Annie Zaleski for NPR / Published July 27, 2023 5:00 AM ET
When Joni Mitchell appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969, she was on the precipice of a breakthrough. Several months removed from releasing her second LP, Clouds, she landed a coveted Saturday night performance slot along with Arlo Guthrie. Bootlegs reveal a luminous performance driven by mellifluous vocals and aching acoustic guitar, and highlighted by a stunning piano version of “For Free.”
The trade magazine Cash Box complimented Mitchell’s set and astutely noted “she is on her way to becoming a star.” However, a review from the Hartford Courant noted that this burgeoning popularity came at a price: “Hecklers in the back” specifically “urged Miss Mitchell to sing ‘Circle Game’ over and over.” No doubt much to the dismay of these critics, Mitchell played the song to close out her set.
When Mitchell finally returned to the Newport Folk Festival on July 24, 2022, after a 53-year absence — a performance documented on the new live album At Newport — she also ended her set with “The Circle Game.” Decades later, however, the crowd responded to her presence uniformly positively — with awe, gratitude, excitement and even tears. Mitchell’s presence was a complete surprise, as she had retreated from the spotlight after a 2015 aneurysm; additionally, the Newport gig was her first full-length concert since 2000.
At Newport feels like a celebration of her public return — an exuberant and supportive performance resembling a well-rehearsed jam taking place at a party. Wearing a jaunty blue beret and sunglasses, her cornsilk-white hair tied into elegant pigtails, Mitchell sat on a plush, gold-trimmed chair as the performer of honor. On this night, she fronted a group of musical admirers in a sing-along of “The Circle Game,” taking lead vocal on the verses — timeless meditations on the little milestones that mark the passage of time — in a low, velvety voice. At the end of the song, Mitchell laughs and laughs merrily — clearly delighted to be back onstage surrounded by friends and music.
Mitchell’s Sunday night set at Newport had been advertised in advance as “Brandi Carlile + Friends.” This was technically true, as Carlile introduced the onstage hootenanny as a recreation of the invite-only Joni Jams — the recurring private gatherings in Mitchell’s Southern California living room where guests such as Carlile, Harry Styles, Dolly Parton and Chaka Khan came together for joyful, restorative singalongs. It was common knowledge that Mitchell also sang at these get-togethers, although it was never clear whether she’d ever sing in public again.
But At Newport isn’t just about welcoming Mitchell back to the stage — it’s also about showing Mitchell’s legacy in action and how younger generations of musicians carry forth her spirit of imagination and fearless reconfiguration. At various times, she’s joined by Lucius, Marcus Mumford on percussion, Wynonna Judd on backing vocals, Allison Russell on clarinet, Carlile’s collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth, and the band SistaStrings.
A gorgeous, sparse “Amelia” features prominent contributions from Blake Mills and Dawes‘ Taylor Goldsmith; buoyed by the crew of onstage vocalists, together the pair nail the searing guitar melodies and lyrical desolation. Guitarist Celisse Henderson, meanwhile, takes the vocal and instrumental spotlight on the standout “Help Me,” transforming it into a more languid, blues-oriented number with spacious arrangements. Vocally, her interpretation exudes sharp-edged anguish and longing, stretching out the song’s flirtatious lyrics (“I think I’m falling / In love with you / Are you going to let me go there by myself”) with delicious tension.
Carlile especially is her idol’s vocal shadow, a fitting position considering her history with Mitchell’s music; among other things, she’s booked full-concert cover performances of 1971’s Blue. On a rousing “Carey” here, Carlile takes the lead vocal, her warm, brassy tone giving her the air of a rousing storyteller, but then gets out of the way so Mitchell can have the last word: “I said, ‘Oh, you’re a mean old Daddy, but you’re out of sight.’ ” The gesture gives “Carey” the feel of a piece of family lore that’s passed down between generations.
In the digital age, live albums preserve the ephemeral
Artists release live albums for multiple reasons: contractual fulfillment, a desire to document a particular tour, historical myth-making, financial reasons, a gift to fans. Live albums can be a warts-and-all proposition, with all the rough edges and goofs left in. Other artists consider live albums to be aspirational, meaning they might polish up audio in the studio, adding everything from overdubs to fake applause (see: KISS’ Alive!). Some live albums are taken from one show; some are a composite culled from many shows (Donny Hathaway‘s Live; U2‘s Under a Blood Red Sky); others even have studio tracks (Duran Duran‘s Arena).
What these live albums have in common is they all create a narrative around an artist’s live performance, a tour or legacy. Some have live LPs that overshadow studio efforts (Peter Frampton‘s Frampton Comes Alive!), while the live shows of the Grateful Dead and Phish are like currency; they’re things to trade and analyze. Albums like Sam Cooke‘s belated release Live At the Harlem Square Club, 1963 and Jimi Hendrix‘s Jimi Plays Monterey become era-defining historical touchstones.
Compared to other artists, Mitchell has issued relatively few live albums, although the LPs she did release deliberately illuminate pivotal moments or bands in her career. On 1974’s double album Miles of Aisles, Mitchell performed with jazz-fusion band L.A. Express; despite coming after the release of Court and Spark, she de-emphasized that LP’s music. After the release of 1979’s Mingus, she released another double live album, 1980’s Shadows and Light, recorded with a band that included guitarist Pat Metheny and bassist Jaco Pastorius. In recent years, Mitchell has dipped back into her live archives for significant releases, highlighted by Amchitka, an October 1970 benefit concert with James Taylor and Phil Ochs that raised money for Greenpeace’s nuclear weapons test protests.
In the digital age, live albums function as a permanent historical archive that preserves the ephemeral. Fans thoroughly documented Mitchell’s Newport appearance in 2022 with videos and photos — meaning it’s easy to note how At Newport deviates from the concert: omitting two live covers (The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9” and Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”) and rearranging the concert audio into a different tracklist.
This shuffling ensures Mitchell plays a prominent role earlier on the album, as the kickoff song is now a buoyant version of “Big Yellow Taxi” that charmingly ends with her belting the indelible line, “… and put up a parking lot,” in triumph. Up next is the chills-inducing “A Case of You.” As the crowd cheers her on in support, Mitchell sings the line “I would still be on my feet” twice — first slightly tentatively, and then again with more firm conviction.
In concert, “Both Sides, Now” felt rife with significance as the penultimate song, a declaration of where Mitchell’s mindset was as she began this new musical chapter. Informed by life experience, her performance is reflective and tender, her voice wrinkled and worn like a comfortable blanket. Coming as the set was almost done, the song balanced wistfulness for the past with a determination to move forward (“Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day”) and a declaration that life still offered plenty of mystery (“I really don’t know life / I really don’t know life at all”). Now placed earlier in the album, at track five, its significance isn’t as much of a narrative plot device as it is simply another lovely moment.
For Joni Mitchell, the Newport Folk Festival represents the promise of a wide-open future
Of course, that At Newport rearranges the story is very in character for Joni. The tracklists and execution of her previous live albums illuminated that she’s not beholden to tradition. Perhaps her boldest moment here is her solo instrumental guitar version of “Just Like This Train.” Long known for her unorthodox guitar technique, Mitchell here fluidly strums out a meditative performance emphasizing a searing tone.
That Mitchell chose the Newport Folk Festival to mark a new stage in her career is poignant. Her debut appearance at the festival in 1967 — which came alongside a formidable group of her Canadian singer-songwriter peers, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot — was cited at the time as one of her first high-profile public appearances.
For her, the Newport Folk Festival represents the promise of a wide-open future where anything is possible. By her 1969 appearance, she had landed a record deal and released two albums, including her 1968 David Crosby-produced debut, Song to a Seagull. Decades later, she followed up her latest Newport gig with a larger-scale Joni Jam in 2023 at the Gorge that brought together even more musicians inspired by her music.
That Mitchell’s second act to date has been dominated by live performance is likely out of necessity. But it’s yet another exciting evolution in her notoriously chameleonic career. And, appropriately, Mitchell sounded strongest vocally while performing her signature cover of George and Ira Gershwin‘s “Summertime.” She teases out the lyrics as if she were in a dark jazz club, while Ben Lusher unleashes sprawling piano and Celisse Henderson layers on evocative, bluesy guitar riffs. The years melted away as Mitchell sang — clearing the way for whatever comes next.