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Joni Mitchell review – first headline show in two decades is three hours of total joy Print-ready version

by Matthew Cantor
The Guardian
April 11, 2023

Joni Mitchell performing at Gorge Amphitheatre. Photograph: Gary Miller/Getty Images

Many thought she might never play live again after an aneurysm, but Mitchell is in lively, fun-filled form at this all-star return in rural Washington state

Just a few years ago, the idea of a Joni Mitchell concert in 2023 seemed like an impossibility. The singer-songwriter hadn't headlined a concert in more than a decade when, in 2015, she survived a brain aneurysm and lost the ability to walk and talk.

But seven years later - after what her friend Brandi Carlile called a "magical transformation" - she took the stage again in a surprise performance at the Newport folk festival, joined by Carlile and other musicians. Afterwards, according to Carlile, "Joni said, 'I want to do another show.'"

And so, on Saturday evening in rural Washington state, Mitchell played her first headline show in 23 years. The venue was the Gorge Amphitheatre, a stunning venue whose stage is set against a backdrop of dramatic cliffs overlooking the Columbia River. For the Joni devotees in attendance, reaching this natural cathedral - nearly three hours' drive from Seattle - required a pilgrimage of sorts. But that was no obstacle.

Among the younger attenders in a crowd that spanned the generations was Sasha Wachtel, who had come from Los Angeles. Mitchell "has been my main and pretty much only musical hero for many, many years", she said. "I just remember listening to Hejira when I was driving across the country when I was 21 and realising what the songs were about, the incredible depth of the songwriting and the layers of meaning ... and just thinking: the woman's a fucking genius."

Dennis Brice travelled from Philadelphia for the show, where he was joined by his brother, Paul, who had flown from London. Brice, a priest, had seen Mitchell before - at the Newport folk festival in 1969 - and now he was celebrating his 75th birthday. "Joni was often in our sermons, because of the way she's interfaced with culture and thinking and life: 'I've looked at life from both sides now, win or lose, I still don't know anything,'" he said, paraphrasing her 1969 song Both Sides, Now.

Barbara Olson, 61, had travelled from Florida. "When I think about what she's been through - she's learned to walk three times in her life," Olson said. "If she sings 'I've looked at life from both sides now' tonight, I am going to lay on the ground, and then I can die."

Given the lofty place she occupies in the minds of her listeners, this comeback performance might have been a stately and solemn affair - but Mitchell herself, who beams as she takes the stage and appears slightly tickled by the admiration, ensured that it wasn't.

The concert is part of Carlile's weekend festival at the Gorge. Mitchell's performance, as Carlile explained, is modelled after the "Joni Jams" Mitchell hosts at her LA home, where musicians from Paul McCartney to Chaka Khan to Harry Styles routinely gather. The intent on Saturday, Carlile told the audience of 27,000, is to "invite you into the living room". Thus the stage is set with a bottle of pinot grigio, a table topped with framed pet photos, and an array of couches and chairs occupied by a band full of musical luminaries, including Annie Lennox, Sarah McLachlan and Marcus Mumford.

Carlile acts as a sort of informal MC while Mitchell, seated at the front and carrying a cane adorned with a small bear's head, plays the role of storyteller during a remarkable three-hour performance. With her vocal range far more limited than it once was, her singing feels conversational, as though she is relaying wisdom gained from her 79 years. Though the stories her songs told were all true, "they're not all my stories," she says.

She also tells tales from her career. The last time she was at the Gorge, she said, she'd been touring with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison and forgotten the words to a verse of Dylan's, so she made one up. Morrison thought that was rude, but Mitchell disagreed - Dylan loved it, she says. "There's nothing he likes better than to see me fuck up."

While Mitchell's range is smaller, her voice hasn't lost its power - nor her familiar slow vibrato. This is on particular display in songs like Both Sides, Now and Gershwin's Summertime, which she sings mostly solo, with instrumental accompaniment. Other songs feature Mitchell and fellow performers sharing the lead vocals, sometimes in unison, sometimes crossing over each other, slightly out of sync. This brings an improvisational liveliness to songs including A Case of You, which receives a standing ovation from the audience and the performers alike.

Her own performances are interspersed with covers of Mitchell songs by others on stage, often prefaced by short speeches describing what her music meant to them. "You're such a visionary, such a legend, such an inspiration to all of us on the stage and everyone out there," Lennox says before singing Ladies of the Canyon, which she describes as the song that inspired her career. Another is a potent rendition of Help Me, performed by the singer and guitarist Celisse, whom Mitchell calls "the lady Jimi Hendrix".

Despite the heavy praise back and forth, Mitchell's performance feels ego-free. She laughs and cracks jokes between songs and further extols the virtues of her fellow performers, never seeming to take the evening too seriously. That sets the tone for a joyful show, though the momentousness of the occasion leaves more than a few audience members - and even some on stage - tearful.

For the encore, Mitchell picks up a guitar. It is surreal to see a legend who had barely been able to speak a few years earlier perform virtually solo, accompanying herself as she sang her song If, which she describes as one of her favourites.

The lyrics offer hope to the listener, "if you can draw a crowd and keep your virtue." As tens of thousands celebrate her, Mitchell - whose wide appeal over the decades has never inhibited her consummate artistry - might have been singing about herself.

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Added to Library on June 11, 2023. (1215)

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