Joni Mitchell sings and steals the show with a surprise concert at the Newport Folk Festival: NPR

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A woman who believed in the music of a young Joni Mitchell first brought her to the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, and another brought the 78-year-old legend back for a historic set to close the Rhode Island festival this year. The first was Judy Collins, who invited a then-unknown Mitchell to join an afternoon celebrating folk music’s up-and-coming singer-songwriters, alongside other future icons like Leonard Cohen. Sunday night, Brandi Carlile was the force behind Mitchell’s return to the stage. The crowd was thrilled when the voice behind classics like “Both Sides Now” graced Fort Adams for the first time since a nightly appearance in 1969, in what was his first full public concert since 2000.

Carlile has worked diligently to secure Mitchell’s place at the center of popular music history over the past five years, performing tribute concerts, writing liner notes for the elder singer’s archive series and becoming a loyal friend of Mitchell, who spent years recovering from a 2015 brain aneurysm. The Newport set was a new highlight in their ongoing personal and artistic collaboration. Presented as Brandi Carlile and Friends, it went from a celebration of support for a beloved elder to an actual Joni Mitchell concert.

The evening began with Carlile urging the crowd to believe in the power of folk music and the community it creates. Members of his entourage entered and formed a phalanx around a Louis XIV-style chair arranged as a throne. Guests included bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth and Celisse Henderson, and friends Allison Russell, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius, Blake Mills, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford and Wynonna Judd.

The historic setlist for Joni Mitchell’s return to the stage – and the Newport Folk Festival.

Jay Sweet / Courtesy of Newport Folk Festival


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Jay Sweet / Courtesy of Newport Folk Festival


The historic setlist for Joni Mitchell’s return to the stage – and the Newport Folk Festival.

Jay Sweet / Courtesy of Newport Folk Festival

“This scene will now forever be known as Joni jam!” Carlile said, referring to the much-discussed informal evenings she and other high-profile musicians shared at Mitchell’s Los Angeles home as the eldest singer found her way back to performing.

Finally, Carlile announced the arrival of Mitchell on the front of the stage. She took her place in this cathedra, dressed in sparkling pearls, a beret and a gray satin trouser suit. The ensemble began as a singing group with “Carey”, the beloved game of Blue. The stars on stage supported Mitchell, who only took a few solo lines. But soon, befitting a woman known for her strength of will, Mitchell fully claimed her place at the center of the evening.

The set covered most of Mitchell’s career, including his greatest hits – like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Amelia” and “Help Me”, which featured Celisse in a thrilling twist – alongside the 1990s favorites “Shine” and “Come in From the Cold.” ‘, and chestnuts like ‘Love Potion No. 9’. Charming audiences with stories of her many musical adventures, Mitchell was relaxed and enjoyed her ecstatic response.

When she turned to Gershwin’s classic “Summertime” — some insiders say one of the first songs she covered while recovering from her illness — Mitchell sounded a bit like Nina Simone, or to his longtime heroine Annie Ross in Robert Altman’s Shortcuts. It wasn’t the first new Joni to emerge in the 21st century. Two decades ago, Mitchell surprised fans with a low register made evocatively dark by years of smoking. Here’s another telling voice, showing the scars of her recent health issues and her determination to recover, stunning in her honesty.

As the numerous clips that quickly surfaced on social media showed, the sense of phrasing and the way Mitchell draws inspiration from jazz remain intact. She spoke of driving across the country in a ‘bad Mercedes’ on a trip that inspired her mid-1970s classic Hegiraand meeting fellow jazz-folk innovator Tim Hardin in a hotel lobby with the Persuasions, the a capella group she enlisted for her Shadows and Lights Tour. But the crowd screamed the loudest every time she sang – and especially when she attached an electric guitar and performed a long interlude as part of Court and sparkis “Like this train”.

The set ended with “The Circle Game,” one of the songs Mitchell had sung 55 years ago that afternoon, securing her an explosive nova spot in the folk firmament. Old fans in the crowd were surely pinching each other at the time; new ones swooped in ready to explore Mitchell’s vast catalog. “Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Fest, I think it changed my life”, a young convert tweeted. His words have resonated through the decades, resonating with those of anyone who has felt this before.

NPR’s Anya Grundmann, senior vice president for programming and audience development, was in the crowd on Sunday and shared details from the pitch that informed this report.

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