Some of the celebrity guests at Joni Mitchell’s private hootenannies have sworn that she has been an enthusiastic participant in the living room sessions in her Santa Barbara-area home. But until now, most fans had to take these reports on faith. At the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, an all-star Mitchell tribute concert proved to also include a surprisingly full-scale return to public singing by the star herself.
The 13-song “Joni Jam” had Mitchell getting by with a little help from guest vocalists Marcus Mumford, Celisse, Wynonna Judd, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and the organizer of the set, Brandi Carlile. But Mitchell was clearly the vocal star of the set as she took on numbers from classic originals “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game” to a few of her favorite songs: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Gershwin’s “Summertime” and “Love Potion #9.”
While seated for most of the set — as were those around her, in an ensemble that also included Lucius, Allison Russell, Blake Mills, Shooter Jennings and Phil and Tim Hanseroth — she and the others stood for moments like an extended bit of guitar playing she did on “Just Like This Train.”
It was Mitchell’s first performance at Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival since 1969, but that was the least of the historic stats that had surprised festival-goers enthralled.
Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, but had been largely retired from public performance even before that, doing her last full concert when she wrapped up her final tour in 2000 and only short, sporadic appearances afterward.
Mitchell’s health comeback was evident at the MusiCares salute to her prior to the Grammys earlier this year, during which she participated in group-sings and roused the audience with a couple of solo line readings. But that was a far cry short of the full song readings she did at Newport Sunday.
As far as attendees at Newport knew, the climactic set of the three-day fest was going to be “Brandi Carlile & Friends,” before the telling term “Coyote Jam” got out, until it was finally got its proper name. “This scene shall be forever known henceforth as the Joni jam!” Carlile said at the outset.
Initially, it seemed to the crowd as if her participation would be mostly in the sing-along mode of her recent appearance at MusiCares, as the show started with a group-sing version of her “Blue” song “Carey,” with Mitchell chiming in with only isolated solo lines. But soon in the set she emerged as its primary lead vocalist.
Wrote NPR’s Ann Powers after attending the Newport “jam,” describing Mitchell’s current strength of voice and register: “When she turned to the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime’ – according to some insiders, one of the first songs she took up as she recovered from her illness – Mitchell sounded a bit like Nina Simone, or like her longtime hero Annie Ross in Robert Altman’s ‘Short Cuts.’ This wasn’t the first new Joni to emerge in the 21st century. Two decades ago, Mitchell had surprised fans with a lower register made evocatively dark by years of cigarette smoking. Here was another revelatory voice, showing the marks of her recent health struggles and her determination to recover, stunning in its honesty.”
Carlile was Mitchell’s constant companion and consigliere through the show, seated beside her in a similar homey throne and standing out especially on “Big Yellow Taxi,” but featured appearances came by Celisse on “Help Me,” Mumford on “A Case of You” and Goldsmith on “Come in From the Cold” and “Amelia.”
Mitchell was not the only music superstar who is retired from touring to make a surprise appearance at the festival. Earlier in the weekend at Newport, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats did a headlining set that consisted entirely of Paul Simon covers, with Simon himself appearing for four songs. It was the legendary artist’s first-ever appearance at Newport.