Joni returns! (photo by Jason Tang from Brandi Carlile’s IG feed @brandicarlile)

Hearts cracked wide open.
“Where did they get all the lights?”
Venus crowns Our Girl.*

It’s Monday afternoon and I’m still vibrating from the “Joni Jam” concert at the Gorge with Brandi Carlile,  Joni Mitchell, & friends this past weekend. I wept, I laughed, I was entrained with the other 26,000+ people there … caught up in a wave of love, with the planet Venus shining her heart out over the stage all evening.

I was 15 or 16 when I first heard of Joni Mitchell. I was a folkie even then and my favorite Canadian folksinging duo, Ian & Sylvia, recorded “The Circle Game.” Then Buffy Sainte-Marie recorded it too and “Song to a Seagull” … and I was on a mission to find out who this extraordinary songwriter was who wrote songs that turned my teenage soul inside out. 

I went to my local record store one day and found her first album quite by chance. The LP cover was crowded with her undulating pen-and-ink line work, and I thought she drew like me (or maybe I drew like her). I took that album home like it was the Holy Grail and listened to it for days on end, savoring her imagery and metaphors. 

Joni's first album
Joni’s first album. I bought it in 1968.

I remember seeing her perform with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969 or 1970. My memory may be faulty but I seem to remember that they played there for a whole week, and my friends and I went to see them three times. We were exuberantly in love with all of them.

Me at 16, trying to emulate Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Judy Collins.

Joni’s words and music have kept me company most of my life, along with millions of other fans. Seeing her perform now at age 79 (I am 71) is especially poignant as her songs take me right back to my innocent teen years, with all the longing and excitement of my life unfolding before me, before heartbreak and trauma, before I had really seen “both sides now.” Now, I do know both sides of life, just as Joni does. She sang that song for us (how could she not?), her voice full of the life experience of her 79 years. So moving. 

On stage, Joni was delightful, funny and seemed completely at ease. She needed help to walk to her throne, of course, and her cane became a percussion instrument as the night progressed. She cracked jokes and told stories about her earlier years. She accepted the accolades of the other musicians on stage graciously … you could just see her taking all the love and praise into her heart. She kept sending love out to the audience and telling us how beautiful we were. Her voice is low and husky … she is 79 freaking years old and has come back from a brain aneurysm. I’m still in recovery myself from a procedure on my heart, and I am beyond grateful that I was able to make it to this weekend. Oh, the Circle Game … the Sacred Wheel of Life. Sometimes, we do get second chances. And more.

One of the standout performances was “Shine” from her 2007 album. “Shine your light,” Joni sang, and the audience lifted their cell phones up high, a sea of stars. Since Joni hasn’t performed in 20 years, she asked Brandi: “Where did they get all the lights?” Everyone laughed in delight. She said to us: “You look like a fallen constellation,” opening our hearts even wider. She’s still writing poetry on the fly, just like that.

A fallen constellation. From Brandi Carlile’s IG feed. @brandicarlile

Some of the performers on the stage sang to her. I was especially moved by three of them. Annie “F-ing” Lennox, as Brandi calls her, first spoke emotionally to Joni about how much she had meant to her, and that she would not have been a musician without Joni’s example. Then she sang a stunning version of “Ladies of the Canyon.” Marcus Mumford told Joni he was going to ruin her song then sang a kick-ass version of “California.” She kissed him afterwards so I think she liked it too. I was blown away by Celisse’s blues/funk version of “Help Me.” She too spoke from her heart to Joni, saying that Joni changed her life the first time she sang the song to her and Joni told her she loved it. Joni calls Celisse “the lady Jimi Hendrix.”  

Photo from @thebramily IG feed.

Brandi Carlile … what a woman. I’ve been a huge fan for at least ten years but after this weekend I love her even more. I love what a big heart she has, how she creates community, her activism, and the way she mentors younger musicians and promotes elder musicians like Joni. She’s such a Joni fan! Saturday night, she supported Joni in singing many of the songs with her. Brandi’s young clear voice soared to the high notes Joni can’t make anymore, and the deep notes of Joni’s voice came through loud and clear with the strength and power of age.

Brandi wrote this on her IG feed Sunday morning:

“If you were there, you were there.

I woke up this morning to the New York Times headline… ‘Joni Mitchell returns to the stage glorious golden and IN CONTROL’ and I burst into tears. 

Joni, I am so proud of you. Your strength, resilience, talent and tenacity is an inspiration to us all. You raised the bar my friend. You let your light shine and over 20,000 people shined their lights back on you like a fallen constellation.

Your voice is still echoing through the canyons. “Love Wins!” said Joni Mitchell, the champion of the world.

This generation’s Joni Mitchell is Joni fucking Mitchell.”

I am deeply grateful I was able to experience Brandi’s extraordinary concert Friday night, followed by the Joni Jam Saturday night. (I am now a hardcore fan of Allison Russell, Marcus Mumford, Celisse, and SistaStrings.) I loved camping with my friend Colleen, bonding with our neighboring campers, having great conversations with people from all over the country and even the world. To be present in a community of 26,000+ joyous people was extraordinary after the fresh, potent memory of the isolation of the pandemic.

Colleen and I waiting for the Joni Jam to begin, along with a few thousand new friends.

Deep gratitude to everyone involved in creating this event, from Brandi’s vision to the lowliest Gorge worker checking our wristbands (and giving us a jump on Colleen’s car!). 

You can read more about the Joni Jam concert in the New York Times and the Seattle Times.

Search YouTube for “Joni Jam Gorge” to see videos that people in the audience uploaded.

Or watch this one from Brandi’s Instagram page. (Rumor has it that Cameron Crowe was there filming the concert for a movie!)  

For her third encore of the night, Joni told Brandi “I want to sing a Frank Sinatra song.” She launched into a solo version of the 1950s standard “Young at Heart”:  “Fairytales can come true, It can happen to you — If you’re young at heart,” she crooned, then ended the night by saying “Thank you for coming, everybody — it was a beautiful experience.” The audience, musicians, and crew all laid our hearts at her feet.

And Venus, goddess of love & beauty, did indeed crown Our Lady of the Canyon.

Venus shines on Our Lady of the Canyon. Photo by me.

*Thank you to our neighboring camper, Llysa Holland of Seattle, who encouraged Colleen and I to write haikus about our experience. 

19 Responses

  1. Beautiful beautiful beautiful. Thank you for your elegant account, my dear friend. I love the photo of young Joanna; I’m so happy you got to be there to hear her again. And now I’m going to go play “Both Sides Now” on the stupid pump organ my mother bought for this house, from the sheet music I got in the 60s.

  2. What a magical event! The daughter of one of my lifetime friends got backstage and also upfront! Her childhood friend got the tickets for her! Her smile matches yours. Oh the absolutely joy of classic music! I’m so glad you got to go for all of it,

    Once in a lifetime concert. ????????????

    1. I’m so glad your friends got to go. I know that smile! Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime concert. A peak experience to be sure. xo

  3. I got chills, then tears in my eyes reading this. What a beautiful weekend, and a perfect re-entry into your own vibrant health! I’m so happy for you, Joanna, and I look forward to hearing about many more of your beautiful adventures.

  4. Thank you for writing your experience at the concerts, Joanna. I felt, just for a few moments, like I was there in a way the videos do not convey. I found my self chuckling and in tears as I read and found connections to the soundtrack of my life, which has left me smiling.

  5. Loved reading your poetic account of that magical night, Joanna! It was a blessing and a sacrament to be there, and your words reflect it all so beautifully. xo

  6. How wonderful for you Joanna!
    And you have been through a lot. Glad to hear you are in recovery.❤️❤️❤️. Haven’t communicated much in the past few years but I do keep up with your posts.

  7. I am sobbing, to hear about this, and grief, for I would so have loved to have been there. I wonder if she will ever do a concernt again. I saw her also at the Greek Theatre so many years ago, when I was in high school. I remember she was saying how lonely one can be even surrounded by thousands of people..I sang her songs as well, played my guitar, and wanted so to be a folk singer to…she shaped much of our lives, her art, her clothing, her songs, he wild ways…for better or for worse. So glad you are feeling better and coming through this initiation, I think many of use are having similiar experiences…sending so much love.

  8. Joanna, you wrote such a beautiful and loving account of this concert. I count myself lucky to have seen her in concert years and years ago, growing into my teenage years with her music always in my ears following still today at 68. Like all of us I have seen both side now and come out on the other side with a few battle scars and stronger because of them.

  9. What a night of joy and wonder. Or two of them. I have several friends who were also there and they, like you, were so moved by the experience. I’m sorry I missed it.
    Brandi Carlile has done a public service in persuading Joni to come back to the stage and studio. xoxoxoxo

  10. We are travelers
    Thru time, lands and memory
    All perfect moments

    <3 What a wonderful essay- so glad fate and karma made us neighbors

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