In 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm and lost the ability to talk and walk. It has been more than a decade since she headlined a concert, and nobody thought she would perform again.
Seven years later she appeared on stage in a surprise performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Her friend Brandi Carlisle stated it was a “magical transformation.”
Carlile and other musicians joined Mitchell during that performance. At it’s conclusion, Carlie stated Mitchell said “I want to do another show.”
On June 10, 2023 in rural Washington State, Joe Mitchell headlined her first show in 23 years at the Gorge Ampitheatre lated three hours from Seattle.
Fans came from all over America. One attendee, Sasha Wachtel came from Los Angeles. She stated that Mitchell “has been my main and pretty much only musical hero for many, many years.” Continuing she said “I just remember listening to ‘Hejira’ when I was driving across the country when I was 21 and realizing what the songs were about, the incredible depth of the songwriting and the layers of meaning… and just thinking: the woman’s a fu*king genius.”
Dennis Brice, a priest, came to the concert from Philadelphia, and he brother Paul flew in from London. Brice saw Mitchell Newport Festival in 1969. Celebrating his 75th birthday he wanted to see her again. “Joni was often in our sermons, because of the way she’s interfaced with culture and thinking and life: ‘I’ve looked at life from both sides now, win or lose, I still don’t know anything.'” Brice paraphrased in song ‘Both Sides, Now’ released in 1969.
Coming in from Florida was Barbara Olson age 61. She said “When I think about what she’s been through – she’s learned to walk three times in her life,” Olson said. “If she sings ‘I’ve looked at life from both sides now’ tonight, I am going to lay on the ground, and then I can die.”
The concert is part of Carlile’s weekend festival at the Gorge. Mitchell’s performance, as Carlile explained, is modeled after the “Joni Jams” Mitchell hosts at her LA home, where musicians from Paul McCartney to Chaka Khan to Harry Styles routinely gather. The intent on Saturday, Carlile told the audience of 27,000, is to “invite you into the living room”. Thus the stage is set with a bottle of pinot grigio, a table topped with framed pet photos, and an array of couches and chairs occupied by a band full of musical luminaries, including Annie Lennox, Sarah McLachlan and Marcus Mumford.
Carlile acts as a sort of informal MC while Mitchell, seated at the front and carrying a cane adorned with a small bear’s head, plays the role of storyteller during a remarkable three-hour performance. With her vocal range far more limited than it once was, her singing feels conversational, as though she is relaying wisdom gained from her 79 years. Though the stories her songs told were all true, “they’re not all my stories,” she says.She also tells tales from her career. The last time she was at the Gorge, she said, she’d been touring with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison and forgotten the words to a verse of Dylan’s, so she made one up. Morrison thought that was rude, but Mitchell disagreed – Dylan loved it, she says. “There’s nothing he likes better than to see me fu*k up.”
While Mitchell’s range is smaller, her voice hasn’t lost its power – nor her familiar slow vibrato. This is on particular display in songs like Both Sides, Now and Gershwin’s Summertime, which she sings mostly solo, with instrumental accompaniment. Other songs feature Mitchell and fellow performers sharing the lead vocals, sometimes in unison, sometimes crossing over each other, slightly out of sync. This brings an improvisational liveliness to songs including A Case of You, which receives a standing ovation from the audience and the performers alike.
Her own performances are interspersed with covers of Mitchell songs by others on stage, often prefaced by short speeches describing what her music meant to them. “You’re such a visionary, such a legend, such an inspiration to all of us on the stage and everyone out there,” Lennox says before singing Ladies of the Canyon, which she describes as the song that inspired her career. Another is a potent rendition of Help Me, performed by the singer and guitarist Celisse, whom Mitchell calls “the lady Jimi Hendrix”.
Despite the heavy praise back and forth, Mitchell’s performance feels ego-free. She laughs and cracks jokes between songs and further extols the virtues of her fellow performers, never seeming to take the evening too seriously. That sets the tone for a joyful show, though the momentousness of the occasion leaves more than a few audience members – and even some on stage – tearful.
For the encore, Mitchell picks up a guitar. It is surreal to see a legend who had barely been able to speak a few years earlier perform virtually solo, accompanying herself as she sang her song If, which she describes as one of her favourites.
The lyrics offer hope to the listener, “if you can draw a crowd and keep your virtue.” As tens of thousands celebrate her, Mitchell – whose wide appeal over the decades has never inhibited her consummate artistry – might have been singing about herself.