Allison Russell is on an emotional high after sharing the stage with several friends and contemporaries at Joni Mitchell’s surprise performance at the Newport Folk Festival.
Sunday’s concert marked the first time in more than two decades that the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter performed a full live set, while Montreal-raised Russell provided backing vocals and played clarinet.
“I’m still floating,” the Juno-winning artist behind “Outside Child” said on the phone from Rhode Island a day after the performance.
“With every song you could see her gaining strength and power. She sang her heart out and we all got to witness and support it.”
Mitchell’s return to live music set social media ablaze on Monday morning when fans shared a video of the set. The popular musician appeared as a guest of Grammy winner Brandi Carlile, who closed this year’s edition of the festival with a show entitled “Brandi Carlile & Friends”.
Instead, Mitchell, 78, took center stage, accompanied by Carlile and other guests including Wynonna Judd, Marcus Mumford and Russell.
“She was so humble and kind of went like, ‘I hope I’m doing a good job. I hope I sound good,” she recalled Mitchell’s words.
The show began with the group singing “Carey” before moving on to other classics, including “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “Summertime.”
Mitchell sat in the center on a padded chair that resembled a throne. The set design was inspired by the so-called “Joni Jams,” an invitation-only event for musicians who join Mitchell at her Los Angeles home to perform together.
“This was Brandi’s idea to make Joni feel as relaxed and comfortable as possible and give the Newport attendees the gift of joining Joni in their living room,” Russell said.
“It was also such a chilled vibe in front of 10,000 of Joni’s new best friends.”
At one point, Mitchell strapped on an electric guitar to play “Just Like This Train” before closing the show with “The Circle Game.”
The Newport Music Festival has long embraced Mitchell’s presence in folk music. In 1967, while she was still an unknown singer, organizers invited her to perform as part of a line-up of aspiring musicians that included Leonard Cohen.
Mitchell has gradually returned to public life after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015.
Last December, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center for Outstanding Artistic Achievement, while in April she was named MusiCares Person of the Year at the Grammys.
After Sunday’s show, Carlile invited Mitchell, Russell and the other musicians to celebrate over dinner. That gave Russell a chance to chat with her idol about their common Canadian roots.
“Joni had her favorite food, lobster,” Russell said.
“I needed to talk to her about Saskatchewan,” she added of Mitchell growing up in Saskatoon. “She was so excited to find out my family is from there and our mutual appreciation for the beauty of Saskatchewan that eludes some people but is deeply felt by us.”
After missing a recent edition of Joni Jams due to her busy schedule, Russell plans to attend the next one. She said one thing the Newport show proves is that Joni is far from done being an artist.
“It’s almost like the world has relegated her to history, but she’s very much there,” said Russell, who plays Aug. 6 at the Edmonton Folk Festival.
“Her legacy is far from finished and she is far from finished. I think she’s coming into a whole new season.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 25, 2022.