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Why Can’t We Stop Crying at Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ Performance?

On Sunday, Newport Folk Festival goers were given a remarkable treat with a surprise full performance from Joni Mitchell, who hasn’t performed live in nearly ten years. Mitchell performed a full set of classics — a catalog which includes some of the best songs ever written by an American. But one performance in particular took the world by storm. Her indelible hit “Both Sides Now.” 

The video is astonishing. Mitchell, performing her first full show since 2000, launches into what might be her finest song — one she has released several different versions of over her long career, tinkering with its nuances. Joined by artists like Lucius, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Wynonna Judd, and, at her side, avowed Joni superfan Brandi Carlile, Mitchell’s deepened, earthy voice adds layer upon layer of meaning to the reflection. 

Mitchell wrote the song when she was just 23, having just given her infant daughter up for adoption. The song unspools over three verses as Mitchell observes the sky, then her love life then her life itself, trying to piece together what she’s gained by seeing them from different perspectives and realizing how much she still has to learn.

In 1969, the song has a sweetly optimistic, almost bemused energy to it. As a young woman, Mitchell sounds curious, eager to see what lessons she may yet learn as she finds new perspective in the journey ahead. When Mitchell re-recorded and reworked the song in 2000, the gentle guitar swapped for orchestral strings and her own voice husky with age, the song was fully transformed. No longer a bright bargain with the future, the 2000 recording of “Both Sides Now” is sadder but wiser, weary of the tensions but aware of the mysteries.

Now, in 2022, flanked by Carlile, the song is slowed down to the pace of the clouds she sings about in the first verse, each word falling like a single raindrop on a warm day. “Now old friends, they’re acting strange and they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed,” she sings. “Well something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.” 

You can tell that Carlile is supposed to be singing along, but she spends much of the performance in tears, as does Judd. As did I, and my wife, and so many people who went online to express something almost inexpressible — just how transcendent the song made them feel. 

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Following several years of deeply traumatic experiences with a global pandemic, divisive political eras and oh my word, why even bother to write this whole laundry list again, we all know what happened, tears are coming a little easier. We’re a more fragile people than we used to be. It’s easier to be moved. People are crying at the teaser trailer for Wakanda Forever. People are crying at news of a new Beyonce album. People are crying about Amazon’s upcoming Rings of Power adaptation. People are crying at images of the galaxy getting piped over from the James Webb telescope. I myself cried the other day when a live recording of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” came on at the gym. We exhausted all our defenses surviving this era, leaving us with nothing left for moments of beauty. 

It’s just as well. Beauty is meant to be marveled at and, as Gandalf told the Hobbits, not all tears are evil. We were created for wonder, and that can take many forms. 

When the performance ends, the crowd bursts into rapturous applause while Mitchell’s on stage bandmates wipe tears from their eyes. But Mitchell herself is simply radiant, looking blessed to be there. She is too. A 2015 brain aneurysm was a real scare and there was no guarantee that she would ever perform again. Singing “Both Sides Now,” there is no indication that she has more answers than she did when she was 23, but she knows enough to be grateful, to slow things down for everyone else, to savor these moments. She’s teaching us to do the same. 

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