It doesn’t require much close listening to identify the exact moment the audience at 2022’s Newport Folk Festival realise Joni Mitchell is among them. Not a hologram, not a satellite link, but the real thing, centre-stage on a chair (throne, more accurately). Initially, there is exuberant applause as MC Brandi Carlile explains how she and her collaborative throng (Wynonna Judd, Marcus Mumford and Blake Mills among them) are about to recreate a “Joni Jam” – those all-star musical soirées at Mitchell’s Californian home that became part of her recovery after an aneurysm in 2015. “How are we going to have a Joni Jam without our queen?” teases Carlile. “We’re not.” The cheering slides off the scale.
That Mitchell would perform again once seemed too much to ask, and her appearance at Newport – where she last played in 1969 – felt like a flash of magic. And considering the unseemly jostle it might have triggered, it’s executed with real care and grace. There are, inevitably, moments when you wish it was all Mitchell, all the time – that there was more of her beautifully grained voice on Night Ride Home’s Come In From The Cold or Hejira’s Amelia – but the musicians are there to frame and reflect as much as support. When she does break through – the last mike-drop “and put up a parking lot” on a jubilant Big Yellow Taxi, Carey’s final “but you’re out of sight” – it’s all the more affecting.
“Both Sides Now invites you to count its rings, count every shift in meaning over the course of a life.”
Yet it’s no surprise Mitchell’s presence is undimmable, not least when she plays the tensile guitar solo on Court And Spark’s Just Like This Train. If everyone else is awash with poignancy, she is instead laughing delightedly, or robustly explaining how Hejira was written on a road-trip made without a driving licence in a second-hand Mercedes, tailgating truckers “because they always signal when there’s cops ahead.”
It’s when she takes full control, however, that the awed hush really descends. Gershwin’s Summertime unfolds with slight autumn chill in her wonderful phrasing; Both Sides, Now invites you to count its rings, count every shift in meaning over the course of a life. The closing “singalong” of The Circle Game, meanwhile, makes the “carousel of time” something to be wondered at, not feared. The years don’t fall away – you feel every one – but this recording shows just what a beautiful thing that can be.
At Newport is out now, via Rhino
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