Laughter might not be something you associate with a singer-songwriter as cerebral as Joni Mitchell. But there is a lot of laughter on this glorious live album: pleasurable yelps from musicians, rumblings of communal joy from the audience, and deep giggly chuckles from Mitchell herself, who sounds as astonished and delighted as those bearing witness to her first full live show since she stopped touring at the turn of the century.
Mitchell is a benchmark talent, an all-time great who stands shoulder to shoulder with the most poetically complex lyricists ever, with added layers of melodic, chordal, rhythmic and harmonic sophistication few wordsmiths can match.
Her output has been sporadic since the 1990s, with her last original album, Shine, appearing in 2007. Few fans probably thought they would ever hear from Mitchell again following a life-threatening brain aneurysm which left her hospitalised in 2015. So there was surprise and joy when she took to the stage, unannounced, at Newport Folk Festival in June last year, to participate in a tribute billed as a “Joni Jam.” That feeling of an electrifying, history-making event infuses this recording with a true “live” spirit. It may not represent Mitchell at the height of her powers, but it captures something transformative and uplifting – a sense of being present as a wonderful story enters a new chapter.
Led by Mitchell devotee and justly celebrated singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, a band of supremely talented musicians (including British folk-pop superstar Marcus Mumford, country singer Wynonna Judd and members of fine contemporary Americana bands Dawes and Lucius) had assembled to pay tribute to Mitchell’s back catalogue. It turned out that the then 78-year-old Mitchell herself was amongst them, perched regally on a chair, taking lead vocals on a handful of songs, joining in singalongs of others, and even playing some jazzy electric guitar on the instrumental Just Like This Train.
The word “jam” doesn’t do justice to the quality of well-rehearsed arrangements, with massed backing vocals on Big Yellow Taxi, Shine and The Circle Game that veer more towards choral exultation than campfire cheer. There is no real attempt to deliver definitive readings, with the vocal interplay between Mitchell, Carlile and Mumford on A Case of You shifting from the original’s romantic intensity to loose and cheerful celebration.
Nonetheless, there are moments that cut to the core, particularly when guest vocalists back off to allow Mitchell space to possess the song in a voice that may be lower and grittier than of yore, but remains supple, powerful and resonant. She offers up a stunning version of Amelia (from 1976 classic Hejira), with Mitchell’s delivery slipping and sliding around mesmerising guitar and bass work from Blake Mills and Taylor Goldsmith. And there is a sweet playfulness to a contemplative reading of Both Sides Now, the timbre of age adding weight to her declaration “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.” As the crowd offer a roar of delighted approval, the song fades on Mitchell’s long, infectious laughter.