The closing set at this weekend’s Newport Folk Festival, in Newport, Rhode Island, was billed as “Brandi Carlile & Friends.” But when Carlile’s surprise guest walked gingerly onto the stage Sunday, returning to the festival after 53 years, the crowd erupted. Then, supported by an all-star cast of musicians, 78-year-old Joni Mitchell gave her first public performance since.
Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
Still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
But until rehearsals Friday night, no one was sure she would feel up to it, including Mitchell herself.
Correspondent Anthony Mason asked her, “Are you at all nervous about singing in front of an audience again?”
“No, I’ve never been nervous about being in front of an audience,” Mitchell replied. “But I want it to be good. And I wasn’t sure I could be. But I didn’t sound too bad tonight!”
The stage was set up like Mitchell’s California living room, where the recovering singer has been hosting “Joni Jams” with fellow musicians for the past few years.
Carlile said, “She just wants to sit there and drink her wine and listen, right? But it didn’t turn out like that. She started singing and then she started playing.”
Carlile had the idea of bringing the “Joni Jam” to Newport.
Mason said, “You’ve been thinking about this for quite a while?”
“I dreamed it,” Carlile said. “The first time she opened her mouth and sang ‘Summertime’ and I saw Herbie Hancock burst into tears and everybody in the room catch their breath because she had decided to sing, really decided to sing, you know, I knew. I knew she’d do it at Newport. I can’t really say how I knew it. I just pictured her out there. I pictured the water and the fort and the boats.”
Mitchell was 23 when she first played Newport back in 1967. “Yeah, I met Leonard Cohen in ’67,” she said. “I met James Taylor in ’69.”
“That’s pretty good company,” Mason said.
“Good friends for my life.”
In her first trip back in 53 years, Mitchell played guitar, a skill the aneurysm took from her until only recently. She said she taught herself to play again.
“I’m learning,” she said. “I’m looking at videos that are on the net to see where I put my fingers, you know. It’s amazing what an aneurysm knocks out – how to get out of chair! You don’t know how to get out of a bed. You have to learn all these things by rote again. I was into water ballet as a kid, and I forgot how to do the breaststroke. Every time I tried it, I just about drowned, you know?. So, a lot of going back to infancy almost. You have to relearn everything.”
Mason asked, “How did you find the will to do that?”
“I don’t know, but the surgeon that did the brain surgery on me, he said I had ‘will and grit.'”
Carlile said, “You show that every day.”
Mason asked, “Do you think you have will and grit?”
“Yeah, I think I do,” Mitchell replied. “I’ve recovered from a lot of things, [like] polio.”
At age nine, polio left her paralyzed. Mitchell willed herself to walk again.
Mason said, “Your friends call you a miracle.” Mitchell laughed.
Her career has been widely celebrated this past year. She was a Kennedy Center Honoree, and MusiCares’ Person of the Year at the Grammys.
Mitchell said the accolades felt “very rewarding. You know, a lot of doors were shut to me. Like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They kept me out of that for a long time.”
“So, you’re feelin’ the love?” asked Mason.
“I’m feelin’ the love, yeah,” she replied. “It feels good!”
Carlile said, “It’s a beautiful thing to see her honored this way.”
“I think having a brush with death like that kind of softens people towards me!” Mitchell laughed.
The musicians at Newport were as moved as the audience. Marcus Mumford handled drums during the set.
Asked about playing with Mitchell, Mumford said, “It’s a complete dream. And Brandi is a wonderful facilitator and leader. And obviously she’s basically the one person in the world who Joni feels comfortable sitting next to, to sing her songs again. And so, I think it’s just really emotional.”
The crowd was joyful, and tearful, especially when Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.”
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love
Really don’t know love at all
When asked what she was hoping to do by bringing Mitchell back to Newport, Carlile said, “Joni hasn’t always felt the appreciation that exists amongst humanity for her. But I wanted her to feel that.”
By the end of the night, everyone was glowing – especially the artist herself.
And the seasons, they go ’round and ’round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go ’round and ’round and ’round, in the circle game
And the crowd chanted “Jo-ni! Jo-ni! Jo-ni!”
And that was only the second surprise of the festival: on Saturday, Paul Simon graced the Newport stage for the first time ever, joining Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.