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Why people will be talking about Joni Mitchell’s surprise show for a long time

It was the 78-year-old singer’s first public performance since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015 — and her first full set in two decades

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Joni Mitchell arrives at the 64th annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Joni Mitchell arrives at the 64th Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Las Vegas. Mitchell has performed her first full-length concert in nearly two decades. The Boston Globe reports she took the stage Sunday, July 24, at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Mitchell joined festival headliner Brandi Carlile and an ensemble of other artists, including Wynonna Judd, Allison Russell and Marcus Mumford.

Jordan Strauss, Invision via Associated Press

Fans at Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival got a lot more than they bargained for Sunday night: a surprise set from folk legend Joni Mitchell.

The 78-year-old singer-songwriter behind “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi” took the stage and performed several songs — her first public performance since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, NPR reported.

It also marked her first full set in two decades, according to The New York Times.

“After all she’s been through, she returned to the Newport Folk Fest stage after 53 years and I will never forget sitting next to her while she stopped this old world for a while,” singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who Mitchell has mentored over the years, said in a tweet.

“I will never be over this.”

The significance of Joni Mitchell’s performance at Newport Folk Festival

Although Mitchell has never been one for the spotlight, the singer’s appearances have become even more rare following her brain aneurysm, which rendered her “unable to speak or walk, much less play the guitar,” NPR reported. The singer — who received the Lifetime Achievement Award at last year’s Kennedy Center Honors — relearned to walk and said she learned how to play the guitar once again by watching videos of herself.

In her recent memoir, “Broken Horses,” Carlile recalled performing in a tribute show celebrating Mitchell’s 75th birthday, along with artists including James Taylor, Graham Nash, and Kris Kristofferson. Mitchell appeared onstage during the encore, as her fellow artists surrounded her and performed one of her biggest hits.

All she wanted was to stand alone on that stage so that when the curtain came up, there she’d be on her own two feet, Carlile wrote. She gave it all she had at the time, but the curtain had been down for too long, and in the end, she had to sit in a chair when the curtain went up. I hated seeing that. Joni radiates dignity. She is as regal as a human can get.

We all sang ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ staring at her in total admiration and disbelief that she was onstage with us at all — sitting or standing, it made no difference to us, but it did to her.

She was determined to walk again. ‘For a third time,’ as she would explain to me later. ‘Once out of infancy, once out of the polio, and one final time now.’

On Sunday night, as Carlile was performing her segment at the Newport Folk Festival, she surprised the crowd by inviting out Mitchell, who proceeded to deliver hit after hit, telling stories and interacting with the crowd all the while. Near the end of the set, Carlile sat by Mitchell’s side, visibly emotional as the nine-time Grammy-winning singer began to sing “Both Sides Now” in a voice that has deepened with age. Even though the festival was outside, the crowd was completely quiet, recognizing the significance of the moment.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” wrote Los Angeles Times culture columnist Mary McNamara. “The simple sight and sound of her was astonishing enough; the world had every reason to believe they would never hear this legend sing live again.”

“Surrounded by an adoring crowd of friends, fellow musicians, and admirers — many of whom were not yet born when Mitchell wrote ‘Both Sides Now’ — she seemed to sing it this time with a grinning shrug: I really don’t know life at all,” The New York Times reported. “As if to say: You never know — anything can happen. Even this.”