Forty-eight hours after performing with Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, Wynonna Judd couldn’t figure out what she had been up to.
“I’m always like: What just happened?” the veteran country star spoke on Tuesday about Mitchell’s first full public concert since suffering a debilitating aneurysm in 2015. Unannounced in advance, the legendary singer-songwriter’s return to the stage – in which Mitchell, who sang and played guitar, was accompanied by a cast of friends and admirers including Judd, Brandi CarlileMarcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Allison Russell, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius — went instantly viral online in large part because of a fan-shot video that shows Mitchell singing her classic “Both Sides Now” as Judd, positioned right behind her, goes through what seems like every imaginable emotion separating joy and pain.
“I know I was crying most of the time, and I’m not thrilled about that,” Judd, 58, said with a laugh. “Who would it be? But I feel like I’m here to be a messenger of the value of life thanks to my mother,” she added. Naomi Judd, who committed suicide in April. “Joni was the soundtrack to my childhood — she’s my heroine — and Brandi invited me to come witness her incredible journey.
“I wasn’t there to play, I was there to besaid Judd, noting that her trip to Rhode Island marked the first time she had flown from her home in Nashville since the pandemic began. “It was magical – like death and life at the same time.”
Mitchell’s set in Newport – where the 78-year-old last sang in the late 1960s, just before the string of fierce and tender albums, ‘Blue’ and ‘Court and Spark’ among them, that would make her a superstar – was destined to replicate the so-called Joni Jams she’s been keeping at her home in Bel-Air since the aneurysm that prevents her from moving and using her voice. The beret-clad singer and Carlile – who has made it his mission to publicly celebrate Mitchell over the past few years, including with live performances of “Blue” and with its spearhead role of April Tribute to MusiCares Person of the Year — sat in gleaming armchairs, surrounded by their collaborators as they played through a dozen songs, including “Carey,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Help Me” and “The Circle Game.”
Mitchell’s voice was softer than in the past, his famously idiosyncratic phrasing slightly less certain. But as Judd’s reaction clearly captured, the sense of her musicality was strong and true, especially when she picked up an electric guitar for a feisty rendition of “Just Like This Train.”
So how did such a moving moment happen?
According to Newport executive producer Jay Sweet, it all started with a boat ride and a bottle of tequila. It’s an after-show tradition he and Carlile have shared since 2018, when Carlile headlined the festival and the two old friends then took to the water to discuss what they could do. do together in the future.
“Brandi looked at me and said, ‘In a year, we’ll be on that boat toasting the fact that we brought Dolly Parton to Newport,'” Sweet recalled. “And I laughed in her face.” But indeed the country legend performed in 2019 with Carlile and his band the Highwomen. After that gig, Sweet said, “I was like, ‘Well, we have Dolly – next year we’re f— And we were because of COVID.(Carlile declined to comment for this article.)
Like virtually all music festivals, Newport was canceled in 2020, but returned in 2021 with an acclaimed finale featuring Allison Russell, Chaka Khan, Yola and other black women. On the boat later with Sweet, Carlile (who had come as a fan and whose Looking Out Foundation helped fund Russell’s jam session) told her friend she wanted to perform at the festival again in 2022 – and that she had another special guest in mind.
“I said, ‘Who do you have? ‘” Sweet said. “She says, ‘We’re going to get Joni back. “”
Sweet was excited but skeptical. “It’s not just showing up someone who’s on the road or just too big or too cool for the school to come in,” he said. “You talk about a serious physical challenge.” Still, he was inspired by the idea of Mitchell returning to one of the places where she began her rise. “If she’s got to learn to walk and sing and play guitar again – if she’s got to get back on stage – maybe it’ll happen where it all started,” he said.
Still, those involved say they weren’t sure the performance would decline until it did.
Mills, a Joni Jams regular known for his work with artists like Fiona Apple and Alabama Shakes, said Mitchell’s progress in private gigs at her home has been steady but gradual.
“Every step of the way, she has surprised us all with what she is capable of,” he said. For the most part, his development has focused on his vocals, Mills added. But about a year ago, Kathy Bates, the Oscar-winning actress, showed up at a Joni Jam with a gift for Mitchell: “a beautiful, ornate, personalized electric guitar,” according to Mills. “Joni was so touched she held it on her lap. She hadn’t played since the aneurysm. But we put it in a tuning for her – I think it was an open D, which is the tuning of “Come in From the Cold” – and she started strumming.
“She has a unique right hand posture — it’s more like a bass player — and the movement felt alien to her,” Mills continued. “It was like she was learning it again.” In an interview in Newport, Mitchell told CBS News that she watched old videos of herself to figure out how to play her songs. Eventually, “Come in From the Cold” became part of Joni Jams’ set list, which led her to relearn “Just Like This Train” and “Sex Kills”. Over the past two weeks, Mills said, Carlile had quietly assembled a team of musicians for Newport and started telling them what songs to prepare to perform.
The festival concert was billed as Brandi Carlile and Friends; Sweet said the original idea was simply for musicians to perform Mitchell’s songs as a way to honor him. “Then it was like, ‘What if we can get Joni on stage? ‘” Sweet said. “How about we build a living room and put a couch and a bottle of wine in it?” What if we could make her play the guitar?
A dress rehearsal last Friday night was a test. “Joni came in and we all watched her get up and put on her guitar, the Parker Fly, and my jaw just hit the floor,” Mills said. Sweet walked into rehearsal to find Carlile and Mumford singing “A Case of You” with Mitchell — the plan was to have them take over lead vocals if Mitchell hesitated — and found it too much. “It was like hearing your first child’s ultrasound or something,” he said. “I couldn’t bear it. I had to go.” Everyone agreed Mitchell looked great, though they kept themselves open to the possibility that she didn’t feel up to the challenge on Sunday.
“It’s kind of like going fishing,” Mills said. “You hope to be in the right place at the right time. We were all ready until the last minute to get up there and perform Joni songs for Joni, and I think something about that may have made re-entry more comfortable in a public space.
With Mitchell in high spirits before the show, “The joy backstage was palpable,” Judd said. “I found myself in a dressing room with Joni and Brandi for an hour, and I was on my knees in front of her, putting sparkles in her face.” During the concert, Mills said he was amazed at the new harmonies Mitchell seemed to come up with on the fly — “inventing a new vocal role for Joni Mitchell in Joni Mitchell’s music,” as he put it. He added that in rehearsal, Mitchell played guitar for a verse and chorus in “Just Like This Train.” “But the day of the show, she did three verses and kept going. It was like being on a roller coaster: “Oh, wow, it’s starting again.”
When asked what she was thinking as Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now,” Judd said she remembers singing the song “as a little girl, she has no idea what going to happen in life, when she graduates from eighth grade.” She stopped. “My mother committed suicide. I am by myself. But I felt like I was in fourth grade again and my mom was going to come into my room and tell me to do my chores.
“I wanted to jump into the audience, I was so overwhelmed.”
The crowd reaction was nearly as intense, at least in part because Mitchell’s performance came as a surprise. Sweet said Newport staff have become good at keeping secrets, like with Parton in 2019. (Paul Simon also made a unexpected appearance at this year’s festival, performing Saturday with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.) The festival team even used a codename, Coyote, when planning Mitchell’s gig.
The vibe after the show was “a party — pure celebration,” Sweet said. “A million group photos.”
“Nobody wanted to leave,” Judd said. “I ended up next to Taylor Goldsmith, who I didn’t even know, but I texted her and now we’re best friends.”
And did Carlile and Sweet share their annual tequila when it was all over?
“Yeah,” Sweet said, refusing to convey what they might have envisioned for next year. “But I can tell you the words were, ‘Now we’re all doubly f—.'”