Joni Mitchell At Newport

Joni Mitchell Ages Gracefully on the Imperfect ‘At Newport’

Joni Mitchell has never needed anything more than an acoustic guitar to get her emotions, intelligence, and entire worlds across to her audience.

At Newport
Joni Mitchell
28 July 2023

What more can be said about Joni Mitchell? Next to Bob Dylan and Neil Young, there isn’t a more canonical singer-songwriter from the vein of folk rock that emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s in North America. Her continued influence can be heard across present-day acts like Neko Case and boygenius, as well as in more unlikely places like Sonic Youth‘s Daydream Nation (1988) with the track “Hey Joni”. 

There are different reasons for this wide-ranging impact – the evocative lyrics, the feminist perspective, and the inimitable voice – but arguably, above all is the special vitality she brings to her music. Listening to “All I Want” from Blue (1971) is to hear a person living exuberantly on their own terms without apology – a persistent stance taken throughout her career that has garnered her unconditional love from fans.

At Newport is the live recording of her surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in June 2022. Mitchell suffered a debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015, though she had stopped touring and recording new material circa 2007. Her performance last year was consequently received as a more than welcome return to the stage. Brandi Carlile, the nine-time Grammy Award winner, served as the event’s MC, assisted by a range of notable musicians, including Wynonna Judd, Marcus Mumford, and Celisse Henderson. Yet, this album stirs mixed feelings for different reasons, mostly unrelated to Mitchell herself.

Consisting of 12 tracks and lasting just over an hour, At Newport cycles through a set of classics and one cover tune, with most of the songs drawn from her 1970s prime. “Big Yellow Taxi” from Ladies of the Canyon (1970) energetically kicks things off, followed by reprises of “A Case of You” and “Carey” from Blue and “Amelia” from Hejira (1976).

The standout moment is “Both Sides, Now”, which approaches perfection. Though originally written by Mitchell, Judy Collins first popularized the song on her album Wildflowers (1967). Mitchell’s version appeared a couple of years later on her second album, Clouds (1969). It is a song that her voice has since aged into. Mitchell’s vocals are deeper today and have less range than they once did. Nonetheless, listening to this live version, you realize that youth cannot do justice to the depths of meaning layered into the lyrics. When she concludes the song by singing, “I really don’t know life at all”, it hits hard. If you have a lump in your throat, you are not alone.

This poignant moment is interrupted when Carlile shouts, “Kick ass, Joni Mitchell!” at the start of the following track. It makes you wince. This remark, unfortunately, summarizes Carlile’s attitude as MC. Does Mitchell need such crass boosterism? Carlile is undoubtedly sincere, but she comes across as too controlled and polished. Indeed, despite her well-meaning support, Carlile often usurps the moment from Mitchell, whether through her drawn-out introduction that starts the album or by beginning a number of songs that leave Mitchell as a backup vocalist. Despite Carlile’s spirited enthusiasm, the expression “toxic positivity” comes to mind.

This central weakness of At Newport reveals other shortcomings. “Amelia” has some brilliant stage banter and storytelling at the beginning, involving Mitchell buying a Mercedes in San Francisco and driving cross country without a driver’s license, though the song itself drags a little. “Just Like This Train” is rendered as an instrumental, even though the original has lyrics. The cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess (1935) is well done, but do you want to listen to covers at a Joni Mitchell show? It feels like filler. Mitchell is also largely absent from “Help Me – Celisse Henderson” and “Come in from the Cold”. Relistening to “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Carey”, these are essentially Carlile tracks. 

At Newport is undoubtedly shaped by Mitchell’s health issues. It is a significant document and, in many ways, miraculous, given her setbacks. It has some wonderful moments. Everyone involved gives one hundred percent, and Mitchell deserves this kind of treatment. This album will appeal to a certain type of NPR listener. 

However, Mitchell has never needed anything more than an acoustic guitar to get her emotions, intelligence, and entire worlds across to her audience. Her songs draw their power from edges and absences. To smooth out these imperfections is to work against her fundamental spirit. To add more people and musical accompaniments can quickly sound overblown.

There is a moment on At Newport when Mitchell explains how Hejira refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s departure from Mecca, but more generally, the idea of leaving with honor. Mitchell has aged gracefully and hopefully isn’t leaving us anytime soon. In the interim, let’s hope future recordings honor her better by foregrounding why we will always listen to her.

RATING 7 / 10