Forty-eight hours after performing with Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, Wynonna Judd couldn’t quite imagine what she’d been attending.
“I’m still like, ‘What the hell just happened?'” The veteran country star said Tuesday of Mitchell’s first full public concert since she suffered a debilitating aneurysm in 2015. Unannounced in advance, the legendary singer-songwriter returned to the stage – with Mitchell singing and playing guitar joined by a cast of friends and admirers including Judd, Brandi Carlile, Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Allison Russell, Taylor Goldsmith by Dawes and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig by Lucius – went viral online immediately, in large part due to a video made by a fan showing Mitchell singing her classic “Both Sides Now” while Judd, positioned directly behind her, seemingly going through every imaginable emotion that separates joy and pain.
“I know I cried ugly most of the time, and I’m not thrilled about it,” said Judd, 58, with a laugh. “Who would that be? But I feel like I was there because of my mom, to convey how precious life is,” she added of Naomi Judd, who died of suicide in April. “Joni was the soundtrack to my childhood – she’s my heroine – and Brandi invited me to come and witness her incredible journey.
“I wasn’t there to perform, I was there to play beJudd said, noting that her trip to Rhode Island was the first time she had flown from her Nashville home since the pandemic began. “It was magical – like death and life at the same time.”
Mitchell’s set in Newport — where the 78-year-old last sang in the late 1960s, just ahead of the string of wild and tender albums that would make her superstar, including Blue and Court and Spark — was meant around the so-called Joni Repeating jams she’s been up to at her Bel-Air home since the aneurysm that made it difficult for her to move and use her voice. The beret-clad singer and Carlile – who has taken it upon herself to publicly celebrate Mitchell in recent years, including live performances of “Blue” and spearheading April’s MusiCares Person of the Year – sat in glittery armchairs surrounded by their staff as they played through about a dozen songs, including “Carey,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Help Me,” and “The Circle Game.”
Mitchell’s voice was softer than in the past, her famously idiosyncratic phrasing a little more uncertain. But as Judd’s reaction vividly captured, the feeling was strong and true in her musicianship, not least when she took to electric guitar for a spirited rendition of “Just Like This Train.”
So how did such a moving moment come about?
According to Newport executive producer Jay Sweet, it all started with a boat ride and a bottle of tequila. It’s a post-show tradition he and Carlile have shared since 2018, when Carlile headlined the festival and the two old friends hit the water afterwards to discuss what they could do together in the future.
“Brandi looked at me and said, ‘A year from now on this boat we’re going to toast the fact that we brought Dolly Parton to Newport,'” recalled Sweet. “And I laughed in her face.” But in fact, the country music legend was performing with Carlile and her group The Highwomen in 2019. After that performance, Sweet said, “I was like, ‘Well, we’ve got Dolly — next year we’re f—. And we were because of COVID.” (Carlile declined to comment on this article.)
Like virtually all music festivals, Newport 2020 was canceled but returned in 2021 with an acclaimed show-closing throwdown featuring Allison Russell, Chaka Khan, Yola and other black women. Later on the boat with Sweet, Carlile (who came as a fan and whose Looking Out Foundation helped fund Russell’s jam session) told her friend that she wanted to perform at the festival again in 2022 — and that she had another special guest in mind have .
“I said, ‘Who do you have?'” Sweet said. “She says, ‘We’re going to get Joni back.'”
Sweet was excited but skeptical. “It’s not just showing someone who’s on the go or just too big or too cool for school to do that,” he said. “You speak of a serious physical challenge.” Still, he was inspired by the idea of Mitchell returning to one of the points where she began her rise. “When she learns to walk again and learn to sing and play the guitar — when she comes back on stage — maybe that’s going to be where it all began,” he said.
However, those involved said they weren’t sure if performance would actually drop until it did.
Mills, a Joni Jams regular known for his work with acts like Fiona Apple and Alabama Shakes, said Mitchell’s progress in performing privately at her home has been steady but gradual.
“At every step, she amazed us all with her skills,” he said. Much of her development has been focused on her voice, Mills added. But about a year ago, Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates showed up at a Joni Jam with a gift for Mitchell: “a beautiful, elaborate, custom-made electric guitar,” according to Mills. “Joni was so touched that she held it on her lap. She hadn’t played since the aneurysm. But we tuned it for her – I think it was open D, that’s the tuning for “Come in From the Cold” – and she started strumming.
“She has a unique right-hand stance — she’s more like a bass player — and the movement seemed alien to her,” Mills continued. “It was like she was relearning.” In an interview in Newport, Mitchell told CBS News that she looked at old videos of herself to figure out how to play her songs; eventually “Come in From the Cold” became part of Joni Jams’ setlist, prompting her to relearn “Just Like This Train” and “Sex Kills.” Over the past few weeks, Mills says, Carlile has quietly assembled a team of musicians for Newport and begun telling them which songs to perform.
The festival appearance was billed as Brandi Carlile and Friends; Sweet said the original idea was simply to have the musicians interpret Mitchell’s songs to honor her. “Then it was like, ‘What if we could get Joni on stage?'” Sweet said. “‘What if we built a living room and put a couch and a bottle of wine in there? What if we could get her to play the guitar?’”
An all-hands rehearsal last Friday night was a test run. “Joni walked in and we all watched as she got up and put on her guitar, the Parker Fly, and my jaw just hit the floor,” Mills said. Sweet went into rehearsal to find Carlile and Mumford singing “A Case of You” with Mitchell – the plan being that they would take lead vocals in case Mitchell faltered – and found it all too much. “It was like hearing your first child’s ultrasound or something,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it. I had to go.” Everyone agreed that Mitchell sounded great, although they kept open to the possibility that by Sunday she might not have felt up to the challenge.
“It’s a bit like going fishing,” Mills said. “You hope you’re in the right place at the right time. We were all ready to go up and perform Joni songs until the last minute to the Joni, and I think something about that might have made it a more convenient re-entry into a public space.”
With Mitchell in good spirits ahead of the show, “the joy backstage was palpable,” Judd said. “I ended up in a dressing room with Joni and Brandi for an hour, and I was on my knees in front of her, making her face shine.” During the performance, Mills said he was amazed at the new harmonies Mitchell seemed to be inventing on the fly – “Invention of a new singing role for Joni Mitchell in the music of Joni Mitchell”, as he put it. He added that Mitchell played guitar in rehearsals for a verse and chorus on “Just Like This Train.” “But on the day of the show, she played three verses and moved on. It was like a roller coaster ride: ‘Oh wow, this is going around again.’”
When asked what she was thinking about when Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now,” Judd said she remembered singing the song “as a little girl, with no idea what’s going to happen in life, by the time she graduated in eighth grade ‘ sang. She paused. “My mother committed suicide. I’m alone. But I felt like I was in eighth grade again and my mom would come into my room and tell me to do my homework.
“I wanted to jump into the audience, I was so overwhelmed.”
The reaction from the audience was almost as strong, at least in part because Mitchell’s performance was a surprise. Sweet said Newport staff have gotten good at keeping secrets, as they did with Parton in 2019. (Paul Simon also made an unannounced appearance at this year’s festival, appearing with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats on Saturday.) The festival Crew even used a codename, Coyote, while planning Mitchell’s performance.
The mood after the show was “a party — pure celebration,” Sweet said. “Lots of group photos.”
“No one wanted to leave,” Judd said. “I ended up next to Taylor Goldsmith who I didn’t even know but I texted him and now we’re best friends.”
And did Carlile and Sweet share their annual tequila when it was all over?
“Yep,” Sweet said, but declined to divulge what they had in mind for the next year. “But I can tell you the words were, ‘Now we’re all double f-.'”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2022-07-26/joni-mitchell-newport-folk-festival-performance-surprise Wynonna Judd on ‘ugly-crying’ at Joni Mitchell surprise show