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5 February 2024

The joy of Joni Mitchell’s return

Her appearance at the Grammys in a wheelchair, walking stick in hand, could add 20 years to the shelf life of rock stars.

By Kate Mossman

Most of the concert ads in newspapers these days are for farewell tours. Bands are retiring because they can no longer run around on stage – but Joni Mitchell is potentially adding 20 years to the shelf life of the major rock star by performing solo in an easy chair at 80, walking stick in hand. At the Grammys, Mitchell, who had just been awarded Best Folk Album for the project that came out of her unexpected 2022 collaboration at Newport Folk Festival with Brandi Carlile, looked like a magician in her zodiacal black suit, singing “Both Sides Now”. The low voice strolls along, a fraction behind the beat like Frank Sinatra’s (“Both Sides Now” is her “My Way”). She no longer needs to move. I can now see Jagger at a hundred, white haired and coarse as an oak tree, slowly rotating on a throne: “I was born in a crossfire hurricane.” I really would want to attend that.

Of course, Mitchell has not aged on stage over the years but was effectively brought back from the dead by the Newport appearance; long before the brain aneurysm of 2015, there were playground rumours of a mysterious disease – Morgellons – which targeted the areas affected by her childhood bout of polio, and felt like stinging worms protruding from the skin. Mitchell could see them, she said, and could not wear clothes for years, being forced to stay at home. She never aged in public – but I don’t think she wanted to. Even in her forties, making warm records with her then-husband Larry Klein, she said she didn’t think the industry wanted music from middle-aged women. There were no Grammys for most of that decade.

The other big performance at the ceremony was Tracy Chapman, doing “Fast Car” with the country singer Luke Combs – but while she would not have got the gig without his reboot of her exquisite song, Mitchell has found in Brandi Carlile a kind of musical support worker. I got annoyed by how much Carlile took the lead in their early performances, but she is retreating now, to guitar and harmonies. The sound of Mitchell’s new music, with its strings and candelabra, was presaged by her 2000 album Both Sides Now – one of her last releases before she called the industry a cesspool. A collection of her own songs reworked with an orchestra, it was far less obvious than that sounds. The premature grasp of life that isolated Mitchell in her twenties – the lonely observations that put her one step ahead – come full circle emerging from an old body, with a kind of “I told you so” wisdom. There could be a few more years in this unusual performance. I like the way she unconsciously taps her walking stick while she’s singing, like my nana used to when making a point.

[See also: “I didn’t want anyone to know it was me”: On being Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”]

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