Joni Mitchell released her last studio album, Shine, in 2007, after which her music began to take a back seat as she battled a rare skin condition called Morgellons. Then in 2015, she suffered a brain aneurism that briefly took away her ability to speak, left her unable to walk, resulted in the need for daily physical therapy, and made it impossible for her to perform or record.
She was rarely seen in public after that, though she reportedly began learning to walk again by 2018 and, in recent years, she did show up to personally accept a few major honors, including a Grammy and a MusiCares Person of the Year award. She also oversaw the release of a steady stream of archival material, including remastered old LPs and previously unavailable recordings from the vaults. Starting in 2019, moreover, Mitchell began making music at home with friends in a monthly series that came to be known as Joni Jams. But there was no talk of any new albums or public concerts. Her career appeared to be history.
So, when singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile—a major Joni fan—stepped onstage with such other Mitchell admirers as Wynona Judd and Marcus Mumford on the last afternoon of the 2022 Newport Folk Festival for a tribute concert, the audience expected exactly that. Carlile announced that the group was going to have a “Joni Jam.” Then, she asked, “How are we gonna have a Joni Jam without our queen?” After pausing for a second, Carlile exclaimed, “We’re not!” The crowd erupted as she shouted those words and added, “Let’s make history together…please welcome back to the Newport stage for the first time since 1969…Joni Mitchell!” And out she came to lead the group in a reading of “Big Yellow Taxi,” a hit single from her 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon.
It was a moving moment, but no more so than the rest of the concert, a recording of which has now been released on CD and vinyl under the title At Newport. It finds Mitchell—her voice deepened but its power undiminished—and her terrific accompanists delivering 10 originals from her large catalog plus a cover of “Summertime,” the Gershwin classic. The set, which includes some of Mitchell’s best-known material, features “Both Sides Now” from 1969’s Clouds; the concert-closing “The Circle Game” from Ladies of the Canyon; “A Case of You” and “Carey” from 1971’s Blue; “Just Like This Train” (which Mitchell performed solo as an electric guitar instrumental) and “Help Me,” from 1974’s Court & Spark; “Amelia” from 1976’s Hejira; “Come in from the Cold” from 1991’s Night Ride Home; and the title cut from 2007’s Shine.
Having Mitchell back on stage and singing these tunes so beautifully seems like some sort of miracle. It’s no wonder that in a video of the concert, many of her accompanists appear to be overcome with emotion. As for Mitchell, who will turn 80 in November, she laughs heartily after many of the songs and seems to be having a grand time.
Some months after the concert, reports Cameron Crowe in the liner notes to this CD, she sat listening to a final mix of the recording. “Who knew?” she said then. “Who knew this would be the best year of my life?”
The Contenders, The Contenders. This versatile quintet—four of whose members were songwriters and noteworthy lead vocalists—never scored a major-label deal. You’ll likely find that rather amazing after listening to this reissue of the quintet’s only LP, which benefits from a substantial remix. The group’s music is rooted in rock and pop but also draws on country, blues, and soul and, as the CD’s notes observe, “a little Carolina beach music.” The record features catchy, tightly constructed original tunes, consistently strong vocal harmonies, indelible melodies, and consummate guitar work by Champ Hood and Walter Hyatt, both of whom are better known as co-founders of the acoustic Uncle Walt’s Band. There’s not a weak track on the 1978 album, but standouts include “Hollywood Girls” and the beautifully sung “Light from Carolina,” both of which feature Hood on fiddle.
Nick Lowe, Dig My Mood (25th-anniversary edition). England’s Nick Lowe is best known for his power pop and new wave work in the 1970s. That’s when he played with Brinsley Schwartz and Rockpile and had solo hits with “Cruel to Be Kind” and “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.” He also wrote such songs as Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and produced Costello’s classic early albums. If you lost track of him after that, you may be surprised by Dig My Mood, a 1998 release that has just been remastered and reissued digitally and on vinyl in a 25th-anniversary edition. This excellent record finds Lowe primarily delivering torch songs that you could imagine coming from a bar’s jukebox at 3 a.m. as a final patron sips his whiskey—sort of a 1990s counterpart to Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. Bonus tracks on this new edition include a song called “I’ll Give You All Night to Stop” and four numbers recorded live in Japan, among them “Cruel to Be Kind.”
Darlingside, Everything Is Alive. This pensive fourth album from the Boston-based folk quartet known as Darlingside will appeal to anyone who liked its last release, 2020’s Fish Pond Fish. Like that LP, the self-produced new set consists of songs credited to all four members. Exquisite vocal harmonies that are occasionally delivered almost a cappella permeate the record. The music ranges from upbeat to melancholy, but even the songs that are tinged with sadness—such as “Darkening Hour,” which appears to consider mortality, and “Can’t Help Falling Apart”—feature gentle rhythms, lilting melodies, and gorgeous vocalizing that will keep a smile on your face.