Column: Joni Mitchell’s Newport set gave us a reason to live

Some days it’s hard not to despair. Europe is burning and so is Yosemite; Russia continues to bomb Ukraine, a religious minority wages war on women and monkeypox invades an already COVID-stricken world. Mass shootings have become a daily occurrence, the damning evidence of the January 6 Committee being blatantly ignored by too many and others apparently reasonable people complain about the struggles of white men in the publishing industry.

Then, just as you’re Googling “cheapest and most remote mountain peaks,” Joni Mitchell shows up at the Newport Folk Festival and proves that God (or whatever source of sustaining grace you believe) hasn’t left the building yet.

There, at the behest of Brandi Carlile, Mitchell, 78, who has spent years recovering from a brain aneurysm, sang, played guitar and proved there was a reason social media existed. Most of us were nowhere near Rhode Island when this miracle happened, but thanks to a video that was posted to YouTube and shared widely across all available media platforms, we were all able to start our week watching Joni Mitchell live, how he performed “Summertime”, “The Circle Game” and especially “Both Sides Now”.

Mitchell built a career and transformed music with her stunningly poetic ability to fathom pain and emerge from it with strength and beauty, acknowledging disillusionment but never surrendering to it. For women especially, she was a voice where there had been no voice. “They could never cage her or categorize her,” said one of my friends who has long admired Mitchell. “Each of her works is like a little gem in the way it tells its story, and then there’s that beautiful, indelible voice.”

Mitchell singing at the Newport Folk Festival, 2022

Mitchell sings in Newport from a chair that could have been stolen from Versailles.

(Adam Kissick / Newport Festivals Foundation)

That voice, deep and a little raspy from age, pain and survival, rose and fell from the stage in Newport as she drew her still-iconic images of clouds and love and life’s inevitable alternation between ecstasy and heartbreak . Inevitably moving (what would Emma Thompson’s famous breakdown in “Love, Actually” be without her?) “Both Sides Now” has never sounded so powerful, a more authentic description of the constant human tension between reality and hope, desire and doom.

Though supported by some of the higher notes from Carlile and Wynonna Judd, the performance was all Mitchell and floated into the hushed air not just as her signature song but as a blessing. Mitchell delivered the song’s ending — “I really don’t know life at all” — not in bewilderment or wistful regret, but with amused abandon and a touch of joy. Why waste time pinning down the unknowable? And who would know more about it than Joni the damn Mitchell?

There was not a dry eye in the house, in Newport, or at my place. The simple sight and sound of her was amazing enough; the world had every reason to believe they would never hear this legend sing live again.

Though Mitchell was busy compiling archival releases of her groundbreaking career (and removing her music from Spotify in protest at Joe Rogan’s podcast), for years after her aneurysm she insisted her voice was gone. Luckily not everyone believed her. It’s no surprise that Sunday’s performance took place during a set titled “Brandi Carlile and Friends”; Since 2018, Carlile has been helping Mitchell find her way back to performing with star-studded jam sessions at Mitchell’s home in Bel-Air.

“Joni’s only motto is, ‘Park your pistols at the door.'” noted Cameron Crowe in an interview he did with Mitchell in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of Blue. “That meant no phones or videos and just one photo — a group shot at the end of the night.”

Thank god she didn’t enforce that rule at the Newport Festival; Video of her extraordinary performance – singing under a blue beret, behind stylish sunglasses and in a chair that could have been nicked from Versailles – began circulating almost immediately after the set wrapped.

But it wasn’t just the wondrous and utterly unexpected sight and sound of this Canadian-born American master who silenced throats around the world live. It was the sight and sound of her in that moment as the planet is under siege; the world is ravaged by hunger, disease and politics; and the seventh seal of American culture seems to have been broken.

Mitchell, left, and Brandi Carlile onstage together in Newport.

Mitchell, left, and Brandi Carlile onstage together in Newport.

(Nina Westervelt / Newport Festivals Foundation)

In a world where “Top Gun” is seen as the savior of cinema, where a dispute over who was originally the center of One Direction is considered music news and the babble from every platform known as television so cacophonous is that you want to turn them all off, it’s hard to remember how real art can bind us together – for years, for generations – if only given half a chance.

For a few minutes, millions of otherwise quite diverse Americans were united in joy.

For those who had wondered with disturbing regularity whether it was possible for American culture to heal from its wounds, self-inflicted and others–or, more tragically, if there was any reason at all to try–Mitchells was Enter a brief glimpse of the possibility. Not only was it a testament to those miracles that can only be achieved through individual determination and community support; It was a reminder that there is a reason to keep going, to push forward and see the loops and streams of angel hair along with the rain and snow. Both are real. That is the point.

Because who knows? Maybe somewhere amidst the doomscrolling of everything that’s wrong with the world, you’ll find a video of Joni Mitchell doing what she thought she’d never do again: singing songs she wrote to the to explain world.

And for a minute or maybe longer, that’ll be all that matters. Column: Joni Mitchell’s Newport set gave us a reason to live

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