Joni Mitchell makes rare return to stage at Musicares' 'Person of the Year' Grammy event

by Dave Paulson
Nashville Tennessean
April 2, 2022

As she spoke on stage in front of a black-tie audience , Brandi Carlile acknowledged just how easy it is these days for people to talk in hyperbole. But that didn't stop her from making - and meaning - her next point.

Just as others once lived in the time of Shakespeare, she explained, "We are living in the time of Joni Mitchell."

Not only that, those in the MGM Grand Ballroom in Las Vegas that evening were having dinner with the legendary singer-songwriter, too.

Mitchell, 78, was seated front and center for a star-studded concert in her honor as she was named Musicares "Person of the Year." Musicares, the charitable arm of the Recording Academy, holds the annual gala ahead of the Grammy Awards, which take place Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Compared to recent honorees Aerosmith and Dolly Parton, Mitchell's complex catalog made for a distinctly heady evening. Like her work, the night sometimes turned dense and demanding, but the spiritual reward was well worth the journey.

And at night's end, Mitchell sang on stage for the first time in years, joining Carlile and company on "The Circle Game" and "Big Yellow Taxi."

Along with the tributes in the room, heartfelt video messages from Meryl Streep, Elton John, Neil Young, Lionel Richie and others were shared on screen. Even Spotify - whom Mitchell cut ties with over Joe Rogan's podcast - had a pre-show banner calling her "incomparable and legendary."

"That was such an exciting musical evening for me," she said as she accepted her award. "To hear my music performed so well by everybody who was on stage."

"I can retire now and just let other people do it," she added with a laugh.

Friday's performers included Jon Batiste, Black Pumas, Sara Bareilles, Beck, Leon Bridges, Brandi Carlile, Lauren Daigle, Mickey Guyton, Herbie Hancock, Angélique Kidjo, Cyndi Lauper, Graham Nash (in a taped performance from Nashville), Pentatonix, Billy Porter, Allison Russell, Stephen Stills, St. Vincent and Yola.

Below, a few of the highlights of a three-hour musical journey:

Herbie Hancock, "Hejira"

The jazz legend opened with an instrumental rendition of "Hejira," much in the same vein as his Grammy-winning album of Mitchell's songs, 2007's "River: The Joni Letters."

The two are now great friends - he sat at Mitchell's side all night - but he told The Tennessean before the show that it took him awhile to really give her music a good listen.

"At the time that she first came on the scene, I was so young that I wasn't paying any attention to her. I was paying attention to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and other jazz artists, of course. And she began to not just emerge, but stand out from the crowd...What she does is incredible. Unbelievable. And she has the courage to write about intimate things about her life, and bare her soul in front of human beings. That takes a lot."

Billy Porter, "Both Sides Now"

"Joni Mitchell, you are marvelous."

Those final words in Porter's preamble seemed to bring Mitchell to verge of tears from her seat. But the Broadway-bred musician and actor was just getting started. His transcendent take on "Both Sides Now" - a hit for Judy Collins in 1968 wrung the emotion out of every line, with a bold jazz arrangement that refracted a simple melody into new dimensions. It earned the first standing ovation of the night.

John Legend, "River"

"Joni Mitchell never lies."

Seated at a piano at the center of the ballroom, Legend first quoted his friend Q-Tip from his collaborative single with Janet Jackson, "Got Til It's Gone."

"But more than that, Joni," he continued. "You've been a trailblazer, a massive influence for countless artists who saw your unapologetic individuality and creativity, and were inspired to blaze our own path."

He was a great fit for "River," weaving between his trademark baritone and falsetto - the same blend that fueled his signature, "All Of Me."

Brandi Carlile with Stephen Stills, "Woodstock"

Carlile's thunderous rendition of "Woodstock" bridged the gap between the song Mitchell wrote and recorded on electric piano, and the explosive version Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded. To top it off, Stephen Stills walked on stage mid-song to deliver a smoldering guitar solo.

Carlile was one of the creative leads behind the show, along with Jon Batiste and Mike Elizondo. She's struck a friendship with Mitchell in recent years.

"Joni's a true abstract, she's a true eccentric," she told The Tennessean before the show.

"She speaks in poems, She speaks in songs, even casually. She's earthy and funny, and she's got a dirty sense of humor. But she is an artist, first and foremost, and it sets a spiritual bar for me as a songwriter."

Sara Bareilles, "California"

Backed by the brilliant guitar work of Madison Cunningham and Lucius (who served as the in-house harmonizers), Bareilles delivered the night's most faithful rendition of one of Mitchell's best known-tracks - and one of the richest, too.

Mickey Guyton and Allison Russell, "For Free"

It was a thrill to see two of Nashville's fastest rising stars - one in mainstream country, the other in Americana - join forces on "For Free," a highlight of Mitchell's 1970 album "Ladies of the Canyon."

"I have been listening to her since I was in my mom's womb," Russell told The Tennessean before the show.

"My mom was a teenager when she had me, and 'Ladies of the Canyon' was her favorite record when I was born."

Violet Grohl, "Help Me"

One week after Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters bowed out of the Grammys and all future shows due to the sudden death of drummer Taylor Hawkins, Grohl's daughter delivered a dreamy rendition of "Help Me."

The 15-year-old vocalist has cut her teeth in recent years singing with Foo Fighters, as well as the surviving members of Nirvana.

"Help Me," a standout track from 1974's "Court and Spark," was somehow the only Top 10 hit of Mitchell's career.

Yola, "Urge For Going"

Back when Aerosmith were the "Person(s) of the Year" at 2020's gala, the British-born, Nashville-based Americana powerhouse blew the roof off with their hit power ballad "Cryin'." It was awesome, but Yola also has incredible expressive range, which was showcased brilliantly in her nuanced take on one of Mitchell's earliest classics.

Beck, "The Jungle Line"

An inspired pick for modern rock's still-reigning king of oddball eclecticism. "The Jungle Line" was lightyears ahead of its time in 1975 with sampled drums, synthesized bass and unnerving key changes. It sounds like the birth of Bjork.

Cyndi Lauper: "The Magdalene Laundries"

"You left footprints in the sand for me to follow," the new wave icon told Mitchell on stage. "And I've followed them ever since."

And Lauper, clearly, has not missed a step. Nearly 40 years after "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," her voice is as recognizable, expressive and endearing as ever. Strumming a dulcimer (which she embraced early in her post-pop stardom), she put a staggering amount of emotion into one of Mitchell's late career gems.

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