EDMONTON - The spark of a little hippie nostalgia turned Joni Mitchell's homecoming party Thursday night into a virtual love-fest.
About six thousand ecstatic baby boomers spread out on blankets over a gentle sloping hillside to see the Alberta born icon close out the opening day of the Edmonton Folk Festival.
They applauded warmly as the 50-year old songstress walked on stage in a breezy blue outfit and leather sandals, her long, straight hair blowing in the gentle wind.
Mitchell's material was mostly new, but the mood was familiar as she sang and mused on a variety socio-political subjects.
Racism, child abuse, the environment -all were addressed in an hour- long set centering on songs from her new album due out this fall called Turbulent Indigo.
Matters even more topical came up, as Mitchell lectured the crowd on domestic abuse.
"One of every two women in North America is raped" she advised. "I'm not a feminist-believe me, I've been with the boys all my life. But it makes you wonder if it was always that way or is something accelerating?
"That O.J. (Simpson) should come up in the middle of this kind of Symbolic."
Mitchell doesn't perform in concert much anymore-Thursday's was only her third gig in five years. At her last one, she shared a stage with Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi and 150 chanting monks at a Buddhist shrine in Nara, Japan.
But she seemed totally at home, making the expansive setting seem intimate and comfortable.
"Thank you, Edmonton for your warmth, your beautiful vista and your cycling trails," she purred to the crowd. "The Prairies are very beautiful and we're very fortunate to have spent some time here."
Born in Fort Macleod in southern Alberta, Mitchell has maintained strong ties to Canada throughout her career. She owns a home in northern British Colombia and last year returned to Saskatoon, where she grew up, to pick up a lifetime achievement award.
Signing Mitchell was a coup for the 15 year-old festival, which runs to Sunday.
"We are set to take in $500,000' said festival director Terry Wickham. "We've never broken $400,000 before. It'll be the largest box office of any arts festival in the history of Alberta."
Wickham saw Mitchell perform earlier this year at a Los Angeles concert celebrating the Troubadour club, a famous folk showcase of the 60s, and became obsessed with luring her to Edmonton.
"We needed to attract more headliners to develop a sense of anticipation," he said. "Joni Mitchell has that star quality."
So does Irish soulster Van Morrison, who was rumored for months to be Wickham's second major score. However, that deal fell through.