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Joni Mitchell, 80, and the Grammys debut that was worth waiting for Print-ready version

The Canadian music icon took to the Grammys stage for the first time at the 2024 show. She also took home a Grammy for best folk album.

by Emilie Hanskamp
Toronto Star
February 5, 2024

Joni Mitchell performs "Both Sides Now" at the 2024 Grammy Awards. Chris Pizzello

Nearly two and a half hours into last night's 66th annual Grammy Awards, Joni Mitchell took the Grammys stage for the first time in her six-decade career.

It's a milestone you might have assumed the generation-defining artist would have hit long ago, but Mitchell's relationship with the music industry has been as fraught as it has been long. Yet as the stage lights came on and revealed the 80-year-old Canadian icon, sitting in her thronelike chair with wolf-headed cane in hand, staring head-on into the camera with her signature beret, all of that noise fell away.

Surrounded by chandeliers and some of her closest friends and collaborators, Mitchell launched into the first phrases of her 1966 single "Both Sides Now." The performance marked a major step in the artist's gradual return to the public eye following a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015. After having to relearn how to walk and talk, it was uncertain whether we'd ever see her perform again. Or if we'd see her again at all.

This context made her song choice particularly apt. Having written "Both Sides Now," about the fortunes and misgivings of life, at just 21 years old, Mitchell initially faced skepticism: What could someone so young possibly know about life? Some dismissed her as an ingénue. She eventually re-recorded the track in 2000, breathing new life into it as a 50-something woman with new experience and perspective. Now, with 80 years of life, love and loss under her belt, the song took on yet another level of meaning - almost like a cover of her own work. The master storyteller proved, yet again, that there are always new stories to tell.

Mitchell's voice, now an alto instead of a soprano, offered a renewed force and warmth. She was accompanied by artists Lucius, Sista Strings, Blake Mills, Jacob Collier and Canadian artist Allison Russell. To her left was Brandi Carlile, the artist and architect behind Mitchell's comeback. Carlile, stealing glances of disbelief and admiration at Mitchell throughout the performance, mirrored the sentiment that many of us were feeling from our couches at home: Joni is here. She's doing great. She still has it.

The stage was set to channel Mitchell's LA living room where, for years, she's been conducting "Joni Jams" with fellow musicians. The gatherings became a critical part of Mitchell's rehabilitation process, and Carlile eventually convinced Mitchell to take them public: first at 2022's Newport Folk Festival and then at Washington's Gorge Amphitheatre in 2023.

These performances have come amid a slew of other accolades and recognitions.

In 2021, Mitchell was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor. In 2023, she received the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Rolling Stone recently ranked her the ninth greatest guitarist of all time. This past Friday, tickets went on sale for Mitchell's first LA headlining show in 24 years. The demand was so overwhelming (take it from me, who was behind 33, 000 fans in the queue), that a second October date was added. Last week, Vogue published a piece entitled, "Could 2024 be the Year of Joni-Mitchell Core?" Whether you're new to the club or you never left, the Jonissance is here.

It's rare that the music industry gets the chance to rectify an artist's legacy while they're still with us. Mitchell has often expressed frustration over not being respected by the business and its gatekeepers, recently telling CBS that "a lot of doors were shut." She voiced her discontent over being kept out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until her induction in 1997, which she didn't attend. Although she's won 10 Grammys, including one last night for Best Folk Album, she has never won in a major category. (Her Album of the Year trophy was for Herbie Hancock's cover album.)

She faced relentless sexism in the media, most infamously from Rolling Stone Magazine, who named her "Old Lady of the Year" in 1971 when she was just 28, among other offences. Mitchell's revenge was to release her own version of a Jann Wenner diss track, "Lead Balloon."

But if the industry has some catching up to do, Mitchell has always had the respect of her peers and fans, many of whom were at Los Angeles' Crypto.com Arena last night. (Yes, it's a terrible venue name.) The lines of influence in the room could be traced with permanent marker: Olivia Rodrigo has cited Mitchell as one of her favourite songwriters of all time. SZA released a track, "Joni," in 2021, written from the perspective of the singer-songwriter. Lana Del Rey has woven references to the artist into several of her songs. And every other songwriter in the room has directly and indirectly taken cues from Mitchell's unique ability to mine the deeply personal in the pursuit of the universal.

When her 7-minute performance finished, Mitchell looked out onto the crowd, all of whom were on their feet, and she laughed with joy.

After a performance for the ages from one of the best artists to ever do it, it's no question that her fans were thrilled to bear witness. But as the icon smiled ear-to-ear, taking it all in, the most beautiful thing was to see that she was just as happy to be there.

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Added to Library on February 5, 2024. (674)

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