Album Review: Joni Mitchell – Joni Mitchell At Newport

[Rhino; 2023]

In June of 2022, I was fortunate enough to attend, for my first time, The Newport Folk Festival. I saw lots of really great sets, from the likes of Madi Diaz, Sylvan Esso, Courtney Barnett and more. Some fun surprise guests popped up here and there, like when the great Natalie Merchant showed up during a miscellaneous showcase that took the place of a band that ended up needing to cancel. I hadn’t really known this, but apparently Newport is almost known for these kinds of surprises — little lovely nuggets nestled into the Fort’s sunny and amiable atmosphere, elating the concertgoers when they arrive. 

Of course, Natalie Merchant’s two-song set wasn’t the biggest surprise of the weekend. And boy would I love to report that I had actually been present for the festival’s real victory. Alas, after two days of enjoying the music, I was also getting profoundly sick of the heat. As my Air BnB host told me when she saw me on the morning of the second day, “Somehow the festival always ends up being the hottest weekend of the year.” After two long days under sweltering, near-100 degree sun, with barely a cloud in sight and the shady spots all spoken for, I decided that the Sunday lineup was the one I would be most okay with missing, and I packed up and headed home on that final morning.

What did I miss? Only the unexpected, deeply moving return of the one and only Joni Mitchell.

Since suffering an aneurysm a few years back, many have worried about the iconic songwriter’s health, let alone her ability to write and perform. In fact, I think it’s fair to say — as many others already have — that we largely thought Mitchell would never be able to truly sing or perform again. But somewhere along the way, no doubt with herculean assistance and persistence from longtime Mitchell admirer Brandi Carlile, she began holding informal “Joni jams” at her house. Carlile and others would come by, hang out, drink wine, and play songs. As Carlile puts it, eventually Mitchell wanted to sing, too, and so she did, and over time, she regained her voice. And then, years on from her debilitating aneurysm, Joni Mitchell took the stage at Newport, for her first time since 1969, and her first full concert in over 20 years.

It is truly one of the great tragic regrets of my music life that I went home that morning and missed the awe-inspiring return of an idol, but how was I to know? Luckily, the set was captured, in crystalline audio, and is now being released as Joni Mitchell at Newport, a live album distilling the historic set in sonic amber. It’s a pristine document: the crowd noise is practically inaudible except for the applauses and laughs at some small jokes here and there, and every instrument and voice sounds crisp and clean. It sounds almost as warm as the weather there, which is a bit remarkable for a recording of an outdoor concert.

The hour-long set includes mostly big favorites, like “Both Sides Now”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, and “The Circle Game”, and despite a couple slight surprises (like the spectacular “Come in from the Cold” from her underrated Night Ride Home), one may wish there were some more deep cuts. But it’s mostly just a miracle it exists at all, and we have a lot of people to thank for this, not least of which is Brandi Carlile herself.

That being said, Carlile may be this live album’s fierce emcee — helping massively to usher the album and the set it captures into existence — but she’s also its Achilles’ heel. Carlile is a gifted singer, and we should be grateful to her for waving the Joni banner so high that the woman herself graced the stage again, but far too often, Carlile is nearly insufferable with her asides and aids to her hero. Whether it’s singing a line that Mitchell just sang (for emphasis, I suppose?) or, worse, uttering encouraging words like “tell ‘em Joni” or “kick ass, Joni” or even a simple, amen-like “yes!” in between Mitchell’s singing. It’s sweet, really, but it’s also a bit of an annoyance when we’d likely much prefer simply to hear the music. When Carlile and Mitchell’s voices join together, it’s often lovely (even if they rarely harmonize so much as sing in tandem), but the in-betweens are rife with adlibs from Carlile that are distracting. It’s quite likely she was just so damn excited — wouldn’t you be? — but the earnestness grows perturbing when it occurs song after song. She is constantly reminding us and the audience that she’s the ringleader here, and don’t you forget it.

Mitchell does get a lot of help here, which is understandable — she’s still recovering and finding a new way to do an old thing. The cast on this album is truly stacked. In addition to Carlile, there’s old pals Phil and Tim Hasenroth, the honey-voiced women of Lucius, multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills, vocalist Celisse, cellist Josh Neuman, and many more. These are mostly friends from the Joni jams, and they help bolster the star through these 60 minutes in a way that mostly feels unobtrusive and appropriate.

Sometimes, it can get a bit busy, or hinges on overwhelming the woman at the center. Mitchell doesn’t really get a chance to shine on her own until “Both Sides Now”, which sees her voice (much lower than it used to be) ambling, in its slightly cracked and warbling aged beauty, upon gorgeous piano and cello. Sometimes, other vocalists take the center stage. When Celisse sings “Help Me” for example, it feels a bit like a lull, even if the singer gives a good performance. 

But it takes a village, sometimes. The nature of the Joni jams was a little improvisational, and that kind of shabby quality is found in this Newport album as well. The harmonies are wondrous on a group cut like “Big Yellow Taxi”, but elsewhere they tend to fall apart or drift away, if they’re there at all. And the tandem vocals are often just out of step, one voice trailing another. This is often a loose and low-key set, which is totally fine when the star power of its leading lady shines this brightly. Her voice, though weathered, is still capable of conveying such oceanic pathos and lovely melodies, like on her deeply smoky cover of “Summertime” or the world-weary but strong delivery on “Both Sides Now”.

And that’s where this live album ends up. It’s at a crossroads between being many things: a moving resurrection; an impressive display of a talent we didn’t think we’d hear again; a slightly shambolic jam sesh; and more. Its coconspirator too often wears her sincere giddy passion for Mitchell on her sleeve (she may as well say “it came true” at some point), but it’s surely at least in good faith. And besides: how can we not also be moved? When Carlile surprises the crowd at the start of the set with the welcoming of Mitchell, it’s hard not to get a misty-eyed smile along with the rest of the suitably gobsmacked crowd. What we have in this live album is proof it happened, and even though it’s an imperfect, sometimes sleepy set from a perhaps-too-large ensemble who often gets in the way, its mere existence makes it worthwhile and important.