Honoree Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell speaks onstage during the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song ceremony in Washington, DC, March 1, 2023. – Also pictured are Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, and Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP)
Washington: Artists spanning the genres came together Wednesday to celebrate the peerless Joni Mitchell, honoring her vast contributions to popular song.
The pioneering singer-songwriter behind poignant hits including “A Case Of You,” joins an elite coterie of composers including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett and Carole King in receiving the US Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize, which is named for the brothers behind American standards such as “I Got Rhythm” and “Rhapsody In Blue.”
Not one but two of her muses — James Taylor and Graham Nash — performed; both were among the lovers and collaborators she counted throughout her storied career.
Wearing a newsboy cap, Taylor perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar to perform the song “California” off her seminal 1971 album “Blue,” to Mitchell’s delight.
The 79-year-old kept the beat with her cane, donning oversized sunglasses along with a metallic gold beret and a long, bedazzled teal dress.
“Her music, it gets into you, and it sort of becomes part of the mix,” Taylor told AFP on the red carpet prior to the event in Washington.
“Blue” saw Mitchell mine her own heartache, including breakups with Taylor and Nash, to produce the record that’s a regular on critics’ all-time-best lists.
Nash later took the stage for a rendition of “A Case Of You” — another song on “Blue,” which many people believe she wrote about him.
“It’s a very simple song,” he told journalists prior to the event. “I think it’s very profound in what it says.”
“I loved it from the day that I first heard it and I’ll sing my ass off tonight.”
He certainly did but of course it was Mitchell herself who stole the show: after accepting her award she stunned the audience with a soulful, smoky performance of “Summertime,” an aria George Gershwin composed for the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
“This is overwhelming,” she said onstage, the crowd giving her a standing ovation. “There’s so many people that I care about in here tonight, from different parts of my life.” “New friends, old friends… it’s thrilling!”
The trailblazing Mitchell has experienced something of a renaissance over the past year, making a return to public life after she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her temporarily unable to speak.
She has since undergone extensive physical therapy that’s allowed her to return to performance, which at one point seemed a long shot.
Last summer she delivered her first full set in more than 20 years, surprising attendees at the Newport Folk Festival alongside folk-rocker Brandi Carlile, who was also a performer integral to Wednesday’s setlist.
“Her resilience is palpable,” said Carlile before the gala. “There are huge elements of her voice and vibrato that are back.”
Mitchell is slated to headline a “Joni Jam” show this June at Washington state’s Gorge Amphitheatre, again alongside Carlile.
Wednesday’s gala was a testament to the foundations Mitchell laid for women creating art in a world controlled by men.
“Joni was the first woman that I really related to as a singer-songwriter — as a creative woman,” said Annie Lennox on the red carpet. “There wasn’t anything like her.”
“She was this ethereal beauty that had this deep, profound insight into the world.”
Lennox gave the room chills with a performance of the ballad “Both Sides Now,” starting at the piano before standing to belt out the final stanzas.
She later collaborated with a bevy of women including Angelique Kidjo, Cyndi Lauper and Carlile to perform Mitchell’s environmentally conscious classic “Big Yellow Taxi.”
“This business is so men-dominated,” Kidjo told AFP. “And we have to find our space in there, and she has opened doors for many, many women in this country and in the world.”
Born in a small town in western Canada, Mitchell had her start playing small clubs and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she became a pivotal figure in the 1960s Laurel Canyon music scene and beyond.
She punctuated her deceptively simple songs with a distinctive, wide-ranging voice and open-tuned guitar, which lent an idiosyncratic sound to the standard rock and folk of the era.
Mitchell also received praise for her integration of jazz, collaborating with greats including Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, the latter of whom performed “River” on Wednesday.
“She’s like, up on a pedestal somewhere up there with Zeus,” Hancock told AFP.
“She bares her soul,” the superstar pianist — who dedicated an entire album to Mitchell’s covers and won one of the top Grammy’s off it — continued.
“Sometimes you try to hide things from others, and she addresses those kinds of issues.”
“I think it’s freeing for everybody that listens.”
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