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Joni Mitchell sings, steals show with surprise Newport Folk Festival concert

A woman who believed in a young Joni Mitchell's music brought her to the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in 1967, and another brought the 78-year-old legend back for a historic set to close the Rhode Island fest this year. The first was Judy Collins, who invited a then-undiscovered Mitchell to join in an afternoon celebrating emerging singer-songwriters in folk music, alongside other future icons like Leonard Cohen. On Sunday night, Brandi Carlile was the force behind Mitchell's return to the stage. The crowd was beyond elated as the voice behind classics like "Both Sides Now" graced Fort Adams for the first time since an evening appearance there in 1969, in what was her first full-length public concert anywhere since 2000.

Carlile has diligently worked to ensure Mitchell's place at the center of popular music history for the past five years, performing tribute concerts, writing liner notes for the elder singer's archival series and becoming a steadfast friend to Mitchell, who has spent years recovering from a 2015 brain aneurysm. The Newport set was a new high point in their ongoing personal and artistic collaboration. Billed as Brandi Carlile and Friends, it evolved from a supportive celebration of a beloved elder into a bona-fide Joni Mitchell concert.

The evening began with Carlile exhorting the crowd to believe in the power of folk music and the community it creates. Members of her own inner circle entered and formed a phalanx around a Louis XIV-style chair arranged as a throne. The guests included her bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth and Celisse Henderson,and friends Allison Russell, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, Blake Mills, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford and Wynonna Judd.

The historic set list to Joni Mitchell's return to the stage - and the Newport Folk Festival.
Jay Sweet / Courtesy of Newport Folk Festival
Courtesy of Newport Folk Festival
The historic set list to Joni Mitchell's return to the stage - and the Newport Folk Festival.

"This scene shall be forever known henceforth as the Joni Jam!" Carlile declared, referring to the much-discussed informal evenings she and other top-shelf musicians have shared at Mitchell's Los Angeles home as the elder singer found her way back to performance.

Finally, Carlile announced Mitchell's arrival at center stage. She took her place in that cathedra, wearing glittering beads, a beret and a grey-toned satin pants ensemble. The set began as a group singalong with "Carey," the beloved romp from Blue. The stars on stage supported Mitchell, who only took a few solo lines. But soon, befitting a woman known for her strength of will, Mitchell fully claimed her place at the evening's center.

The set spanned most of Mitchell's career, including her biggest hits – like "Big Yellow Taxi," "Amelia" and "Help Me," which featured Celisse in a thrilling turn – alongside late favorites "Shine" and "Come in From the Cold," and chestnuts like "Love Potion No. 9." Charming the audience with stories from her many musical adventures, Mitchell was relaxed and appreciative of its ecstatic response.

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.

As the many clips that quickly surfacedon social media showed, Mitchell's jazz-informed sense of phrasing and way with a story remains intact. She spoke of driving across country in a "bad Mercedes" on a journey that inspired her mid-1970s classic Hejira, and of meeting her fellow jazz-folk innovator Tim Hardinin a hotel lobby along with the Persuasions, the a capella group she enlisted for her Shadows and Light tour. But the crowd roared loudest whenever she sang – and most of all when she strapped onan electric guitar and performed a long interlude as part of Court and Spark's "Just Like This Train".

The set concluded with "The Circle Game," one of the songs Mitchell had sung 55 years ago on the afternoon that ensured her place as an exploding nova in the folk firmament. Old fans in the crowd were surely pinching themselves at that moment; new ones rushed off ready to explore Mitchell's vast catalog. "Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Fest I think just changed my life," one young convert tweeted. His words echoed across the decades, intersecting with those of all who've felt that way before.

NPR's Anya Grundmann, senior vice president for programming and audience development, was in the crowd Sunday and shared details from the field that informed this report.

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Corrected: July 24, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story referred to "Shine" as a 1990s favorite. Mitchell released the song in 2007.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.