Joni Mitchell surprises — and wows — with return to concert stage

by James Beaty
McAlester News-Capital
August 5, 2022

When listening to music, it's always special when you happen upon one of those magical moments that draws so many of us to the art form in the first place.

It can come in many ways: a sliver of a song heard while turning a radio dial; music streamed into a restaurant, or a live concert event.

I experienced one of those moments recently - watching a performance that left me stunned, from a singer/songwriter/musician who many people thought would never perform again. Although I witnessed it from afar through video, the result seemed as electric to me as it must have been to the music-lovers gathered around an outdoor stage on Sunday, July 25, at the famed Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.

I wonder what it must have felt like for fans gathered around the stage, who thought they were attending a tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell, to suddenly see and hear Joni herself in a surprise performance at the storied folk fest.

Then, I remembered Joni had surprised me once, too - showing up unexpectedly to perform a couple of songs at a Bob Dylan concert - so I could relate to the Newport fans' elation.

Prior to her surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Fest, Joni had not performed a full-length concert for the past 20 years. And she had largely stayed out of the spotlight following a brain aneurysm in 2015.

Her fans had a multitude of concerns after Joni had been found unconscious in her home. Would she survive? She did, although reports of her condition varied following the aneurysm.

Soon, there were more concerns.

Would she be able to talk? She could, although her friends said she struggled in the beginning.

Could she walk? That proved to be more of a challenge. In the years following her illness, when Joni was seen in public, she was sometimes in a wheelchair.

It seemed almost too much to hope that she could sing or play guitar again - but hope we did.

Even during the Kennedy Center honors last December, with Joni a featured honoree, she spent most of her time in a box seat. That in itself isn't unusual, since most honorees do so as others pay tribute to them, but she still appeared somewhat frail.

Anyone familiar with Joni's story though, knows she's a fighter. As a child, she survived the ravages of polio in her native Canada, where she was born Roberta Joan Anderson. She recovered, but the polio left her with some limitations, especially noticeable to Joni herself when she started to play guitar.

For beginning guitarists, mastering the F chord, which includes holding down both the first two strings with the index finger (unless you're playing it as a barre chord, which includes holding down all six strings with the index finger), is one of the first challenges. Since Joni had contracted polio, it proved especially difficult to her, which led to her learning and then creating her own alternate guitar tunings.

So Joni had already proven that she would not let physical limitations keep her from her desire to make music - and now, she's done it again.

I happened upon her Sunday performance at Newport by chance. While listening to YouTube the night following the festival, I glanced at the menu and saw a clip proclaiming "Joni Mitchell at Newport." For a few seconds I figured it was a clip of a vintage performance, then I saw it had been posted "1 day ago."

Wow, so Joni made it to the Newport Folk Festival, where she no doubt received a reception like a homecoming queen.

Then, I saw another clip headed '"Joni Mitchell performance at Newport" - and I immediately stopped what I was doing. Performance? Even her old friends like David Crosby, who had visited her during her recuperation, had not indicated much of a likelihood Joni would ever perform again.

As I looked closer, I saw the onstage assemblage had been billed Brandi Carlile and Friends. I knew that Carlile, a remarkable performer and singer-songwriter herself, has been a tireless champion of Joni's music over the past few years - even performing a concert singing and performing all the songs from Joni's remarkable album "Blue" in their entirety during concerts in Los Angeles and at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Still, this Newport thing looked to be something different.

As Carlile began a long introduction, I wondered if the clip had been mislabeled and this would be a tribute concert of Joni's songs performed by other artists.

But wait! Suddenly, Joni is being helped onstage, to a throne-like chair, next to another for Carlile. I see Wynonna Judd onstage, along with Marcus Mumford and a whole group of other musicians, including some from Carlile's own band. I wonder if this will be a performance where other singers will "carry" Joni by singing with her - and over her.

At first it sounds as if that might be the case, as the entire assemblage breaks into a zealous rendition of "Carey," Joni's ode to her former beau, Cary Raditz, who she lived with for a time in 1970 in a cave at Matala, on the Greek island of Crete. It's a favorite track from "Blue." How could I not love a song that opens with the lines "The wind is in from Africa. Last night, I couldn't sleep" and has a chorus of "Carey, you're a mean old daddy, but I like you."

I can hear Joni's voice here and there on the Newport stage, but it's often drowned out by others, and sometimes Carlile or one of the other singers take a solo line or two. Even so, It's great to hear Joni singing again. If that's all there is, I'm still thrilled.

But oh, that's not all. It turns out "Carey" was a warmup, of sorts. Soon, Joni is upfront vocally, singing her songs once more. Of course, she no longer sings in the lilting vocal style she had on her first albums of the late '60s and early '70s, but she'd already began moving on from that style as early as her "Blue" album and had truly transformed her vocal style by the time she recorded her album "Hejira" in 1976.

In 2000, Joni released an album comprised largely of standards from the '30s, '40s and '50s, although it did include a re-recording of her own songs "Both Sides Now" and "A Case of You" - albeit with 1940s-style arrangements. It also introduced her smoky, lower register, no doubt brought on by years of heavy cigarette smoking.

So it didn't surprise me when, at Newport, Joni settled back in her chair - throne? - and brought that smoky, soulful voice into play on George Gershwin's immortal standard "Summertime." Did I get goosebumps? Did the hair stand up on the back of my neck? If it didn't happen literally, it certainly did figuratively.

I and many others had despaired of ever hearing Joni sing again and here she is, totally solo, reaching deep into her psyche to deliver one of the most memorable renditions of "Summertime" I've ever heard.

It's not easy to relate why I so connected with the version. It has none of the vocal pyrotechnics Janis Joplin delivered on her take of the song with Big Brother and the Holding Company.

No, it's not only in the notes Joni delivers, but in the spaces around them, never hurrying, letting the song come to her, instead of rushing to meet it.

Ah Joni - you did it! You're doing it!

Not only did Joni sing, she stood up from her chair, strapped on an electric guitar, and played a chorded solo during her song, "Just Like This Train."

I recently read where a writer questioned whether certain aging rock artists should keep performing if they've passed the peak of their abilities. What a ridiculous concept!

Artists - whether singers, musicians, or some other purveyors of the arts - should have the freedom to keep creating as long as they feel they have something to give.

Judging from the rapturous faces both onstage and off during Joni's surprise set at the Newport Folk Festival, I'd say she still has lots to give.

Joni sang several songs she'd also performed during her first time at the Newport Folk Fest back in 1969, where she was introduced by Judy Collins as an up-and-coming songwriter. Collins was right, since Joni wrote Collins' big hit song, "Both Sides Now."

Joni had also performed another song during her 1969 Newport set that she sang again at her surprise July performance: "The Circle Game."

So here's a nod to Joni, Brandi and - as Joni's song says - to everyone who's helped her to keep "going round, and round and round in the circle game."

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link:

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