Joni Mitchell wrote rather presciently about “The Circle Game” 57 years ago, but anyone who’s experienced a little life knows that circles don’t always — or even very often — come back around to allowing people to enjoy some of the most triumphant nights of their lives when they’re reaching the end of their 70s. Yet with a little bit of an assist from Brandi Carlile, aka the Great Enabler, and her wide circle of friends, that’s what was able to happen Saturday night at the Gorge in Washington state, in a nearly three-hour “Joni Jam” echoed a similar but much shorter event that happened last year at the Newport Folk Festival. This more elaborate follow-up — billed as Mitchell’s first ticketed concert in 20 years — was partly a tribute concert and consummate love-fest. But mostly it was a testament to the singer-songwriter’s own willpower in fighting her way back to full performance mode after a debilitating physical setback that went unmentioned but was not far out of mind. However much Mitchell was in “basking” mode, it was understood that this triumph represented a circle that she really had had to close herself.
How long had it been since Mitchell had done a gig where she was the announced headliner? Long enough that lighters were still in vogue when she last did this sort of thing on a semi-regular basis. When the virtually the entire crowd of 27,000 or so lit up the enormous canyon hillside at one point in the show, Mitchell expressed her puzzlement after the song was over.
“Where did they get the light?” she asked Carlile. “Oh, cell phones.” (Not that this was a technology that had exactly escaped Mitchell; later in the evening, she and her host traded lines on the title track of her last studio album, 2007’s “Shine,” which includes the lines: “Shine on all the red light runners / Busy talking on their cell phones.” But, as Carlile pointed out, Gorge-goers proved the devices have their benevolent purposes.)
“You are stardust, and golden,” Mitchell cheerfully concluded, quoting her own “Woodstock” in signaling approval of the audience’s vast light show.
The format of Saturday’s show was similar to what went down with the unannounced, surprised Joni Jam at Newport last summer, albeit with a very slightly different lineup of guests, close to double the setlist, and, perhaps most importantly or encouragingly, even more stage time for the resilient Mitchell herself. At the outset of the 160-minute set, everyone who would be on stage at all during the duration came out and took their seats on couches or platforms — Mitchell plus 19 singers and musicians, along with two non-playing companions who have been at her side at events for years, in an extended living-room-style setting. (Framed photos of a dog and cat, presumably Mitchell’s pets, may have been meant as reminders of usual attendees of a Joni Jam at her home in central California that did not make the trip.)
No superstars turned up midway through the show for an isolated guest turn; everyone involved was on stage for the duration and had likely emptied a bladder prior to going on stage. “You guys, we’re not even halfway through this,” Carlile told the crowd about an hour and 15 minutes in. “It’s gonna be like a Grateful Dead concert here. We’re gonna play all night long. Glad you’re all sleeping here.” (A substantial number of attendees were indeed camping on-site, as Carlile is doing three nights of shows at the Gorge, which is three hours from the nearest major city. She had just played a 2-hour-45-minute headlining show of her own the previous night.)
The guests or players were much the same as they were in Newport last July — largely members of the Carlile Extended Cinematic Universe, like Marcus Mumford, Lucius, Celisse Henderson and Allison Russell, although some came from an overall mutual-friend group, like Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, Blake Mills and Wendy & Lisa, and others were more a part of Mitchell’s world, like trumpeter Mark Isham. Two big names who did not make it to New England last July had their appearances here tipped when they sat in with Carlile at her Gorge show Friday night: Annie Lennox and Sarah McLachlan. As the host explained, there would be performances for Mitchell as well as by her, and those dominated the show’s second half. Even the marquee artists spent the duration of the show in background singer mode (or, in Mumford’s case, playing percussion) before getting a single spotlight moment. There were grand ones in the “for” ode: Lennox’s dramatic “Ladies of the Canyon,” McLachlan’s angelic “Blue” and Henderson’s especially different, bluesier take on “Help Me,” for starters. (Carlile herself didn’t take a full solo lead vocal, preferring to trade lines with Mitchell on what amounted to crafty, shape-shifting duets of songs like “A Case of You” and “Shine.”)
Yet even more than at Newport last summer, this was a night largely dedicated to showing off what Mitchell can do now. It wasn’t altogether apparent at first, as the set began with a gang vocal on “Big Yellow Taxi.” Would the rest of the ensemble be covering for her, someone might’ve reasonably wondered at the outset? That hardly turned out to be the case, and it’s worth remembering that that particular greatest hit was written in a girlish tone that has been outside of Mitchell’s natural range for far more years than it was ever in. Most of the set relied on material from the more mature stages of her career, and as soon as she hit upon “Come in From the Cold,” the early ’90s track that might represent the apotheosis of hr later career, it was clear that Carlile and Goldsmith were doing round-robin lines with her for the pure beauty of it, not because she was in need of a backup team. It’s natural to want to give her score a handicap because of what she’s battled back from, but the truth is, we’d applaud anyone who’d maintained this great a sense of phrasing at 79, regardless of whether they’d recently had to relearn how to sing, play and even walk.
By the time she got to Gershwin, she sounded half-a-million strong. “Summertime” could not have achieved greater perfection, under any circumstance, in any setting … from the summery sight of the Columbia River dimming in the distance to the unshowy jazz in the arrangement to Mitchell making us believe — after a lot of hardship for herself, and surely for others in attendance as well — that the living really is easy. For anyone who can conjure up the memory of this evening in their memories, it may still seem so.
“Summertime” was part of last summer’s Newport show (and will appear on a July concert album taken from that set), as were a couple of more light-hearted oldies that Mitchell has a particular fondness for, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “Love Potion Number 9.” For the Gorge, though, she had one surprise cover to bring in at the very end of the night: her version of the Frank Sinatra classic “Young at Heart.” It’s a song that, in the wrong hands, can seem like a Pollyanna-ish view of old (or older) age. But no rose-colored glasses were required to see this as a sublimely happy-go-lucky ending to a night that also carried the singer’s eternal reminder that we really still don’t know shit about clouds at all.
If we could have wished for anything more from Mitchell in the show, it might’ve been more guitar — given the full understanding that it’s a God-given miracle that we’re getting any guitar at all from a woman who would have been understood to be forced to give it up. It’s likely too taxing for her to do for any extended amount of performance time, but it’s hard to overstate how exhilarating it is to hear her revisit her signature style, seemingly effortlessly, for the first two of three encore numbers, “Just Like This Train” and “If.” This was a welcome reminder, as much praise was extended toward her lyrical prowess, of just how influential-yet-inimitable she was as a player, when she was a prodigy who seemed preternaturally old at heart.
Much of the epic set proceeded as a friendly talk-show between numbers, with Carlile prodding Mitchell for stories that usually had rewarding payoffs. Occasionally the stories would be provided by the guests, like Wendy Melvoin, who talked about visits to the house back in the days when she and Lisa (both Mitchell devotees as pre-teen friends) were part of the Revolution. “Me and Lisa and Prince would go into the living room and Prince would go to her grand piano and start playing the piano,” she said, “and this is just classic Joni: Prince starts playing and it’s gorgeous and she’s like, ‘God, wow, that’s beautiful. What are you playing?’ And Prince looks at her and says, ‘It’s “A Case of You.”‘ So classic. She’s like, ‘Wow, I’m pretty good.’” (Melvoin also shared the tale of how Prince asked her to come up and sing background vocals on “Purple Rain” at a gig. “And she’s like, ‘I don’t know it.’ And Prince goes [singing]… ‘Purple rain… purple rain… purple rain.’”)
Speaking of trouble remembering lyrics, Mitchell told her own story of the last time she played the Gorge, in the late ’90s, when she was on a famous co-headlining tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. As she recounted it, Morrison was a little put out that he had never even had an audience with Dylan on the tour, even though she had. (“Bob’s rude — he loves to be an enigma,” she recalled telling him.) Van the Man suggested that they surprise Dylan by just coming out to join him on a song, invited or not. But when it came to Mitchell’s turn on the fourth verse, she couldn’t remember the words, so she kicked it to a backing musician. When she couldn’t remember on the fifth verse either, she just made up her own words — which made Dylan turn around and crack up. Morrison told her afterward that her memory lapse and improvisation had been “disrespectful,” but she countered that he didn’t understand: “Bob loves to see me fuck up.”
On a less amusingly rancorous notes, Mitchell told of how she learned there was an Israeli Joni Mitchell tribute band, called Jews for Joni. Then, she said, “the Jews for Joni group. got together with an Arab band and now and they call themselves Both Sides Now — and they sing my songs in Hebrew and Arabic and English. So, to me, that’s what comes to mind with the power of music; I mean, I’m so thrilled that that my songs had that influence on a bad situation over there.”
Carlile spent time making sure Mitchell paid attention to the crowd response, to take in how much she was loved… not something that she probably could have avoided noticing. But she also delighted in bringing out Mitchell’s more irreverent side.
“Joni just called me butch,” Carlile revealed at one point. “She said, ‘Drinking out of the bottle? That’s butch.’ … Now they’re seeing a real jam – they know the truth.”
But what wasn’t spoken was just as much fun to watch. Mumford said, in introducing his interpretation of “California” (accompanied only by Mills on a fierce electric guitar and Lucius on vocals), “We’re gonna ruin one of your songs now, Joni.” He needn’t have worried. The guest of honor gave him her ultimate 2023 compliment: Mitchell gently but firmly banged her wolf’s-head cane on the stage in time to the music.
It was Carlile who really served as audience stand-in as well as emcee and spiritual guide, though. The previous night, she had talked about how formative seeing three Sarah McLachlan-led Lilith Fairs at the Gorge was to her musical upbringing. “This stage has seen many powerful women walk across it and celebrate one another with no competition and a spirit of kindness,” Carlile said during the opening acoustic set she did with the Hanseroth twins, harking back to those festival dates. “Nothing could have prepared me for this day, though.”
On Saturday night, when McLachlan sat down at a piano to sing “Blue,” she was somewhat hidden from some of the audience, given the positioning of the instrument at the rear of the stage. Most of what we had a view of, then, was Carlile, for once reclining deeply back onto the couch that she otherwise usually sat bolt-upright on, closing her eyes, mouthing the words, a beatific smile on her face as multiple generations of her heroines celebrated or were celebrated. She was drinking a case of pure goddess love, straight from the bottle, and it was no time to be on her feet.
The full setlist:
1. “Big Yellow Taxi”
2. “Night Ride Home”
3. “Raised on Robbery”
4. “Come In From the Cold”
7. “Sex Kills”
8. “Summertime” (George Gershwin cover)
9. “Ladies of the Canyon” (Annie Lennox)
10. “Help Me” (Celisse Henderson)
11. “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” (original song written and sung by Rick Whitfield)
12. “Love Potion No. 9” (Clovers cover)
13. “A Case of You”
14. “A Strange Boy” (Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman)
15. “Cactus Tree” (Lucius)
16. “California” (Marcus Mumford)
17. “Blue” (Sarah McLachlan)
18. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers cover)
20. “Both Sides Now”
21. “The Circle Game”
22. “Just Like This Train”
24. “Young at Heart” (Frank Sinatra cover)