Not since a brain aneurysm nearly took her life has Joni Mitchell performed a full-length concert on stage before a live audience. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when Brandi Carlile brought the 78-year-old songstress out to join her at the 63rd annual Newport Folk Festival during her aptly named set, "Brandi Carlile and Friends."
"This scene shall be forever known henceforth as the Joni Jam!" Carlile declared, to the thunderous acclamation of thousands of attendees, as Mitchell was helped onto a gilded antique chair. It was her first time at the festival since her debut in 1967, when the then-23-year-old Mitchell was only an up-and-comer.
Alongside the singer-songwriters were Carlile's bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth and Celisse Henderson; Allison Russell, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius; and other friends and collaborators like Blake Mills, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, and Wynonna Judd. The 13-song setlist included many of Mitchell's classics, including "Case of You," "Big Yellow Taxi," and much to the chagrin of my tear ducts, "Both Sides Now," which reduced concert-goers, everyone on the internet and Judd (who was seated behind Mitchell) to sobs. At one point, Judd pulled a compact out of her shirt to touch up her eye makeup right there on stage. Mercifully, Mitchell didn't play "The Last Time I Saw Richard," otherwise the festival would have had to install an on-site therapist.
Mitchell's appearance - in which she also played the guitar, a skill she was forced to re-learn following her 2015 aneurysm - was the latest in Carlile's history of bringing surprise guests to the Newport Folk Festival. In 2019, she was charged with curating a one-hour, female-only set that Rolling Stone called "the Brandi Carlile Variety Show" that felt like an attempt to summon some of the forgotten magic of Lilith Fair. The set featured Dolly Parton, Linda Perry, and Sheryl Crow singing "9-5," and the Highwomen (the band Carlile founded with Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires) singing a medley of Parton's classics: "Eagle When She Flies," "Just Because I'm a Woman," "Jolene," and "I Will Always Love You."
(In case you need more proof that Carlile has a knack for gatherings like this, look no further than Girls Just Wanna Weekend, her all-inclusive concert experience in Mexico that boasts an entirely female lineup.)
In her introduction, Carlile borrowed a bit of inspiration from a series of informal gatherings Mitchell herself organized. "Joni Jams" has convened preeminent musicians - from Elton John to Mavis Staples to Maggie Rogers - into Mitchell's home for the sole purpose of, well, jamming together. As Carlile revealed to Apple Music's Zane Lowe, since her aneurysm, Mitchell has gotten "people together in the living room and around instruments," while she drinks Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, which goes for a whopping $21.97 per bottle.
"Joni hasn't always felt the appreciation that exists amongst humanity for her," Carlile told CBS on Monday, following the folk festival performance. "And I wanted her to feel that."
Thank you, Brandi Carlile. And welcome back, Joni Mitchell. Please stay forever.
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