Joni Mitchell finds her voice at the Newport Folk Festival

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In a photo provided by Nina Westervelt shows, Joni Mitchell on stage at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, July 24, 2022, stunning the crowd and fellow musicians on stage. The singer-songwriter’s surprise return to the stage at the folk festival she first performed in 1967 was an act of bravery, joy and reinterpretation. (Nina Westervelt via The New York Times) – NO SALE; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY MITCHELL PERFORMANCE BY LINDSAY ZOLADZ FOR JULY 26, 2022. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —

This summer, quite unexpectedly, two of music’s brightest stars weren’t young upstarts, but a pair of semi-reclusive elders whose brilliance is being reaffirmed by a new generation of fans.

63-year-old pop legend Kate Bush’s 1985 anthem “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” is a legitimate contender for song of the summer – it currently sits at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, nestled between recent smashes by Harry Styles and Jack Harlow – thanks to its prominent use in the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.” And on Sunday night, 78-year-old Joni Mitchell stunned Newport Folk Festival attendees (and the countless people who have since watched viral cellphone videos of the event) when she performed live for the first time. times since his 2015 brain aneurysm, playing his first full live set since 2000.

Acting as ecstatic emcee, 41-year-old musician Brandi Carlile asked the crowd to welcome her friend Mitchell “back to the Newport stage for the first time since 1969” – 12 years before the birth of Carlile.

Especially since surviving that near-fatal aneurysm in 2015, Mitchell’s work has enjoyed widespread critical reappraisal. (“Having a touch of death softens people towards me,” she told CBS News with a chuckle.) In the past year, she has received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors and been named MusiCares Recording Academy Person of the Year; and has launched an ongoing project called the Joni Mitchell Archive, which will see her release rich collections of unreleased music.

Even though these recent accolades have brought Mitchell back into the public eye, Newport’s performance videos have had a rare and profound power. In a way, these are simply reminders of the euphoric potential of live music, an experience that has been all but silenced for many months during the pandemic.

Beyond that, however, the past two-plus years of seemingly endless illness, sacrifice, and loss have left so many hungry for stories of resilience, hard-won strength, and new beginnings. After the aneurysm, as she did when she contracted polio at age 9, Mitchell had to learn to walk again. This time, however, she also had to rediscover her singing voice and relearn how to play the guitar – which she did, triumphantly, on stage in Newport during an instrumental performance of “Just Like This Train”, by her 1974 album “Court and Spark”. .”

Before Mitchell picked up his guitar, Carlile prepped the audience by announcing, “She’s doing something very, very brave right now for you guys,” adding, “It’s a drop in confidence, and she chose the right people to do this with. Carlile was talking to the Newport crowd, but she might as well have been telling the other musicians on stage – including herself. Even when she was singing solo, tackling these complex songs with soulful ease, Carlile’s gaze was intently fixed on Mitchell, ready to catch her in case she stumbled but more often than not he was content to let Mitchell lead the way. .

There was a cross-generational tenderness to the performance, the way some of the young musicians (Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius) seemed to be in palpable awe of what was happening even as they kept the time and agreement. . The whole thing also had a loose communal spirit, reminiscent of the cafes Mitchell got her start performing folk songs in the mid-1960s. sang the lead in “Help Me”) but, as Mitchell sat majestically in her high-backed gold chair placed center stage, it was still obvious who was holding court.

When Mitchell first appeared on stage, she seemed a little overwhelmed, clinging to her cane and supporting Carlile, who took the lead in a cheerful, celebratory “Carey.” But over the course of this song, a visible change happened to Mitchell. His shoulders relaxed. She started shaking. And suddenly, she seemed to find her voice… his voice, sonorous and light, seeming to dance on these ballet melodies on a jazzy tempo all its own. She eventually relaxed enough to sing lead on several numbers, including a sumptuous version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that allowed her to bask in its velvety low register.

The highlight of the set, however, was “Both Sides Now”, a song Mitchell wrote before she first performed in Newport in 1967, when she was in her early twenties. At the time, some critics scoffed at the presumptive wisdom of the lyrics: what could a girl in her twenties know about both sides of life? But over the years, the song has proven to contain unfathomable depths that have only been audible in later performances.

At 56, Mitchell reissued a lush version of “Both Sides Now” on his 2000 album of the same name, backed by a 70-piece orchestra. His voice was deeper, elegiac and elegantly tired. “It’s the illusions of life I remember,” she sang at the end of the song, “I really don’t know life at all.”

Surrounded by a crowd of friends, fellow musicians and adoring admirers — many of whom weren’t even born when Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now” — she appeared to sing it this time with a shrug. smiling : I really don’t know life at all. As if to say: you never know, anything can happen. Even that.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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