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Joni Mitchell showed us why we’re still addicted to awards shows Print-ready version

by Ray Richmond
Gold Derby
February 5, 2024

There's a reason why you flock to Gold Derby, and I'm guessing a big part of it is you live to participate in predicting and handicapping the various Hollywood races. We love awards, and not just because it's fun to test our skill at prognostication. It's also because we love the ceremony and the pomp and the whole shebang. We dore the presentation and the speeches, the performances, the sense of history, the occasional electricity. And we would never think to miss the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes, the SAGs, the Grammys, because every once in a while, something truly magical happens at one of these shows that serves to elevate our existence for having shared in it.

The kind of magic that happened on Sunday night.

It's the day after the Grammys, and we can't stop talking about Joni Mitchell and the magic act she pulled in her first Grammy Awards performance ever at age 80. I watched it for probably the eighth time Monday morning, and I'm not ashamed to say I cried again even when I was sure the liquid had all been drained from my eyes. The power of music - and of performing with such grace at an awards show - were on full display in one of the most moving stage moments in recent memory.

It was very much as if the queen had paid her subjects a visit. Everyone in the room was aware that Mitchell, an undeniable music legend, had largely disappeared from view after suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm nine years ago. She was improbably brought out of the shadows and back to the stage by Brandi Carlile, who has made no secret of the fact Mitchell is her idol. Carlile inspired her to play in 2022 at the Newport Folk Festival and then again at Carlile's Echoes of the Canyon Festival in Washington. But nothing has been more poignant and dramatic than Mitchell's appearance Sunday night to sing her anthem "Both Sides Now" a mere 58 years after its original release in 1966.

The song began as a piano playing through darkness, from which Mitchell emerged in the spotlight facing backstage in a Victorian chair, wearing her trademark beret and beads. As the opening strains of the tune kicked through, she slowly turned to face front to wild cheers from the audience. Her voice has long since deepened, but it's no less clear and strong. And her regal bearing on Sunday served only to enhance the weight of the folk-pop classic tune that's now a time capsule of a life and career like no other in music.

As Mitchell sang, she was accompanied by what might best by described as her court: Carlile, Jacob Collier, Allison Russell, Blake Mills, SistaStrings and Lucius. Did I know who most of these people were before Sunday night? No. But they're some of my favorite folks in music now. They backed Mitchell with subtlety and grace, allowing her voice to emerge forcefully, playing guitar, strings and woodwinds in addition to backing vocals that were careful not to impede on the words being belted out by the royalty in their midst. v What was so impressive about the performance was the way Mitchell commanded the stage, as if it belonged to her and ger alone. Far from being intimidated by the passage of years or the intense spotlight of the event, there wasn't a doubt in her mind that she belonged. The intense expression she flashed throughout the song left that clear. There was even something mystic about the way she clutched and moved her cane in time to the song. I'm sure that part of the reason there were so many musicians on stage, and that they were singing and/or mouthing the words along with Mitchell, was the just-in-case scenario if she needed the help. But she didn't. In point of fact, Mitchell was leading the way, carried by the tune itself but not their assistance.

As the camera flashed on the crowd, you could see tears welling up all around, the power of music and a living legend propelling an intense reaction. There is simply no way another awards show moment can match it this season. It proved a rare instance when the stars aligned and enchantment and gratitude overtook everyone. You got the impression that the Grammy attendees were taken a little off-guard by the way it got to them. I know I was.

But again, this is why we so love awards shows. Sometimes, we're transported to a place we never expected to visit on a drizzly Sunday night.

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Added to Library on February 6, 2024. (386)

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