Joni Mitchell Delights World With Return To Stage At Newport Folk Festival

Joni Mitchell performs with Brandi Carlile during the 2022 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 24, 2022 in Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images)

Just catching a televised public appearance from Joni Mitchell in recent years has been cause for celebration as the iconic singer/songwriter had to relearn how to speak and walk after suffering a debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015. This week, Mitchell thrilled fans by taking part in a surprise performance at Newport Folk Festival during the July 24 set billed as “Brandi Carlile and Friends.”

Even before her health setback Mitchell had retired decades ago – as her website points out, “The last time Joni performed with guitar in hand in front of a paying audience was 8,660 days ago, on her 55th birthday.”

Mitchell and Carlile were joined on stage for the historic performance at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I., by a group of musicians that included Wynonna Judd, Marcus Mumford, Celisse, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Allison Russell, Lucius, Blake Mills and Carlile’s bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth.

Carlile explained in an interview with CBS Mornings that the performance was inspired by the “Joni Jams” that Mitchell has hosted the past few years at her California home.

“She just wants to sit there and drink her wine and listen, right? But it didn’t turn out like that. She started singing and then she started playing,” Carlile said.

Carlie has been a champion of Mitchell’s work for many years including performing Mitchell’s 1971 masterpiece Blue in its entirety at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2021.

Mitchell last took the stage at Newport Folk in 1969, following her debut at the festival in 1967 where she teamed up with artists including Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen for an afternoon Songwriters Workshop.

The “Brandi & Friends” set featured 13 songs, including classic Mitchell tunes like “Come In From The Cold,” “Help Me,” “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game,” as well as a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The set launched with “Carey,” which hails from Blue.

One of the best parts of the Joni Jam was seeing Mitchell enjoy herself, caught up in the moment as she tapped her hands on her knees, waved her arms about and danced in her chair as she jubilantly sang the closing lyrics to “Carey.” As the crowd cheered its approval, Mitchell broke into a giant grin and then clapped along in delight.

Mitchell, who only recently taught herself to play guitar again, even showed off a guitar solo on “Just Like This Train” as Carlile admiringly grooved alongside her idol, tapping her foot, playing a bit of air guitar and raising her left arm in the air as she shouted her approval along with the audience.

“It was a woman, Judy Collins in 1967 that brought Joni Mitchell to the Newport Folk Festival, and it was a woman, Brandi Carlile that helped her return. I can’t tell you how important Newport’s legacy of artists championing each other is,” Jay Sweet, executive producer for Newport Folk/Newport Jazz, tells Pollstar.

“From the time that Johnny Cash kicked his guitar player Kris Kristofferson out onto the stage for a solo debut until now – this has always been the place to uplift one another. And for young artists, like Clairo, Joy Oladokun, Leith Ross, Adia Victoria and more, to get to see this tradition in real time means the world to the festival and I know those young artists will carry on this tradition in their own time.

“We will forever be in awe of the brilliance, grit and bravery we witnessed from Joni at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday night. But I also remain unceasingly moved by the scaffolding that Brandi and the other artists on that stage built around her. It was a heroic expression of the power of our community.”

For all of us at home, who feel lucky enough to get the chance to watch (and rewatch) the Newport Folk performance via our laptops and cellphones, writer Rumaan Alam, the author of “Leave the World Behind,” summed it up via this tweet: “In seriousness I think Joni Mitchell singing both sides now in 2022 is the best thing I’ve ever seen on the internet, just unbearable, the kind of thing that makes me glad there is an internet at all.”