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After 23 years, Joni Mitchell, the icon, returns. Somehow, she’s more electric than ever Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell played her first full concert, Joni Jam, in more than two decades on Saturday to rapturous response.

by Leanne Delap
Toronto Star
June 13, 2023

Joni Mitchell performs in concert during "Joni Jam," her first full concert in 30 years. GARY MILLER/GETTY IMAGES

Joni Mitchell returned to the stage on Saturday night at the Gorge in Washington state, with a three-hour set called Joni Jam punctuated by Mitchell playing her Parker Fly electric guitar.

It had been 23 years since her last ticketed concert and eight years since a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015 sidelined the 79-year-old Canadian superstar. Some 27,000 people came in pilgrimage from all over the world to welcome her back. A poet even on the fly, Mitchell called the panorama of their cellphone lights greeting her a constellation.

We have always accepted male musicians aging onstage - Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the exact same age of 79 - but female performers (with a notable exception being Dolly Parton, 77) are often pastured earlier.

Mitchell, born in Fort Macleod, Alta., and raised in Saskatoon, knows from pastures and she isn't ready for one yet. The New York Times reported that Mitchell's "androgynous, omniscient voice like a wise benevolent god" had grown "stronger, richer and nimbler" since a surprise miniset at last summer's Newport Folk Festival. v Championed and hosted by Brandi Carlile, the Gorge event was a long-form public version of the jam sessions Mitchell holds in her living room. Guest stars Annie Lennox and Sarah McLachlan sang covers to Mitchell, and Carlile had assembled a group of backup musicians including contemporary stars Marcus Mumford, Taylor Dawes Goldsmith and longtime Mitchell trumpeter Mark Isham.

Singer, songwriter, musician, poet, producer and social justice advocate, Mitchell was always a trailblazer. She held her own alongside the (overwhelmingly male) folk and rock gods from the 1960s, but many feel she never quite got her due respect for the vast and influential body of her work, including some 21 studio and live albums, plus a slew of compilation and tribute discs. She was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1981 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the U.S. in 1997, and received a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2002, but it's only in recent years that she has been feted with cultural high-water marks such as the Kennedy Center Honors.

It's almost as if with Mitchell, we didn't know what we got till it was almost gone with her health scare eight years ago and the long road of physical recovery. Pitchfork described the phenomenon of "a culture that has received her more rapturously, with more reverence and affection, with each passing year."

Mitchell had to fight to get back into this level of showmanship, including relearning how to play the guitar, so this was a triumphant riff with many deeper meanings. Today, the stylistic range of musicians - and the age range of fans in the crowd - show how Mitchell's lyrics, music and charisma transcend traditional demographic boundaries. She is equally fluent in rock and folk and jazz, and that electric guitar splash was yet another flash of defiant brio.

Mitchell told the crowd, "You are stardust and golden," in reference to her seminal 1969 track "Woodstock." But really, in the minds of fans everywhere, she was speaking about herself.

The night ended with Mitchell performing a cover of Frank Sinatra's "Young at Heart." Mitchell's nuanced phrasing turned the saccharine words ("Fairytales can come true/It can happen to you") inside out to become a wise and wry statement of her resilience and the reclamation of her place in the musical canon

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Added to Library on June 14, 2023. (1553)

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