Brandi Carlile provoked her friend Jay Sweet, the director of the Newport Folk Festival, last July. Sweet will recall her telling him in a year. We can bring Joni Mitchell to this venue, I wager.
The festival director had his doubts. He once saw Mitchell reunited with her longtime friend Mavis Staples, whom she hadn’t seen in a long time, in a lovely moment at a Los Angeles concert. The two vocalists exchanged butterfly kisses while standing nose to nose for a whole 30 seconds before starting to converse. Although it was a priceless occasion, Sweet had the impression that night that Mitchell was not in the proper physical condition to play in front of a live festival audience. Sweet recalled saying to Carlile, “I have be honest with you,” when she first suggested the idea. Despite the fact that you are the miracle-maker, you might have missed this one.
At the Newport Folk Festival, where she had previously performed numerous times in the 1960s and where she was now doing her first complete set in more than 20 years, Joni Mitchell made a victorious, moving comeback on the same day one year later. In the years following her 2015 aneurysm, singer Mitchell spent years training herself how to walk, sing, and play the guitar again. Her performance was the conclusion of her power, determination, and tenacity. Before her Sunday night concert, the 78-year-old songwriter told ABC1 that she was still learning. It’s astonishing what an aneurysm can do to someone’s ability to stand up from a chair. Everything needs to be learned again.
Mitchell had learnt them all over again by the time she stepped off the stage on Sunday. She performed a 13-song set during which she reimagined her earlier songs, shared tales, sang childhood cover songs, and even stood up for an exhilarating electric guitar solo on Just Like This Train.
Celisse, a singer-guitarist who performed a new version of Help Me as part of Mitchell’s all-star band that also included Blake Mills, Lucius, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, Allison Russell, and others, claims that Mitchell “schooled us all in real time.” When singing lyrics that you’ve heard a million times, Joni had this wonderful knack of beating you to the punch and phrasing the line in a fresh, even more melodious way. You would probably say, “Fuck, what a novel, intriguing way to think about things.”
Her alto is so rich, deep, and insightful, and Celisse says, “Her intuition of how to interpret her music today, in her seventies, is even more profound than it was when she composed the music.” She isn’t the soprano she once was, but her alto is incredible.
She highlights Joni Mitchell’s renditions of songs like Come In From the Cold and Both Sides Now as being incredibly influential examples of contemporary artistic regimaginations. Celisse cites her use of rhythm as a storytelling tool as being particularly meaningful. (In the earlier song, Mitchell performed the chorus before the rhythm, seemingly to emphasize the solace and desire that are communicated in the refrain.) Celisse had participated in a number of concerts held in honor of aging superstars over the years, but if anything stood out to her, it was the fact that Mitchell’s performance was not your typical tribute to an artist who has passed their prime. She claims that we weren’t dragging her along in this circumstance. She was leading the way. To be very honest, we were the dead weight.
Just a few days before she hit the stage, Mitchell stated it more succinctly: “I’ve never been worried about appearing in front of an audience, shetoldCBS.” But I wanted it to turn out well.
And while though she’s gotten a lot of attention and credit for helping to organize this historic performance, Carlile has made it clear that this moment is ultimately about just one person in the days after the performance. Carliletweeted, witnessing “Joni” arrive at this moment has completely altered my perspective on life. What she has accomplished with her body is solely the property of Joni Mitchell.
At one of Mitchell’s now-famous Joni Jams in her Los Angeles home this past October, Celisse sang her version of Help Me for My Hero for the first time. Mitchell was so enamored by Celisse’s interpretation, as Celisse recalls, that she urged Celisse to swear she would return for another jam. Mitchell retorted that Sarah Vaughan frequently slept just under that pool table when Celisse jokingly said that she’d be pleased to move in and start sleeping under the billiards table.
A few months after that wonderful October night, according to Celisse, she was asked to perform at Newport as a part of a concert including Brandi Carlile and Friends. She was aware of the rumors of what such a set would ultimately turn into, but she claims she wasn’t aware of any concrete plans for Mitchell to perform at the folk festival where she spent her formative years until a few months ago.
A few weeks before to the performance, a possible set list went around, and Celisse discovered that she would be performing Help Me. A week before Mitchell performed, the musicians involved got on a Zoom call to talk about the keys and musical details; two days before the concert, Mitchell practiced with the band in Rhode Island. Sweet, though, claims that nobody was confident Mitchell would perform on Sunday night until the performance actually started. The festival’s organizer claims that there were instances when it appeared that she may skip a performance. Then, around four hours prior to the start of the show on Sunday, Carlile called Sweet and said, “I think it’s going to happen,” in his memory.
The folk event is very important to Mitchell personally. On its premises, she encountered James Taylor and Leonard Cohen (Good friends for my life, shetoldCBS). Singers from Mitchell’s generation still have a special reverence for Newport, so much so that Sweet recalls Paul Simon being amazed by pictures of festival performers like Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in his dressing room when he surprised the festival by making his debut there the day before Mitchell’s set. According to Sweet, he was boasting and displaying Newport.
It wasn’t simple to coordinate the logistics of Mitchell’s return to the stage. None of the performers that shared the stage with Mitchell were paid for their appearance because the festival has a modest non-profit budget. Had George Wein, the late festival founder, not given money when he passed away the previous year particularly to assist Sweet in booking his most sought-after musicians, the full performance would not have been able to take place.
Celisse has had to control her own delight and wonder in the days after her performance with Mitchell. She tells Rolling Stone two days after the show that she is “calling you from the clouds.” She is most amazed by what she saw on Sunday night, the artistic, physical, and musical victory of a great who has endured as much as Mitchell has.
We have all seen her development, but, she claims, I don’t believe anyone other than Joni truly recognized what she was capable of. Oh my god, there’s more more in there than any of us even expected, I thought as I watched her perform. There are more.