Joni Mitchell’s much-anticipated new live album was released to rapturous reviews a week ago. There’s a phrase you don’t often hear: “Much-anticipated new live album.”
But At Newport documents the 79-year-old singer-songwriter’s surprise appearance at last summer’s Newport Folk Festival, which marked her first public performance since she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015. She was left unable able to walk or talk, let alone sing or play the guitar.
In an era when spectacle tours and splashy music festivals grab outsized media attention, Mitchell’s sunlit show at Newport a year ago earned the annual Rhode Island affair its most attention since Bob Dylan went electric there in ‘65.
YouTube videos of the performance, which was hosted by the Grammy-winning Americana star Brandi Carlile and featured a stage full of guest musicians, popped up almost instantly and were eagerly devoured. It was a galvanizing social-media moment in support of Mitchell, a beatific and beret-wearing matriarch who faced the crowd while sitting in a fancy chair as if to the throne born. This was an artist whose defiance had defined her career, and now she had defied the odds by even being on stage.
Near unanimously, critics have weighed in on At Newport with effusive, generous applause. Typical of the warm reception, American Songwriter magazine’s Lee Zimmerman found it “hard not to get caught up in the sentiment shared both on and off that festival stage,” and then proved it by excitably writing that the recording “can easily be considered an album for the ages.”
Maybe. Carlile called the Newport show the “Joni Jam,” in reference to the casual, private gatherings of musical friends in California she and Mitchell hosted during the latter’s recovery from the aneurysm. At Newport is indeed a jam – as in, uneven and under-rehearsed. Harmonies are something other than close, as Mitchell sometimes struggles to find her place within the unfamiliar arrangements of her own hits.
Against the buoyant strum of Big Yellow Taxi, her voice is low and deadpan, a far cry from the dulcet chirp heard on the original 1970 recording. Carlile vocally overpowers Mitchell on the gospely Shine.
The star attraction shines when given the chance. The jazz standard Summertime is done dreamily, Mitchell’s voice dusky and blue on a magical summer day. The woman we didn’t know would ever be able to sing a melody again does just that: “One of these mornings, you gonna rise up singin’ / Yes, you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky.”
That this record has been so widely reviewed is atypical of live albums, which are traditionally dismissed as gifts to fans or as the consummations of artists’ contractual obligations to their record labels. Today more than ever, with bootleg concert videos ubiquitously available online, a proper live album is seen more as dutifully issued artist merchandise than artistic statement.
The concert records we now view as iconic were rarely if ever highly anticipated, even if they went on later to define eras and serve as signposts to essential moments in the careers of artists or bands.
A year before Peter Frampton released one of the best-selling live albums of all time, the studio version of his song Show Me The Way had tanked as a single. Fetching as he was, the blonde British rocker was not yet a hot property commercially: his concert album, Frampton Comes Alive!, debuted at just 191 on the Billboard album chart in 1976.
As the lead single of that album, however, the live Show Me The Way surprisingly rocketed to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the mighty Frampton Comes Alive! earned its exclamation point by becoming the sound of the summer in ‘76.
A rare example of a live album that was actually looked forward to is Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York from 1994. Millions had watched the band’s MTV performance, and the resulting album was the band’s first release after the suicide of front man Kurt Cobain. It debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 and piled up the highest first-week sales of Nirvana’s career.
Like Nirvana’s Unplugged, the new Joni album enjoys built-in advance publicity.
As does, one supposes, Gordon Lightfoot’s posthumous At Royal Albert Hall, which was also released last week. The announcement of the album, recorded at the famous London venue in 2016, came in the aftermath of the news that the beloved national troubadour had died (on May 1, at age 84).
If At Newport is an album for the ages, At Royal Albert Hall is an album for the aged. Lightfoot, who relied on backstage oxygen tanks late in his career, is in winded and often mumbling form vocally. One of the joys of attending recent Lightfoot concerts was his amiable between-song banter. Inexplicably, the chatter seems to have been edited out.
Some CD copies in the United States listed Carefree Highway as “Careful Highway” by mistake. Although the album’s release was apparently not only authorized but insisted upon by Lightfoot before his death, its purpose is not obvious.
On the other hand, At Newport, at turns ebullient and poignant, is a meaningful portrait, a big-hearted celebration of a muse and an exercise in grace. The album closes with Mitchell leading a singalong version of The Circle Game, a hopeful song about seasons and the “carousel of time” she wrote in her early 20s.
“There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty,” Mitchell sings, “before the last revolving year is through.” She cackles when the song is over and says, “So fun,” before the crowd chants her name as the album fades to a close. Why is this woman laughing? Because she has circles left, and game remaining too.