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Joni Mitchell: Joni Mitchell at Newport

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Joni Mitchell: Joni Mitchell at Newport
Just over a year ago, in July 2022, the internet was abuzz with the news that Joni Mitchell had performed at the Newport Folk Festival. After regular gatherings at Mitchell's home by various artists of a younger generation, who saw her as a major influence on their music, they decided to put their so-called "Joni Jam" live on stage. Audience videos of various quality circulated which led to the impression that the get-together, organized by singer Brandi Carlile, Marcus Mumford and other friends, was simply a celebration of the woman's legacy. Nothing more, nothing less.

It turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Joni Mitchell At Newport shows her as the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes. She is a survivor; she contracted polio at the age of nine and also contends with a long and continuing struggle with the little-understood Morgellons disease, a condition characterized by a belief that parasites or fibers are emerging from the skin. But it was a debilitating brain aneurysm she suffered in 2015 that led most observers to conclude she would never perform again. The mere fact that this concert happened is a miracle.

Right off the bat, the first song, "Big Yellow Taxi," sets the mood. It is as if a bunch of friends are getting together and playing guitars and singing songs around the campfire. Except this group of friends are extremely talented and well-rehearsed. They surround Mitchell with love and harmony to help her ease into her first full live appearance in years. She gets the final word though, singing the last line "put up a parking lot" solo.

"A Case Of You" is up next. This Mitchell classic is one of several songs that are group efforts with different singers (Marcus Mumford in this instance) taking the lead. Mitchell though, is always there in the middle of the mix, singing an appropriate line here and there. The sparse arrangements are meticulous and unobtrusive, allowing the glory of the song to shine through and the beauty of the vocalists and the harmonies to be upfront.

Mitchell then talks for a few minutes, explaining how the album Hejira (Asylum, 1976) came about. She and her friends then launch into "Amelia." Taylor Goldsmith is the primary singer here (channeling Mitchell's sound from all those years ago) and with harmonies ever-present.

This brings us to the centerpiece of the album. "Both Sides Now" was written in her early 20s and became a hit for Judy Collins. Mitchell recorded the song initially on Clouds (Reprise, 1969) and again on Travelogue (Nonesuch, 2002) in an orchestral setting. This new recording is the definitive version of the song (see YouTube video below). It works so much better when sung by an older, experienced singer as the lyrics reflect looking back through life. Her voice throughout the album is shockingly strong, though in a lower range and somewhat raspy due perhaps to her lifelong cigarette smoking habit. There is a later years Billie Holiday quality now to her sound. It is a perfect, emotional reading of a touchstone song.

Mitchell continues front and center singing a slow, jazzy version of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's "Summertime" accompanied by a piano trio. Once again, her voice shows a weary strength that is remarkable. Brandi Carlile is featured on "Carey." The arrangement is similar to Mitchell's version on Blue (Reprise, 1971) except for the multitude of harmonies from the friends. Mitchell once again gets to sing solo the last line, "Oh you're a mean old daddy, but you're out of sight."

"Help Me" features pop singer Celisse. It is the one arrangement that differs from Mitchell's. It's reimagined as an up-tempo cry. The jagged guitar lines underneath provide the foundation that lets her express her fear of falling in love. While it is interesting and well done, the inclusion of the performance here breaks up the feel and continuity of the album.

"Come In From The Cold" is an underrated song from the underrated album Night Ride Home (Geffen Records, 1991). Here, it is another group effort that shows the song belongs in the category of Mitchell's best compositions. This version is powerful, with Mumford singing the lead over the song's seven verses and all the friends joining in on the chorus to express "All I ever wanted, was to come in from the cold." "Shine," the title track from her nineteenth and last studio album (Hear Music, 2007) is mainly sung as a duet between Mitchell and Carlile with the friends preaching on the choruses. This is another song that fell between the cracks in Mitchell's late career. It is a gospel plea, as she explained, "In a sense, [it] is reminiscent of the old Sunday School song about letting your light shine."

The album closes as it began with a group (and audience) sing-a-long, this time with her most famous song, "Circle Game." It is another song written in her youth that has a much deeper meaning listening to her singing it live at the age of 78 years. After "Circle Game" finishes, be sure to listen for Mitchell's cackling shriek of laughter and joy due to the totality of the moment. It is contagious. With the album's release, we are privileged to be able to share this special moment in time that occurred in Newport, Rhode Island on July 24, 2022.

Track Listing

Introduction by Brandi Carlile; Big Yellow Taxi; A Case of You; Amelia; Both Sides Now; Just Like This Train; Summertime; Carey; Help Me; Come in from the Cold; Shine; The Circle Game.

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Alison Russell: clarinet, bgv; Ben Lusher: keys; Blake Mills: guitar; Celisse Henderson: guitar, bgv, vocal (9); the Hanseroth Twins: guitar, bass; Josh Neumann: cello; Marcus Mumford: percussion, bgv, vocal (3); Rick Whitfield: guitar, bgv; Taylor Goldsmith: guitar, bgv, vocal (4, 10); Wynonna Judd: bgv; Kyleen King: bgv; Lucius: bgv, vocal (2); Shooter Jennings: bgv; SistaStrings: bgv; Marcy Gensic: bgv; Sauchuen Yu: bgv.

Album information

Title: Joni Mitchell at Newport | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Rhino

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