'Joni Mitchell at Newport' Is Nothing Short of Miraculous

BY Sam BoerPublished Jul 27, 2023

It sounds surreal, glorious: dozens of top-tier musicians from around the world packed into Joni Mitchell's Laurel Canyon living room. Some-fever dream supergroup, resting in ornate armchairs, sipping wine and singing to one another, with the legend herself singing and playing and listening along.

These were "Joni Jams," as Brandi Carlile explains in the introduction of Joni Mitchell at Newport: informal musical gatherings in Mitchell's home that served as playful social events as well as a way for Mitchell to perform again. Since her brain aneurysm in 2015, Mitchell had been re-learning how to play guitar (by watching old videos of herself!) and slowly strengthening her voice; these Joni Jams became part of this healing process. 

Mitchell's surprise set at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival attempted to capture the feeling of these cathartic get-togethers, gathering over 20 musicians of all genres, ages and backgrounds on a single stage, packed with instruments and adorned with cozy living room furniture. The resulting live album is celebratory, meandering, eclectic and unforgettable — as any good house party should be. It's a fascinating artifact of a profound cultural moment. Joni Mitchell at Newport captures the sound of Joni's cultural renaissance, the return of her voice (now a heart-wrenchingly raspy baritone), and the musical support of artists who adore her, shedding light on songs across her entire career rather than simply replaying the hits. And while Mitchell's albums famously overflow with divergent emotions ("Laughing and crying / You know it's the same release"), Joni Mitchell at Newport is triumphant in its emphasis on joy.

The sheer variety of musicians on stage for this festival performance is reason enough to give Joni Mitchell at Newport a listen. Brandi Carlile acts as bandleader and co-lead vocalist, trading off with Marcus Mumford on a righteous rendition of "Case of You" (between Carlile's delectable vocal play in the final chorus and Mitchell's tender, final "I'd still be on my feet," this song ushers in the goosebumps near-instantly). Powerhouse Celisse rocks a fast-and-loose arrangement of "Help Me" — the most experimental arrangement featured in the set — while Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith belts some gorgeous verses on "Amelia," joined by a tangled web of gorgeous, improvised harmonies from the likes of Lucius' Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. Blake Mills provides his distinctive guitar flourishes throughout, while pianist Ben Lusher (along with the support of strings and woodwinds, including Allison Russell) lays the foundation for the album's emotional zenith, "Both Sides Now" (one of a few tracks on this album that make you want to pause and return to the video, which allows you to fully take in the impact of this moment). 

The arrangements, even when clearly defined, carry a necessarily improvisational energy. After all, everything needs to come back to Mitchell, who is still miraculously sharp but benefits greatly from the support of the parade of musicians around her. While there are fleeting moments that feel busy, distracting, or even obnoxious (at the end of a shimmering rendition of "Shine," Carlile sings "we're not gonna resolve it, 'cause Joni would never resolve it," deflating the song's hypnotic outro), these moments are always balanced out with beautiful vocal lines, rhythmic flourishes, or — best of all — Mitchell's infectious laughter. It feels ridiculous to pick over the arrangements of these performances when you feel Mitchell's happiness, and remember that this is all a small miracle: Mitchell's existence, this performance, these songs.

Hearing this album, and thinking about the legacy of this woman, it's astounding that Joni Mitchell became Joni Mitchell: this precocious artist born in Fort Macleod, AB; this tiny dancer who overcame polio; this uncompromising individual who set all the fashion trends at her high school; this fledgling musician and painter who gave up a child and parted ways with a husband on the path to New York City coffee houses; this young woman who sang so high, laughed so free and told her truth with such genius and feeling that listening to any Joni Mitchell song feels like hearing your own truth. Joni Mitchell at Newport is a reminder of the way Mitchell lives, and the way her music compels us to live — honestly. 

Mitchell once described freedom as the "luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart." She's followed that path; Joni Mitchell at Newport is her victory lap. 

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