Joni Mitchell, ‘At Newport': Album Review
After Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, nobody expected to ever see her onstage again. Then informal "Joni Jams" at her home in recent years featuring famous friends Elton John, Paul McCartney and Bonnie Raitt culminated in a surprise appearance by Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival in 2022, where she performed a brief set alongside Brandi Carlile, Marcus Mumford and others. (She's since played her first full concert in 20 years.)
The historic hour-long show was recorded for posterity and is collected on At Newport, an 11-song celebration of Mitchell's music and legacy. The guests – who also include Wynonna Judd, Lucius' Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and members of Carlile's band – fill in many of the missing pieces, but the spotlight is always on Mitchell, even when she's not at center stage.
That's a problem at times but an understandable one. Mitchell's first public performance since her illness was going to be a bit unstable, no matter how well-prepared she was. There are stumbles heard on At Newport, but not nearly as many as would be expected under such circumstances. So when her supporters (literally, in this case) step up, you wish they weren't such a dominating presence.
As a comeback, Mitchell's performances are often touching. Only "Both Sides Now" was officially recorded by Mitchell the last time she played Newport, in 1969. "The Circle Game," a popular cover in the late '60s, arrived on 1970's Ladies of the Canyon. Her too-rare between-song recollections can be funny and revealing, especially when it adds background and appreciation to the lesser-known "Amelia" from 1976's Hejira.
When she's the main voice onstage – stable and confident, given the conditions – Mitchell brings poignancy to her catalog: "A Case of You," "Amelia" and "Both Sides Now" are highlights. The group singalongs of "Big Yellow Taxi" and "The Circle Game" are a bit cloying but point to the universal appeal of Mitchell's music, which in effect is what At Newport celebrates. This souvenir isn't quite the same as being there, but it's nice to have her back.