Songwriting icons Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon both made surprise appearances during sets at the Newport Folk Festival this weekend (July 22-25).
Neither performer was listed on the bill or trailed in advance of the event, and both made appearances during sets featuring a cast of contemporary musicians that had been intended as tributes to their musical legacies.
Simon appeared during Nathanial Rateliff’s American Tune Revue performance on Saturday (July 23), alongside the likes of Lukas Nelson, members of Midlake, Natalie Merchant and Rhiannon Giddens, plus slide guitarist Jerry Douglas.
Rateliff introduced the songwriter himself, some 10 songs into his set. “It’s been a joy and honor for us to learn these songs in a tribute to our good friend Paul Simon and the work he has done,” Rateliff told the assembled, before taking a tactful pause. “And I’d really love it if I could invite Paul Simon to the stage…”
Coming out of retirement, however temporarily, Simon then joined a number of guests to perform some of the biggest songs in his extensive back catalog, including Graceland, The Boxer, Sound of Silence, and American Tune. During the latter, Simon performed using his Martin signature OM-42PS acoustic guitar.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s set on the Sunday (July 24) was perhaps the bigger surprise, featuring a 13 track setlist from an artist who has not performed a full show for more than 20 years.
Like Simon, the songwriting icon made a relaxed appearance, surrounded by a cast of supporting musicians – among them Blake Mills, Lucius, Wynonna Judd, Celisse, Taylor Goldsmith and Marcus Mumford – led, in this instance, by Brandi Carlile.
Mitchell – who is 78 and suffered an aneurysm in 2015 – initially came in and out of the songs, but her contributions grew throughout the set.
By the close of the show, she took to her feet for an electric guitar solo on Just Like This Train and also delivered a tear-jerking Both Sides Now – looking clearly moved by the rapturous response from the crowd.
Indeed, both appearances proved poignant, as old favorites were given new context. Mitchell’s line “I would still be on my feet”, from A Case Of You, rung true with the audience and performer, as did the fragility of the 80-year-old Simon’s vocal on The Boxer: “The fighter still remains, he still remains…”
If you’re feeling inspired by the folk icons’ return to the stage, check out our lesson on Joni Mitchell’s imaginative acoustic guitar techniques.