It was 1967 when Joni Mitchell, still a new face in the burgeoning Laurel Canyon folk scene, first stepped onstage at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Last weekend, nearly 55 years after that moment cemented Mitchell as a star, the now-78-year-old icon blessed the crowd at this year’s event with a surprise show. The set marked both Mitchell’s first visit to Newport since 1969 and her first full-length concert anywhere since 2000.
The concert, initially billed as “Brandi Carlile & Friends,” also featured Carlile, her bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth and Celisse Henderson, and friends and collaborators Allison Russell, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, Blake Mills, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, and Wynonna Judd. But per NPR, the folk festival’s closing set quickly expanded from a group tribute into a “bona fide Joni Mitchell concert.”
Carlile has long been a close colleague of Mitchell’s, transforming from a loyal admirer of Mitchell’s trailblazing work to a stalwart supporter of the singer’s continued recovery following a 2015 brain aneurysm. Carlile and other top-shelf folk and rock artists were known to join Mitchell in her Los Angeles apartment while she recovered, sharing round-table music sessions and intimate conversation that Carlile christened “the Joni jam.”
Mitchell’s set, which included 13 songs, provided a healthy span of her career, mining classics like “Both Sides Now,” “A Case Of You,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” while also covering other historic standards like George Gershwin’s “Summertime” (according to some close to her, one of the first songs Mitchell learned while beginning recovery from her aneurysm). At one point, Mitchell even strapped on an electric guitar for a roaring interlude on Spark’s “Just Like This Train,” to the revelatory delight of the crowd. Mitchell closed the set out with “The Circle Game,” which she also performed at her first-ever Newport show.
Not only did Mitchell’s performance reflect how far she’s come in her recovery as a vocalist, it reflected her healing as an individual. Wearing her white-blonde hair in two long ponytails and carrying a skull-capped cane, Mitchell peppered her performance with anecdotes from her long, illustrious life, from meeting The Persuasions in a hotel lobby to traveling across the U.S. in a “bad Mercedes.” Although so much has changed since the last time Mitchell graced the folk festival, her luminous capabilities as a storyteller remain more than intact.