Joni Mitchell, supported by Brandi Carlile and friends, played a full set at the Newport Folk Festival yesterday. The last time she played Newport was in 1967 at the age of 24. Now at 78 years old, and having survived a brutal brain aneurysm in 2015, no one ever expected her to take the stage again. This was her first public performance since the year 2000.
Joni has always been a spectacular performing artist, she could engage an audience and bring a crowd into her world of love, loss, heartbreak and wanderlust with a personal intensity that few ever match. She was snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for many years, only finally being inducted in 1997, and never did get the recognition as either a great poetess or a musician, that she deserved, and that came so easily and lucratively to her male counterparts. Yesterday’s celebration of both Joni’s recovery, but more importantly her legacy and her artistry went some way to giving her the kudos she so richly deserves.
Joni’s medical condition, plus the passing of time has transformed her into a fragile ethereal will o’ the whisp, fueled by her songs, her indominable spirit and her magisterial presence. Joni is more than a Queen, Joni is the figurehead for every footloose and freedom-bound soul. Whilst her music and words speak of the female condition and that uniquely female experience of life as a woman who will not hush and will not sit down or conform and comply, she never lost that graceful poise. Fury under self control, free without being care-free. Joni’s music is more impressionistic than it is ever as beautifully messy as the life, both personal and universal, that it portrays.
She deals with messy things – birth, adoption, men who never commit and prove the love they proclaim, addiction, social unfairness and the passage of time, yet does so with the grace of a ballet dancer on the head of a pin. She deftly weaves images and sound together, with her unique ‘joni tunings’ putting her stamp on her work, as indelible and unreproducible as a watermark.
Joni is a jazz artist, an expressionist, a troubadour of love songs and a wail in the wind of a rainy night that is always watching that ‘screen door slam’, whilst picking herself up and dusting herself off and ‘scrambling down in the street’ for yet more inspiration and company along the highway. Joni is a beat heroine. Joni is the wings of a heron beating across a lake, the sound of nature, a radio waiting to be tuned in. Joni is pure feminine goddess energy, who once had a voice that could cut diamonds, soothe hungry beasts and do her bidding. She was not only a superlative vocalist, she was also a highly technical musician, a supreme picker of strings of various kinds, and plucker of emotion from the airwaves and transmitter of it into the ears of anyone who would listen.
Joni. Shero. Joni: artist, poet, musician and activist. Joni said all those things, did all those things that either other women wished they were free to, or else, did and needed to know they were not alone in not being the kind of woman who went their own way down the road. Joni lives artistically, which is the only way that matters to those of us who know that urge for going that she sang so beautifully about when she was so young and tender-bruised already by life, having had to give up her daughter for adoption as she documented in the song Green.
To see her at Newport, both her peers and her successors joining her on the stage, the crowd adoring her once again, and her dear friend there on stage looking utterly entranced by her performance and presence brought me to tears. I was expecting emotion, but what I was not expecting was her performance and vitality.
It is no secret that Joni was very very unwell and suffered an aneurysm seven years ago, and this meant she had to relearn how to play the guitar, and that her mobility suffered greatly. For my highway girl, our beat poetess this difficulty is almost too painful to look at, yet Joni rose above it all, and decided to rock up to show us just how strong a fighter she is, and that she still has got ‘it’.
The Coyote Jam group she collected around her, led by the talented and sympathetic Brandi Carlile acted as both a help and a shield, allowing Joni to do as much as she felt she wanted or was able to. Here is the thing, Joni can still sing!
The joyous realization that though her high clear tones have changed, that she still has that soul and pitch, that ability to translate wind into emotion. She gave the crowd a performance of her 1966 song, Both Sides Now, that can stand up there with any performance of the song that she has ever given. It wasn’t just emotional, it was iconic and masterful. It was beautiful, and unbearably poignant. Joni has still got it. She was perfect.
It was like watching someone that had gone a long time ago, come back to life and not only that, come back re-energized, re-animated and more beautiful than ever. It was a triumph of life over death, perseverance over hurt and damage. It is the single most inspiring and comforting thing I have heard in years. From the crack in her voice, to the sheer perfection of the rendition, Joni center stage and absolutely owning all of it, just like she should do, like she was born to.
That girl who once sang ‘Mama taught me the deeper meaning’ was now the mama teaching us all the deeper meaning of life that we are all trying to make sense of and survive.
Wynonna Judd said it all for me with the tears in her eyes, and the open honesty of her emotion that she so freely expressed whilst listening to Joni sing this song about time passing and the human condition, love and connection with others. I sat and cried with her. In fact I cried through most of the performance to see Joni perform those songs I love so dearly, once more, surrounded by people that clearly love her and appreciate the value of her life’s work.
Joni is so powerful that though I will most likely never meet her, never talk to her, never get to know her in person, that she carried me through life with her songs. She was my best friend telling me ‘go to him, stay with him if you can, but be prepared to bleed’. She gave me wise advice about staying only ‘until my skin turned brown’, and reassured me that it is not just me that dreams of Amelia Erhardt flying through the clouds and disappearing into the ether, free forever free.
When Joni got up and strapped on an electric guitar to play an instrumental arrangement of the jazz-inspired Just Like This Train I stood up in my living room and gave her a standing ovation. Joni can once again play with all that tone and cool syncopated slide that she used to possess in bucketloads, despite the fact that she explained in a recent interview with NPR that she had to relearn how to play guitar after her aneurysm. Joni perseveres, and that is a beautiful thing indeed, almost as beautiful as the art she created and wrote onto the page and the reel to reel.
Joni Mitchell is a force of nature, a Fury personified, a Canadian goddess who can outwrite Dylan and make Cohen look and sound kind of bland. One of my favorite Joni songs is That Song About The Midway, where she sings about one of her past music-man lovers and his betrayal of her. This is not about the men for once, for once this is all about Joni and her superlative artistry, and I am moved to ask her of her performance at Newport:
Wearin’ wings, you looked so grand wearin’ wings
Do you tape them to your shoulders just to sing?
Can you fly? I heard you can, can you fly?
Like an eagle doin’ your huntin’ from the sky
This is the power of genius, when we feel burnt out and slowed down, defeated and betrayed, that these songs, these performances, this poetry of existence can elevate and inspire, console and re-fuel once again. I am reanimated by the power of Joni Mitchell’s music, and it is not the first time she has pulled off that artistic alchemy and I am sure will not be the last.
This was the single most important Newport Folk Festival performance since Dylan went electric, and to be frank, since Joni has been done so dirty by the music press not giving her the recognition she earnt, I feel kinda shoddy even mentioning his name in the same breath as her: he is not worthy. This is the other bookend to his electric performance, the final word of the revolution that fell flat. This is the humanity that is left, and it is precious and should be conserved and adored for the jewel that it is. This is the beauty of Joni Mitchell, that shines so brightly on the world, and illuminates life for the right and wrongs, the injustice and the broken beauty of it all.
Ladies and Gentlemen…Joni Mitchell! More than a Queen: a troubadour poetess, a warrior-woman and a work of art in her own right.