Folk icon Joni Mitchell wowed the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday (July 24) when the “Big Yellow Taxi” singer took the stage for her first full-length live set in more than 20 years. In her first appearance at the annual gathering since 1969, the reclusive Mitchell held court on a gilded chair for a 13-song set that included a parade of special guests paying tribute to the 78-year-old singer who has struggled with health issues and rarely appeared in public since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015.
Rolling Stone reported that Mitchell was supported by a group that included newly solo singer Marcus Mumford, Brandi Carlile, Blake Mills, Lucius, Taylor Goldsmith, Wynonna and more as they pitched in on some of her most beloved songs. The set kicked off with Mitchell singing along to songs such as “Carey” from Blue, with Carlile, as well as “Come in From the Cold” with Dawes’ Goldsmith and included some beloved pop covers, including the Persuasions’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and the Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9.”
“No one brings folk singers together like the humility of trying out a new song in front of Joni f–king Mitchell,” said Carlile in the introduction to the Newport set she curated and organized, according to RS; longtime fan and friend Carlile covered Mitchell’s landmark 1971 Blue album in full at Carnegie Hall in Nov. 2021. The pair collaborated on Mitchell’s iconic 1969 song “Both Sides Now,” playing a hushed version of the ballad as the stage full of musicians sat in awe at the master class, with video of the performance catching country singer Wynonna dabbing away tears during the emotional performance anchored by Carlile’s bandmates, Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
In Mitchell’s first full public concert since 2000, she looked and sounded regal, seated in her majestic throne while wearing dark shades, a beret and a vibrant satin suit.
Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius and vocalist Celisse Henderson stepped up for a vibrant “Big Yellow Taxi” during the rapturously received set that also included the group singalong to “Carey” from 1971’s beloved breakup album Blue, as well as runs through “Amelia,” “Help Me,” “Shine” and the George Gershwin Porgy & Bess classic “Summertime.” The highlight for many though, was when Mitchell busted out an electric guitar and played a solo over “Just Like This Train” from her best-selling 1974 album Court and Spark before ending the set with a throw-back to a tune she performed more than half a century ago at Newport, “The Circle Game.”
Mitchell was honored in April at the annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala, where Carlile and Jon Batiste helped anchor a night of celebration of her music that featured help from John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Sara Bareilles, Leon Bridges, Yola and more.
This weekend’s festival also featured another surprise set from one of Mitchell’s contemporaries and another mostly retired folk superstar, Paul Simon, who made a rare, unannounced, public performance at the conclusion of a tribute set to his music led by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Simon, 80, who retired from touring in 2018, played a four-song set on Saturday night that included “Graceland,” “The Boxer,” “American Tune” (with Rhiannon Giddens on vocals) and a solo finale of “The Sound of Silence.”
Check out some video from the set below.