After a full and musically satisfying Friday at the Newport Folk Festival with the family last weekend, the heat got to me Saturday morning while waiting to get back in for Day 2. The medics on-site determined it was dehydration and did a work up in their M*A*S*H tent. (“You’ve seen M*A*S*H, right? You have to have seen M*A*S*H. This looks just like it.” It did, except this one was air conditioned.)
My wife Riva, who was in a second car coming in later in the morning, detoured from the parking lot to the medical tent, where I was admonished to stay away from my staple seltzer and drink a lot of water and Gatorade — the latter of which, in the best of times, I gag on. I was down for the day and headed back to the lovely airbnb our daughter had found in Bristol, RI. I assumed if I drank enough Saturday I’d be good to go at least late in the afternoon for whatever finale Brandi Carlile had planned. It wasn’t even supposed to be that sunny on Sunday.
Well, too fatigued and not wanting to risk being stuck in a car for a couple of hours getting out of the parking lot at the end of the day, I wasn’t there for Joni Mitchell’s now-widely-reported and documented set. I’m delighted that my daughter, son-in-law, son, and his girlfriend got to see and experience a legend, if not at the peak of her career at a peak of grace and dignity and survival.
The videos are all over Youtube and Facebook, and there’s an excellent piece from CBS News with background on how this came together, what Mitchell has recovered since her brain aneurysm in 2015, and a chat with Mitchell after the performance.
But friends, listen to the lyrics. Joni Mitchell is 78 now; she wrote “Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now” around 1966 when she was 22. There isn’t a wasted word, not a cliché. Full verses, stunning choruses. 22. What is it that true artists feel and see and can express so early that the rest of us need a lifetime to maybe fully appreciate?
That depth is true for so much of what Mitchell wrote. It is no doubt what lends her rendition of “Summertime” here, and the smokier jazz-inflected voicings on the 2000 album “Both Sides Now,” on which she performs mostly other people’s standards as well as a couple of her songs that have become standards too, its legitimacy. My how she balances gravitas and lightness.
As for Carlile, I’ve written glowingly about her before. A unique aspect of her genius is her ability to shore up other artists without overshadowing them which, along with her wide net of musicians who respect her, is no doubt why she gets to program these closing nights at Newport. Watch her carefully sitting next to Mitchell in these Newport videos, conducting the band, filling in notes, urging Mitchell on with a gentle touch.
I DID see Joni Mitchell at Newport in 1969 — the last time she appeared there — when she was on the Sunday afternoon New Faces program, with James Taylor and Van Morrison. I also saw her at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in 1972, when she, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young did simultaneous surprise guest sets on different stages, while Gordon Lightfoot did an impromptu unmiked set from a picnic table bench. And I saw her in concerts and club appearances from Carnegie Hall to the Bottom Line (the latter another unannounced guest set during an Eric Andersen show).
What Joni Mitchell overcame to do this Newport set is impressive. What gifts she shared. Even for someone who wasn’t there.
Oh, the first time I missed Joni Mitchell? My first assignment for The New York Post in 1978 was to review Crosby, Stills & Nash at Madison Square Garden. I’d gotten the assignment about 4:30 that afternoon and immediately called the label’s publicist Stu Ginsburg. Stu said he couldn’t get me a ticket but he could get me a backstage pass and I’d have to stand at the side of the stage. As CSN finished its formal set, all of us in the wings were shuffled off the stage. I went to the Post to write my review. The next morning I got a call from my editor, Steve Cuozzo. “How come you didn’t mention Joni Mitchell singing the encore with them?” Well… Thank you Steve for not holding that against me; I wrote for the Post through 1990.