The “Joni Jams,” Brandi Carlile called them. For the past few years, the singer and many of her famous friends — Elton John, Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton — have gathered at Joni Mitchell’s Los Angeles home to sit at the feet of the beloved songwriter, who has been contending with health complications since suffering an aneurysm in 2015.
Carlile explained all this during her closing set Sunday at the Newport Folk Festival. She’d invited a dozen or so members of the contemporary folk family to join her in recreating a Joni Jam, among them Wynonna Judd, Allison Russell, Marcus Mumford, and Dawes’s Taylor Goldsmith.
“But how are we gonna have a Joni Jam without our queen?” she asked before shouting the answer to her own question: “We’re not!”
And so 78-year-old Joni Mitchell, outfitted in a beret and big pair of sunglasses, took a seat in a wingback chair and presided over a surprise set of her greatest hits. For her first Newport appearance since 1969, the ensemble played Mitchell’s most familiar songs (“Circle Game,” “Big Yellow Taxi”) and a few of her favorites (“Love Potion #9,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”).
At first it appeared she might be content to sing a little accompaniment while her minions serenaded her. Carlile took the lead on “Carey”; the guitarist Celisse utterly reimagined the swooning “Help Me,” with Mumford enthusiastically attacking a set of congas. But by the time Mitchell put the piece de resistance on “A Case of You” (group: “Oh, I could drink a case of you”; Joni solo: “And still be on my feet”), it was clear she just needed a little time to warm up.
Mid-set, she played a meditative instrumental on an open-tuned electric guitar; it was Mitchell’s first time playing guitar in public since her health scare, Carlile said. With the group singing eerie background vocals, Mitchell’s version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” felt like a benediction.
And when she completed a breathtaking version of “Both Sides Now,” her host, fighting tears, addressed the packed crowd: “Did the world just stop? Did everything that was wrong with it just go away?”
Throughout the day, the trials of the world outside this fortress of solidarity were never far from thought. The communal aspect of folk music in all its guises is integral to the festival that the late George Wein launched more than 60 years ago.
“We’re here to keep something sacred alive — the power of the collective,” said Carlile, a key ingredient in recent years, before she introduced Mitchell. “If we love one another, we might defend one another.”
On the festival’s info page for ticketholders, under the heading “What Is Allowed?,” the first answer is “Kindness.” (The second: sunscreen.) Many mingling in the crowd of 10,000 wore their worldviews on their T-shirts. “Abide No Hatred,” read one; another, “What Would Dolly Do?”
Fittingly, the three-day weekend’s Sunday installment opened with a gospel revue called “Love Will Go All the Way.” Led by Phil Cook of the band Megafaun and octogenarian church singer Lena Mae Perry, they offered a gospelized take on “You’ve Got a Friend” before closing with an exhilarating version of the traditional “This Little Light of Mine.”
On the walk over to the next stage, two beaming strangers struck up a conversation. One of the women said she teaches the song to her first-grade classes.
“I teach it in kindergarten,” the other replied.
At Newport, “folk” music gets a generous interpretation. “The blues history of this festival is very cool,” said Buffalo Nichols, introducing an ethereal steel-guitar version of Skip James’s “Sickbed Blues.”
The Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha entranced a large audience at the Harbor Stage with their percussive folk songs and magical vocals. Many in attendance waved small Ukrainian flags.
A little later, Vermont’s Anaïs Mitchell delivered a sweet headline set. It was day four for her in Newport, she told her listeners: on Thursday, she took part in a ceremony to mark the release of the Postal Service’s new Pete Seeger stamp.
“I’m pretty much sleepwalking around the fort at this point,” she joked.
On the Quad Stage inside the old stone walls of Fort Adams, Joy Oladokun electrified the crowd when she segued from her wistful protest song “I See America” into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then, with an infectious laugh, she described her latest single as a product of her childhood obsession with both Nirvana and the Backstreet Boys.
But before Mitchell’s arrival, it was the Roots who nearly stole the show. Their version of “roots” music was a master class in soul, funk, and hip-hop history. Beginning with an exuberant mashup of “Jungle Boogie,” “Soul Makossa,” and James Brown’s “Gimme Some More,” the “Tonight Show” house band brought a few potential firsts to the folk festival stage — possibly the tuba showcases, almost certainly the keytar solos.
A torrent of sound, they nodded to Dylan and/or Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”), Boston’s Donna Summer (“Love to Love You Baby”), and Kate Bush’s everything-old-is-new-again “Running Up That Hill.”
But it was their cover of Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights anthem “Move On Up” that most effectively captured the spirit of the day, and the Newport vibe.
“Hush now child, and don’t you cry,” as Mayfield’s lyrics go. “Your folks might understand you, by and by.” Yes, the folks just might.
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.