If the first inclination, when Monday morning hits, is already to have a good cry, then new footage of Joni Mitchell giving a rare performance is escalating things to a full-on sob.
The legendary performer made a surprise return to the stage, performing at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, her first concert since suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2src15. The appearance was a Big Deal. It was Mitchell’s first full set in two decades—alongside Brandi Carlile and a chorus of musicians that included Wynonna Judd, Taylor Goldsmith, and Marcus Mumford—and her first time on the Newport stage in 53 years.
Videos of Mitchell’s set trickled in over the weekend, but one that went viral Monday has sent the internet into a collective emotional breakdown: the 78-year-old singing the lead vocals on a moving rendition of “Both Sides Now.”
The set was meant to invoke “Joni Jams,” the star-studded hangouts that Mitchell had been hosting at her home since her aneurysm, in which artists like Carlile—who had the idea to bring the session to Newport—sit with Mitchell, trading stories and songs. As she regained her strength and her voice, Mitchell performing live again seemed like a real possibility. The stage was set up with two throne-like armchairs, Carlile in one and Mitchell, in her pigtails, sunglasses, and a beret, the other. Orbiting them was the all-star lineup of musicians who would provide occasional backing or supporting vocals.
This has been a victory-lap year for Mitchell: She was selected for the Kennedy Center Honors in December and was named a MusiCares Person of the Year at the Grammys in April. The deserved sunset-of-career adulation was received warmly by Mitchell. But taking the stage and singing with such a full-throated passion again—even playing guitar for a song—was a surprise that just about melted anyone who clicked play on the video into a puddle of tears.
“Both Sides Now,” with its aching lyrics and stirring string arrangement, is an emotional song on any day. But Mitchell performing it with such gusto—a combination of frailty and strength that couldn’t suit the song better, revealing how subtly it still evolves—added an unignorable weight.
At various points during the performance, Carlile is visibly overwhelmed, as if in disbelief that this special moment is happening. Behind Mitchell, Judd begins crying, at which point anyone watching will surely lose it. Judd recently lost her mother, Naomi. When she reached her hand to the sky at the end of the performance, it was all over; I think I let out an involuntary shriek, it was so moving.
Suffice it to say that people online turned to social media for emotional support after watching the video:
There’s something wonderful about the shared knowledge that this song means so much to many people, and the collective understanding of what a profound, beautiful moment this was—and that we all now get to share that, too.
Yes, from the moment Mitchell started singing, I was a goner. Yes, when Judd starts to weep in the background, I was touched beyond belief. But the button on all of this is the exuberant, almost ecclesisastical laugh Mitchell lets out at the end. Not only did she just gift us something so wonderful, she also clearly had the time of her life doing it—which is another gift in and of itself.
There’s power in seeing how the song, which has been a part of so many people’s lives for nearly their entire lives, lands differently over time, both for us as listeners and Mitchell as a performer.
As NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote on Twitter, “This performance is such a fine example of what I think a lot of people hope getting older might bring: differently shaped brilliance based on your evolved gifts, communion with others, feeling welcome and valued, continuing to surprise.” Then there’s that added element of Mitchell’s enthusiasm at the end, which itself might be another lesson to learn from the song and her performance of it. As The New York Times’ James Poniewozik wrote, “Everyone else on that stage is crying/trying to keep it together. But Joni is beaming! We should all live our lives so well.”
In an interview with CBS News after the performance, Mitchell revealed that, even up until rehearsals for the festival on Friday, she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to do it. “I’ve never been nervous about being in front of an audience,” she said. “But I want it to be good. And I wasn’t sure I could be. But I didn’t sound too bad tonight!”
She also talked about what it’s been like to relearn her skills as a musician following her aneurysm, revealing just how astonishing it is that she was able to pull off this performance—especially to play guitar on stage again.
“I’m learning,” she said. “I’m looking at videos that are on the net to see where I put my fingers, you know. It’s amazing what an aneurysm knocks out—how to get out of [a] chair! You don’t know how to get out of a bed. You have to learn all these things by rote again. I was into water ballet as a kid, and I forgot how to do the breaststroke. Every time I tried it, I just about drowned, you know?. So, a lot of going back to infancy almost. You have to relearn everything.”
And if you’ve finished watching the “Both Sides Now” clip the requisite 13 or 14 times in a row needed to emotionally process it, then feel free to keep the tears flowing. Here are videos of Mitchell singing “Summertime,” “Circle Game,” and “A Case of You” at the festival that have also been making the rounds online. Happy crying.