newport and the first song was "Carey." Carlile sang the first few words but then OH MY GOD JONI STARTED SINGING!!!!!! Let me say that louder for those people in the back:
JONI STARTED SINGING.
I started trembling and I clutched the Celtic cross that belonged to my mother tightly. Was this really happening? WAS IT REALLY HAPPENING?
Joni Mitchell surrounded by an army of angels and in front of a stunned crowd was singing her song "Carey" with Brandi Carlile.
I lost it. I started crying and couldn't stop for several minutes. My friend Hilary put her arm on me as she too got caught up in the moment and the gravity of it.
My friend Amy skillfully captured the entire set and as her clips are far superior to my own I enthusiastically will be sharing some of them. Here's "Carey" and know that I'm the gal who yelled out "Am I dreaming" because I couldn't help myself. Amy Karibian's live footage is the bomb. Follow her on YouTube and thank me later.
lt could have been a one and done deal and it would have been enough. In the 90s I had tickets to see Mitchell in Massachusetts but for reasons I can't recall, the show was canceled. I never thought I'd have the chance to see her live and was OK with that. It was enough to, as they say, be alive at the same time as her. So yes, it really would have been OK for her to have just done "Carey."
BUT SHE WAS JUST GETTING STARTED!
Next up was another favorite Mitchell track (and yeah, I know, most of her songs are favorites because um, she's Joni Mitchell). "Come in from the Cold" is from 1991's "Night Ride Home." Taylor Goldsmith and his golden voice sang it with Joni. Several people sang with Joni. Brandi, Holly and Jess to name a few. I was overwhelmed. It was overwhelming to stand there singing along. OVERWHELMING.
Next Joni took us back to 1974's "Court and Spark" with "Help Me." This was not just one or two quick songs. This was a goddamn concert. A JONI MITCHELL CONCERT. This version of "Help Me" featured superstar Celisse shredding with her red electric guitar while also slaying with her vocals. The arrangement was quite different from the original and as you'll see below, entirely awesome. Jess and Holly's "Didn't it feel goods" did indeed feel really good. Jesus.
Then Joni made me cry again. By now she's made the entire planet cry as footage has been shared far and wide. Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile sat there and sang "A Case Of You" from Blue.
I don't know what to say. Joni Mitchell sang one of the most beautiful, poignant and heart-piercing songs ever written. Her song. HER SONG.
The chills I felt had chills. It was EVERYTHING.
"Thank you so much" said Joni with pure delight. Then Brandi told us it was party time. She told the Lucius girls to wipe the tears from their eyes then it was off to the goddamn races with "Big Yellow Taxi." Holly and Jess did just that and crushed it because they always do. Joni was singing right along as was Brandi as was EVERYONE. Joni even went low for the last line of "put up a parking lot."
I MEAN MY GOD PEOPLE!
Singing wasn't the only thing Joni Mitchell came to Newport to do that night. She picked up an electric guitar and played "Just Like This Train" from "Court and Spark." Guitar was one of the more recent skills Mitchell had to relearn and she explained during an interview on CBS that aired the day after Newport that she had to watch YouTube videos to help her remember where to put her fingers. IT WORKED.
Next was a song that Mitchell told us she loved as a teenager by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and one that had been played at Joni jams. At Newport, "Why Do Falls In Love" was delightful and Rick Whitfield took lead on in at Newport. Lots of us helped with the "ooh wahs". Whitfield's vocals were fabulous and Carlile was right there with him as was Mitchell.
In 1976 Joni Mitchell released "Hejira" and in 2022 Taylor Goldsmith and Brandi Carlile sang it with her. Look, I'm starting to run out of ways to describe how transcendent these songs were.
It's the most gigantic example of "I can't even...." I've ever known.
Another oldie that Mitchell adores if "Love Potion No. 9," penned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and made a hit by The Clovers and especially the Searchers with their 1964 recording of it.
If you had told me that morning that I'd be seeing Joni Mitchell later that day I would have been skeptical. And if you had told me I'd hear her sing "Love Potion No. 9" I sure as shit would have likely laughed in your face and sent you to rehab.
But remember, we were in the field of dreams. Or in this case, the fort of dreams. Joni took lead on a bunch of this tune. She and Carlile sang the line "I held my nose, I closed my eyes..." then Mitchell went wayyyy down low and sang "I took a drink" and it was hilarious and again I say...perfect.
The last studio album that Joni Mitchell released was 2007's "Shine" and the title track, in my opinion, is one of the strongest, most eloquent and important songs in her astounding repertoire. The song is a prayer, a plea, a meditation, a poem and a hopeful incantation. I feel so strongly about "Shine" that I'm gonna share a bunch of lyrics.
Oh, let your little light shine
Shine, shine, shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on good humor
Shine on good will
Shine on lousy leadership
Licensed to kill
Shine on dying soldiers
In patriotic pain
Shine on mass destruction
In some God's name
Shine on the pioneers
Those seekers of mental health
They traveled inward
Let their little lights shine
May all their little lights shine
SHE SANG IT AT NEWPORT. When Carlile introduced the song I could have collapsed. Brandi took lead but Mitchell was right there, clear and strong. My shoulders shook. I don't know how I made it through the song without evaporating in some kind of mystical rapture. Somewhere in the clouds above Fort Adams there are molecules floating around with notes of "Shine" attached to them. Songs are like tattoos, lest we forget.
Three more songs to tell you about.
The next one requires a quick, personal context story.
On the last day of school when I was in either first of second grade there was an assembly and the teachers put on a variety show for us. One of my teachers, Mrs. McDougal (hope I'm spelling that right...it's been a minute) sang "Summertime" from George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." I had never heard anything like it before and I still remember it. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it a key moment of my childhood that made me into such a music lover. I swear to god. Since that say all those billions of years ago, that song has held a special place in my heart. In 1998 Herbie Hancock released the album "Gershwin's World" which includes "Summertime" with Mitchell on vocals. I didn't know about this until about 15 minutes ago. ANYWAY...Joni sang it at Newport.
I quietly sang along but also was suspended in a state of surreal wonder. What is happening? Joni Mitchell is singing "Summertime." I'VE COME FULL CIRCLE. And she didn't just sing it. SHE FUCKING SANG THE SHIT OUT OF IT. I'm watching and listening to the clip as I sit here and still can't believe it.
In May of 1969 I wasn't alive yet but Joni Mitchell released her "Clouds" album. On it is the song first made famous by Judy Collins, who, incidentally, is the person who brought Mitchell to Newport for the first time in 1967. "Both Sides Now" is just one of those songs. It's one that most of us never tire of. It's extraordinary and emotional EVERY SINGLE TIME.
I mean Christ, even on a good day that song can dismantle me. Every line of "Both Sides Now" is a work of art. Oh man, I am losing it again watching the clip from Sunday. The dizzy dancing way that I felt indeed was something that will always be with me. During the happiest moments and the ones where I'm clutching that cross and missing my mother badly.
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I've looked at life that way.
Oh Joni, Joni, Joni. What would we ever do without you?
I really don't know life at all but I do know this: Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Festival was the most significant moment of live music I've ever known, and honestly, I've had a lot of them. I'm lucky. But this. THIS. This is the kind of moment that explains to me why I sacrifice sleep to get to the fort at the crack of dawn and stand for hours to hold my sacred spot. It's why, over the years, I've gone to great lengths to see live music and to support the artists I love so dearly.
Music is everything. It's everything. And Joni Mitchell is at the very core of this.
But that's not all. There was one more song. Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell and a stage full of first rate musicians sent us home with a sing-along.
In 1970 Mitchell released "Ladies of the Canyon." It's one of those perfect albums. And it's home to "The Circle Game."
Before the song started there was a earth-shaking "Joni Joni Joni" chant. That happened.
And the seasons, they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go round and round and round, in the circle game
I couldn't help but sing along (quietly) as I stood there knowing that tomorrow would feel entirely different. (It sure did).
I am not the same person I was when I woke up on Sunday morning. Neither are my dear friends who were by me at that railing in Newport.
I have to tell you two more things that happened that night. Both I'll never quite get over because they were unreal.
As I said, my friends and I got there early and got spots front and center against the railing at the Fort stage. Point being is that it was a straight line between me and Joni. Last year I bought a blue cap with big yellow letters that say JONI on it. I LOVE it and only wear it on special occasions. Clearly this was one of them. Joni Mitchell spotted it and smiled at me and pointed it out. I smiled back. But then something else happened. I flashed her the "I LOVE YOU" hand symbol AND SHE DID IT BACK TO ME. I can't even... I really can't. I fully understand that Joni Mitchell is a human being just like the rest of us but understand that her music means the world to me and to have that brief moment with one my heroes meant the world to me, especially now.
The other thing that happened I am also in complete shock over.
Right when the show ended and I was still standing there (wondering what on earth I was going to do with the rest of my life) something entirely unexpected happened. A gentleman in a green shirt from the stage walked over to in front of where I was and pointed at me. Then he gently tossed me one of the candles AND THEN A SETLIST. I was speechless. I don't know who he was but if ever he sees this by some miracle I hope he knows how thankful I will always be for these absolute TREASURES.
And there it is. My humble offering of what it was like to bear witness to Joni Mitchell's first live performance in many, many years and her first time at Newport since 1969.
THANK YOU, Jay Sweet for making Newport Folk Festival what it is. You're a superstar.
THANK YOU, Brandi Carlile for everything you do to make the world a better place. From your music to your activism to the way you lift others up, you're a hero of mine. Truly.
THANK YOU, Joni Mitchell for the most remarkable night of my life. Your light is strong as is your heart and soul. Your words make my life better. If you ever decided to let at a low-impact, low maintenance music journalist into one of your Joni Jams, my schedule is instantly clear.
There is now only one name left on my bucket list.
Hey Kate Bush. Hi!!
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