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Joni Mitchell ‘At Newport’: A Track-by-track Guide To The Legendary Comeback Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell’s ‘At Newport’ album documents her surprise return to live performance in 2022. This track-by-track reveals what happened.

by Jason Draper
Dig!
July 2, 2023

Photo: Nina Westervelt

When Joni Mitchell took to the stage at Newport Folk Festival on 24 July 2022, it marked the first time in over 20 years that the legendary singer-songwriter had performed a full concert. Bringing to an end a lengthy hiatus, during which Mitchell had battled with health issues including a life-threatening brain aneurysm, the gig - her first Newport Folk Festival appearance since 1969 - was a celebration of the decades-spanning legacy of one of the best songwriters in music history. Recorded and released, on 28 July 2023, as the live album At Newport, it is now also a crucial addition to a body of work that remains as viscerally impactful as ever - as this track-by-track run-down of At Newport attests.

In the years leading up to Joni Mitchell's Newport Folk Festival appearance, informal gatherings of like-minded artists, known as "Joni Jams" and held in the living room of Mitchell's home in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, had become an almost mythical part of the Mitchell legend. News of their taking place gave fans hope that the singer was returning to full health, even if a public performance seemed too much to ask for.

INTRODUCING JONI MITCHELL: "WHO'S GONNA CRACK AN INAPPROPRIATE JOKE AT JUST THE RIGHT TIME?"

In introducing what the Newport Folk Festival organisers had billed as "Brandi Carlile & Friends", "Joni Jams" ringleader and Mitchell confidant Carlile set the scene of a typical get-together for the Newport audience: Mitchell's pets, including Bootsy the cat, are roaming free; there are orchids "everywhere"; the bathroom is behind a hidden door which has cats painted on it. And there are some ground rules, too: "If you try and pass Joni a joint, Marcy [Gensic, Mitchell's longtime friend and associate] is gonna kick your ass," Carlile joked. Yet, after introducing the band, christened "Joni Jam Players" for the night, she readily admitted, "Newport is a long way from Laurel Canyon, and I'm so sorry about that. So I know this doesn't feel complete. And it's because it's not.

"Who's gonna crack an inappropriate joke at just the right time? Or give that slow nod of approval with mischief in their eyes when someone gets it just right?", Carlile continued. "How are we gonna have a 'Joni Jam' without our queen?"

How Mitchell's appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival was kept a secret until this moment still beggars belief, but the crowd reaction to Carlile's next words - "We're not!" - proves just how surprising - and thrilling - the legendary icon's return to stage was. She received a hero's welcome - and, as this At Newport track-by-track proves, she deserved absolutely nothing less. And, yes, the "Joni Jam" queen did sit on a throne throughout...

JONI MITCHELL 'AT NEWPORT' TRACK-BY-TRACK: A GUIDE TO EVERY SONG

BIG YELLOW TAXI

The peal of laughter heard at the end of the original Big Yellow Taxi, which Mitchell released on her 1970 album, Ladies Of The Canyon, is echoed at the start of this Newport rendition, Mitchell letting out one of her unmistakable giggles, expressing her delight at being back on stage. As her first ever hit, Big Yellow Taxi is the perfect opening song for the At Newport set and Mitchell's reintroduction to live performance; Mumford & Sons' Marcus Mumford and session ace Matt Chamberlain deftly recreate the song's signature percussion breaks, and the ensemble of backing vocalists, including country icons Wynonna Judd and Shooter Jennings, do full justice to the self-harmonising Mitchell had mastered on record in the early 70s. One of the first eco anthems ("They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot", "Hey, farmer, farmer/Put away the DDT now"), Big Yellow Taxi remains just as relevant now as it was five decades ago, Mitchell herself updating the verse about a "tree museum" to reflect the current era's wealth gap: "And they charged all the people/An arm and a leg just to see 'em."

A CASE OF YOU

With wonderfully evocative piano from Ben Lusher, the At Newport performance of A Case Of You, one of Mitchell's Blue album[] classics, makes the Newport Folk Festival feel as intimate as the bar the song is set in. At first, Brandi Carlile takes the lead vocal; when Mitchell's lower voice settles in behind, it creates an uncanny time-slip on this ode to soul-deep love, as if the older Mitchell is reflecting on her younger self's reflections. Taking over during the second chorus, Mitchell delivers the lines "And I would still be on my feet/I would still be on my feet" with equal parts poignancy and defiance; by the end of the song, both band and audience are in raptures.

AMELIA

Before the performing Amelia, Mitchell names her 1976 album, Hejira, for which the song was originally recorded, as one of her favourites, explaining, "I liked the writing on it, you know? And I liked the scenes that it brought up, in terms of memories." After going on to reveal that a cross-country road trip inspired the album's songs, she defines "hejira" as "an Arab word that meant 'Muhammed leaving Mecca'... it's like the opposite of AWOL. It's running away from something but without blame. With honour." Taylor Goldsmith, the frontman of LA folk-rock band Dawes, acquits himself honourably on lead vocals here, while Blake Mills (Bob Dylan, Laura Marling, Weyes Blood) delivers the winding guitar lines that carry Mitchell's protagonist over "burning desert" to the Cactus Tree Motel.

Mitchell once told the Los Angeles Times that Amelia was written with pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart in mind, and that she imagined she was "addressing it from one solo pilot to another... sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do". As performed on At Newport, the song makes it clear that Mitchell, who had overcome unbelievable health struggles in order to be able to return to the stage, still felt that compulsion to do what felt she must.

BOTH SIDES, NOW

Mitchell was a preternaturally gifted 24-year-old when she wrote Both Sides, Now, which originally became a hit for Judy Collins before Mitchell released her own version, on her second solo album, 1969's Clouds. A revelatory revisit came three decades later, when Mitchell re-recorded the song with an orchestra, for her Grammy-winning 2000 album, Both Sides Now, and it's this latter-day arrangement that informs the At Newport rendition. Piano, guitar and cello take the song at a stately pace, but, as with that later recording, it's Mitchell's aged voice that steals the show, infusing such lines as "So many things I would have done/But clouds got in my way" with pathos and all the accrued wisdom of the passing years. Footage from the Newport Folk Festival performance shows her bandmates moved to tears, though Mitchell, relishing her time on stage, breaks out into gentle laughter at the end - a testament to how the best Joni Mitchell songs can elicit a wide range of emotional responses, joy not being the least of them.

JUST LIKE THIS TRAIN

Throughout her career, Joni Mitchell has been known for tuning her guitar to irregular tunings, not only to serve the new music she wanted to write but also to force herself to learn how to play her songs in different ways, so as to avoid complacency. After suffering her brain aneurysm in 2015, however, Mitchell had to relearn how to play the guitar from scratch, using online video tutorials as a guide. Speaking to CBS Mornings ahead of her At Newport performance, she described the experience as "going back to infancy, almost". It's impossible to believe that's the case when she takes centre-stage for Just Like This Train. Originally recorded with lyrics, this pick from Mitchell's 1974 album, Court And Spark, is here presented as an instrumental, a commanding Mitchell playing runs that conjure the intricacies of her mid-70s excursions into jazz-rock. Carlile introduces the spot with a supportive, "Kick ass, Joni Mitchell." On this evidence, Mitchell needed no encouragement.

SUMMERTIME

Mitchell's jazz credentials are again to the fore on Summertime, the George Gershwin-penned Great American Songbook standard that has long been a favourite of the Canadian songwriter. Weaving her voice around Ben Lusher's piano and John Neumann's cello, Mitchell proves herself to be as nuanced an interpreter as any great jazz singer. Wordless vocal support from the "Joni Jam Players" adds an elegiac quality to this jazz evergreen.

CAREY

As on the Blue album, the unmistakable sound of a dulcimer - here provided by Tim Hanseroth - powers Carey, on which Brandi Carlile takes lead vocals, summoning the carefree lifestyle Mitchell lived during her early-70s sojourn in Matala, Crete. It is, however, an effervescent Mitchell that delivers the song's final lines, "Oh, you're a mean old Daddy/But you're out of sight," to cheers from the audience.

"Does it look the same as it did in 1969?", Carlile asks at the end of the song, referring to Mitchell's previous Newport Folk Festival appearance, over half a century earlier. "Yeah!" Mitchell laughs, before adding, perhaps in a playful nod to her longtime friend, fan and 1999 hitmaker Prince, "Let's sing it like it's 1969."

HELP ME

Taking Mitchell's hit 1974 single Help Me as a near-solo piece, Oakland-born songwriter and guitarist Celisse delivers a standout turn on At Newport. The stripped-back arrangement, centred around Celisse's raw, bluesy guitar, offers a fresh spin on the lushly recorded original, and honours Mitchell's approach to reworking her own material. Evidence not only of how younger generations of artists still regard Mitchell as one of the most influential musicians of all time, but also of how, through her "Joni Jams", Mitchell has given up-and-coming talent a space to develop their own creativity, this performance is one of the highlights of a concert that simply delivers with each song.

COME IN FROM THE COLD

Much of Joni Mitchell's At Newport setlist focuses on her career-making 70s output, but this mature rumination on desire, from Mitchell's 1991 album, Night Ride Home, is a reminder that she continued to make heart-stopping music at every stage of her career. Taylor Goldsmith is back on lead vocals, while subtle trumpet and textured guitars provide a sympathetic soundbed over which Mitchell and the rest of the "Joni Jam Players" masterfully recreate the original's overlapping vocal parts. Underscoring Mitchell's determination to keep evolving as an artist, this late-period pick makes for a moment like no other in her Newport Folk Festival comeback.

SHINE

The title track of Mitchell's last studio album to date, Shine is a hymnal number which Mitchell herself has described as being "reminiscent of that old Sunday School song about letting your light shine". Placed towards the end of her At Newport set, its cyclical structure and continued invocations ("Shine on the dazzling darkness that restores us in deep sleep/Shine on what we throw away and what we keep") acts as both a giving of thanks and a cry for inclusivity, Mitchell and Carlile fostering a truly communal feeling as they wend their voices around each other on their way towards the finale of this Newport Folk Festival performance. "Joni, you have always let your light shine," Carlile sings. The "Joni Jam Players" affirm the sentiment with gospel fervency.

THE CIRCLE GAME

From the moment she wrote it, in 1966, Mitchell performed The Circle Game as a singalong, and when she encourages the Newport Folk Festival audience to join in with her, it's like she's back on the mid-60s coffee-house scene, leading the crowd in thanksgiving - not just for the current moment, but for all the moments that have passed, and for those still to come. Mitchell has explained how she wrote The Circle Game as an optimistic counter to Neil Young's disconsolate Sugar Mountain, and, much like Both Sides, Now, from this vantage such lines as "We can't return, we can only look/Behind from where we came" take on new hues while sung by Mitchell at this stage of her life. Knowing the challenges she faced to get here, the message of hope remains just as affecting.

Or, as a gleeful Mitchell declares at the end of At Newport: "Whoo! So fun!"

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Added to Library on October 21, 2023. (999)

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