By Eleni P. Austin

Have I ever told you how much I love Joni Mitchell? I heard the single “Help Me” 50 years ago and I was hooked. Of course, I was still in the thrall of Donny and The Osmonds, so it was a couple of years before I purchased Court And Spark, but after that, I never turned back.

Joan Roberta Anderson was born at Fort Macleod, Alberta in November 1943, after a series of moves, the family settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. A preternaturally talented artist and dance enthusiast, she began smoking at age nine, the same year she contracted polio. Hospitalized for nearly a year, her dance aspirations were derailed, but she continued to grow as an artist, but also turned her focus to music.

Once she finished school, Joni began booking gigs at Canadian Folk clubs. Thanks to her cool blonde looks, crystalline soprano, intriguing guitar tunings and captivating original songs, she began making a name for herself. Soon enough, she started playing clubs located in the lower 48. Around age 20, she became pregnant. As she revealed nearly two decades later in the song “Chinese Café,” “My child’s a stranger, I bore her, but I could not raise her.” She gave her daughter up for adoption.


After a brief and unhappy marriage to fellow Folkie, Chuck Mitchell (he agreed to help her get her child back, then reneged on that promise), Joni was back plying her trade, touring America solo. Well-known musicians began covering her songs. Tom Rush recorded “Urge For Going,” Buffy St. Marie tackled “The Circle Game” and eventually, Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” was a Top 10 hit. In 1967, Ex-Byrds provocateur David Crosby caught her set at a Coconut Grove Coffeehouse and was thunderstruck. He helped her secure a deal with Reprise Records and famously offered to produce her first album (thus giving her free rein to essentially produce herself).

Her self-titled debut (sometimes known as Song To A Seagull), arrived in 1968 to critical acclaim, but scant commercial success. 1969’s Clouds and 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon followed the same trajectory. But thanks to songs like “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now,” as well as “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock” and “The Circle Game” her fan base increased with each album.

It was her fourth album, Blue, released in 1971, that was her watershed. Written in the aftermath of her break-up with Graham Nash, the record was by turns, poignant, joyful, funny and caustic. Her next effort, For The Roses, featured the single, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” which peaked at #25 on the Billboard charts. But her true commercial breakthrough was Court And Spark, buoyed by three hit singles, “Help Me,” Free Man In Paris” and Raised On Robbery,” the record rocketed up the charts, perching at the #2 spot for several weeks.

From then on, Joni gave herself tacit permission to follow her muse. Her next two albums, Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira chronicled urban ennui and a cross-country exodus. The music on both was Jazzy and experimental. But her next two, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus landed with a thud. Although the latter was a collaboration with Jazz giant Charles Mingus (at his behest, she supplied lyrics to his classic melodies), Jazz purists were incensed and her fans were confused.

Joni’s ‘80s output was a little more sporadic. She met bassist Larry Klein during the making of 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, and this time, she married for love. Both Dog Eat Dog, and Chalk Marks In A Rainstorm arrived in 1985 and 1988, respectively and had their charms, but it wasn’t until 1991’s Night Ride Home, that she stopped trying to fit in with the shiny, happy, synthy ‘80s soundscapes and returned to more organic arrangements and instrumentation.

Her reign continued through the next decade with Turbulent Indigo from 1994 and Taming The Tiger, which was released four years later. By this time, she had connected with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, and was focused on spending time with her and her grandchildren.

At the dawn of the 21st century, Joni recorded Both Sides Now, an album of Jazz favorites, plus an updated version of the title track. Somewhere along the way, her flawless soprano had mellowed into a smoky contralto. The lower register felt like the perfect timbre to interpret these classic standards. He final album of new material was 2007’s Shine.

In 2015, Joni suffered a brain aneurysm that required her to learn how to walk again. It was an arduous recovery process, but Joni had traversed this territory before. Much to her dismay, she had to give up her lifelong cigarette habit.

Three years later, musicians gathered at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to celebrate Joni’s 75th birthday party. It was there she met Brandi Carlile. Kris Kristofferson had asked Brandi to perform “A Case Of You” with him that evening. A couple of days later, she invited Brandi and her wife Catherine (an ardent Joni fan), over to her house for a glass of wine, and a friendship was forged. The following year, Brandi performed Joni’s Blue album in its entirety at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Brandi, who was six albums into a recording career that began in 2005, was not a fan. But when she met Catherine, their newfound romance nearly hit a roadblock when she admitted she wasn’t much of a Joni enthusiast. Once Catherine introduced her to Blue, she began to understand and appreciate the majesty that is Joni.

Pretty soon, Joni began hosting informal gatherings at her house. Brandi organized monthly music sessions, dubbed “The Joni Jams,” recruiting everyone from Joni’s friends like Elton John. Paul McCartney, Bonnie Raitt, Herbie Hancock and Chaka Khan to a younger generation of admirers like Harry Styles, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, Lucious (Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig) and Blake Mills.

Delighted to have live music in her home once again, she began joining it, first singing, and then relearning the guitar. By the summer of 2022, her health had so improved, that live performance didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. Brandi was scheduled to headline The Newport Folk Festival in July, as Brandi Carlile & Friends. Following a rehearsal the night before, as an unannounced surprise, Joni joined Brandi and friends on stage. Her first public performance in nine years. Luckily, for Joni fans who missed that milestone, the 11-song set has been released at Joni Mitchell At Newport-Featuring The Joni Jam.

The opening introduction finds Brandi unable to hide her exuberance as she explains the genesis of the Joni Jam, noting it wouldn’t be complete without it’s namesake. As Joni arrives on stage, the crowd reaction is rapturous. Brandi shouts “let’s make history together,” and the ensemble dives headlong into “Big Yellow Taxi.” A trenchant eco-warrior anthem that originally appeared on Ladies Of The Canyon, it’s powered by jangly guitars, sturdy bass lines and rippling percussion. Sadly, lyrics like “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel a boutique and a swingin’ hot spot,” continue to resonate. The distaff duo, Lucius, take the lead but Joni’s willing contralto cuts through the honey, and her infectious laughter punctuates each verse.

Essentially, the assembled musicians begin a song and Joni jumps in whenever and wherever the mood strikes. The laissez fair vibe offers up some intriguing juxtapositions. “A Case Of You” and “Night Ride Home” feature lead vocals from Brandi, Marcus Mumford (sans Sons) and Dawes front-man Taylor Goldsmith. The former, from Blue is anchored by painterly piano chords. Brandi kicks it off and Marcus wraps his scratchy tenor around her soaring vocals. The lyrics, by turns, conversational, caustic and confessional, signal the end of a tempestuous affair, Joni chimes in on the verse that closely mirrors real life: “Oh, I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints, I’m afraid of the devil, and I’m frightened of the ones that ain’t afraid.” Sylvan woodwinds and swoony strings lattice on the break. Brandi and Joni trade lines on the final verse and the audience response is rapturous.

The latter was the first single from her 1991 album, Night Ride Home. Courtly acoustic guitars cocoon tart electric notes, the first verse offers a gimlet-eyed recollection the earliest flickers of attraction and heat: “Back in 1957, we had to dance a foot apart, and they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines, holding their rulers without a heart, and so with just a touch of our fingers, oh we could make our circuitry explode, but all we ever wanted, was just to come in from the cold.” As the years progress, wanton desire is supplanted by the need for intimacy and there’s a wariness when the two conflate: “Is this just vulgar electricity, is this the edifying fire, does your smile’s covert complicity debase as it admires/Are you just checking out your mojo, or am I just fighting off growing old, all I ever wanted, was just to come in from the cold” As Taylor, Brandi and a chorus of voices stick with the linear melody, Joni ping-pongs between the notes, harmonizing one minute salting the mix with her Jazz-inflected phrasing the next. Ironically, these songs, written 20 years apart, roam the same emotional landscape.

Asked if she has a favorite among her own records, Joni demurs, saying she rarely revisits her work. Then concedes that 1976’s Hejira is one she remains proud of, sharing an anecdote about the road trip to the East Coast that fueled most of the songs she wrote for the record. Right on cue, Blake Mills unspools some bramble-thick guitar and Taylor Goldsmith launches into “Amelia.” The lyrics were inspired in equal measure by a recent break up and the lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who mysteriously vanished during a flight over the Pacific. As Taylor nearly approximates Joni’s ‘70s vocal range, she drifts in and out of the margins. Her melancholy musings dovetailing with open highways and stunning vistas. “A ghost of aviation, she was swallowed by the sky, or by the sea, like me, she had a dream to fly, like Icarus ascending on beautiful, foolish arms, Amelia, it was just a false alarm/Maybe I’ve never really loved, I guess that’s the truth, I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes, and looking down on everything, I crashed into his arms, oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm.”

Flipping the script, the solitary desolation of “Amelia,” is swapped out for the irresistible joy of “Carey.” Filigreed dulcimer and strummy acoustic guitars are matched by willowy electric fills, wily bass lines and a propulsive conga beat. The lyrics chronicle the Hellenic idle that allowed her to get over her epic romance with Graham Nash. Addressing her roguish companion, she makes plans to return to her real life: “Oh the wind is in from Africa, last night I couldn’t sleep, Oh you know it sure is hard to leave you, Carey, but it’s really not my home, my fingernails are filthy and I got beach tar on my feet, and I miss my clean white linen and fancy French cologne.” Brandi takes the high notes, Joni takes the low ones, as she shimmies to the beat, and the ensemble add enthusiastic backing vocals.

Two tracks from her Court And Spark album are included. Joni goes it solo on an instrumental take of “Just Like This Train.” It’s beyond thrilling to have her display her guitar prowess, as she navigates her signature chords of inquiry. Less wonderful, (for me anyway, Joni may love it) is Celisse’s solo version of “Help Me,” which deconstructs the buoyant melody, stripping away the inherent apprehension and joie de vivre that accompanies frisson of new romance Chaka Khan better understood this dynamic when she covered it at Joni’s 75th birthday celebration.

Probably the most poignant song in the set is Joni’s solo turn on “Both Sides Now.” She first offered up an autumnal version on her 2000 album of the same name. She doesn’t drift too far from that arrangement now. The blithe and tremulous 1968 original is swathed in wisdom, regret and revelation. Pared-down to just plaintive piano, shivery strings and lowing woodwinds, her torchy delivery allows the listener to hone in on each epiphany: “Tears and fears and feeling proud, to say ‘I love you’ right out loud, dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I’ve looked at life that way/But now old friends are acting strange, and they shake their heads and say I’ve changed, well something’s lost but something’s gained in living life that way.”

Other interesting tracks include a Joni’s languid take on the Gershwin standard, “Summertime.” Then there’s the tender benediction of “Shine,” the title track from her final studio album. It’s part restless protest song, part tender benediction: “Let your little light shine, shine on world-wide traffic jams honking day and night, shine on another asshole passing on the right, shine on the red light runners busy talking on their cell phones/ Shine on the Catholic Church and the prisons that they own, shine on all the churches they love less and less, shine on a hopeful girl in a dreamy dress.”

The set closes as it began, with another crowd-pleaser from Ladies Of The Canyon, “The Circle Game.” Joni characterizes it as a sing-a-long, and indeed, the audience joins in. But at the heart of song is a mordant meditation on aging, charting a child’s first 20 years: “So, the years spin by and now the boy is 20, though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true, there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty, before the last year is revolving through/And the seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down, we’re captive on a carousel of time, we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.” As the song winds down, Joni offers up a hearty laugh, exclaiming “So fun!” Then the crowd picks up the slack, chanting “Joni! Joni! Joni…” It’s a joyous end to a landmark record.

Along with Brandi, Blake, Taylor, Marcus, Lucius and Celise, the Joni Jam Players include Phil and Tim Hansroth on bass, backing vocals, guitar and dulcimer, Ben Lusher on piano, Josh Neuman on cello, Alison Russell on clarinet and backing vocals, Rick Whitfield on guitar and backing vocals and matt Chamberlain on additional percussion. Group vocals featured Wynonna Judd, Shooter Jennings, Kyleen King, SistaStrings (Monique and Chauntee Ross), Jay Carlile, Marcy Gensic and Sauchen Yuhaun.

So, more than half a century after the misogynists at Rolling Stone dismissively dubbed her “Old Lady Of The Year,” and then proceeded to list all her conquests, a younger generation have begun to revere and respect Joni, fully embracing the grace, grit and gravitas of her music. Happily, she’s here to enjoy the richly deserved tributes and accolades.

A couple years ago, when he was near the end of his journey, her old compadre David Crosby noted Joni “was as good a poet as Bob Dylan, she’s 10 times the musician and singer, she was unquestionably the best of us, the best singer-songwriter alive.” Amen.

As for me, to paraphrase the best singer-songwriter alive, Joni is in my blood like holy wine, sometimes she’s bitter, sometimes she’s sweet, and I could drink a case of her, and I would still be on my feet, yeah, I would still be on my feet.