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Joni Mitchell and the Gift of Watching Our Heroes Grow Older Print-ready version

The—as Brandi Carlile put it—“matriarch of imagination” sang “Both Sides, Now” in her first-ever Grammys performance on Sunday night, and it was a moving display of a well-earned long-overdue triumph.

by Matt Mitchell
Paste Magazine
February 5, 2024

Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

A friend of mine did not watch the Grammy Awards last night; I texted her a play-by-play anyway. But when Joni Mitchell began singing "Both Sides, Now," I couldn't seem to conjure up much language to describe it, save for saying "this is devastating as hell" - largely because I was, in fact, crying the whole time. I think there's a lot of understated privilege, liberation and empowerment in watching some of our greatest artists publicly age on their own terms.

We saw it during the ceremony when Billy Joel - a five-time Grammy winner in his own right - returned to the stage to perform "Turn the Lights Back On," his first new song in 32 years and one that, had the stars not aligned (and Freddy Wexler, who spent two years encouraging Joel to trust that there was still something brilliant left in the tank), we might never have gotten that moment at all. And, on a night that ended with Taylor Swift breaking the record for most Album of the Year wins, the ceremony belonged to Joni Mitchell at long last - as we watched her, now 80 years old, deliver one of the most hauntingly sincere, patient and bewitching renditions of one of her greatest songs.

In a 56-year career, Joni has won 11 Grammys (10 performative, one honorary) - including Best Folk Performance for Clouds in 1969, Best Pop Album for Turbulent Indigo in 1995 and, most recently, Best Folk Album for Joni Mitchell at Newport in 2024 - but has never performed at one of the ceremonies. Though she wasn't invited to sing in 1974 when Court and Spark was nominated for Album of the Year, she was given a slot this year to coincide with her nomination (and win!) for Best Folk Album.

After a moving introduction from Brandi Carlile (who aptly and correctly called Joni the "matriarch of imagination" and "my hero and yours"), Joni sang "Both Sides, Now" in her "Joni Jam" style (seated with her cane in tow, surrounded by a chandelier and her accompanying players like royalty surrounded by her court) with Carlile, Allison Russell, Blake Mills, Jacob Collier, Sista Strings and Lucius (all of whom accompanied her at her surprise Newport Folk Festival set in 2022). After recovering from a brain aneurysm in 2015, this has been Joni's go-to performance style, on the handful of occasions she's taken the stage since then.

"Both Sides, Now" has lived a thousand lives already. Joni first recorded the song in the late 1960s and made it the closing track on her sophomore album, Clouds. More than 30 years later, she re-recorded it with a full orchestral arrangement on Both Sides Now, her ambitious, beautiful and contemporary take on her own long, transformative relationship with jazz in 2000. Both renditions are singular and moving, as the sheer truth of the matter is that, at its core, "Both Sides, Now" is a timeless track that can withstand the barriers of any era it is presented in. "The dizzy dancing way that you feel as every fairy tale comes real" is just one of many lines that continues to resonate; anyone and everyone can tap into the song's time capsule of retrospect and the continued and relentless momentum of life. None of this stops moving, but we can still find time to look back in awe here and there.

Joni Mitchell at Newport was a valid winner for Best Folk Album, though not necessarily the correct one. None of the other nominees (Dom Flemons, The Milk Carton Kids, Nickel Creek, Rufus Wainwright, Paul Simon and Old Crow Medicine Show) made such a momentous record, largely because Joni's LP is a documentation of her celebrated set at Newport Folk Festival back in 2022, which was a victory lap nod to a half-century career (and her first full set of music in 20 years). And, I mean, can you really compete with that type of emotional weight?

She played her hits, including "Big Yellow Taxi," "The Circle Game," "A Case of You" and, yes, "Both Sides, Now" - taking the stage with one of the most unfathomably stacked ensembles you could imagine (all of the musicians she shared the Grammys stage with, plus Marcus Mumford, Matt Chamberlain, Dawes and Phil and Tim Hanseroth). While the album sounds like it was, at times, recorded on an iPhone in the crowd, there's no short supply of Joni's humor and charisma and, above all, a sentimentality that's unavoidable when you remember that, in 1967, she walked played Newport Folk as a relatively unknown singer/songwriter not yet beloved by the whole world over. It was a reunion that meant so much to so many, and it was a reunion that was awarded accordingly.

Joni's performance at the Grammys was a triumph, there's no way around it. She took, what I like to call, the "Bob Dylan approach" to the moment, singing "Both Sides, Now" in a cadence not totally unlike that of the original, but one that is best fit for her vocal capacity right now. She sang slowly, measuring each verse with a heightened sense of nuance that, perhaps, not even the 2000 re-recording of the song could have possibly latched onto.

Her mezzo-soprano voice has deepened; her vocal runs don't have the picturesque, seraphic spaciousness they once did. But the profundity of "Both Sides, Now" - and her discography altogether - will always live in Joni's songwriting no matter what she sounds like on the mic. In 1969, she cooked up a track that has been applicable in the lifetimes of each forthcoming generation. You can point to much of Joni's catalog and express something similar, be it on Blue or Hejira or Wild Things Run Fast. She has a very distinct and revelatory and divine rapport with the world around her, and that harmony is baked into all 19 studio albums she's made.

But when it was announced that Joni would be performing at the 66th Grammys, online talk took the shape of folks professing their worries that her vocals would sound as worn-down in Crypto.com Arena as they did in Rhode Island two years ago. It is true, Joni Mitchell at Newport couldn't mask the deterioration in Joni's singing voice then. But it didn't need to. There's no sense in trying to hide the fact that Joni is now 80 and, after years of health complications, isn't the same woman who was singing on The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

It's an exhausting narrative to live in - this conclusion that we must look away from our musical elders as they age before us. As celebratory as Joni's long-awaited Grammy performance was in a musical sense, it was also a living, breathing flash of praise, adoration and necessary respect for an elder who, by all accounts, is not just one of the greatest songwriters we've ever encountered but, without a doubt, has been so crucial in paving the way for many of the artists who shared the room with her last night. We can celebrate Swift's win for Midnights all we want, but there would be no Taylor Swift without Joni Mitchell.

All of this was evidenced by, as Joni concluded her performance, the camera crew cutting to various emotional faces in the crowd - punctuated by Beyoncé, the most decorated musician in Grammy history, crying as the final notes of "Both Sides, Now" faded out. Though SZA dropped a massively vibrant and sensual rendition of "Kill Bill" and Billie Eilish crooned through a solemn take on her Song of the Year-winning, Barbie hit "What Was I Made For?," the definitive achievement of the night was one of our most-cherished voices cutting away the theatrics and embracing her own mortality for just a few moments for the time ever on "music's biggest night."

By all accounts, a long-overdue gesture like this may never happen again - as the Grammys tend to invite the most influential contemporary figures to the stage at least once during their tenure at the forefront of the zeitgeist rather than the inverse. Because of last night, Joni's absence in those invitations over the last 56 years is no longer as heavy a demerit on the Recording Academy's track record but, as Jay-Z said during his acceptance speech for the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, "we want y'all to get it right. At least get it close to right."

The Grammy Awards continue to make mistakes year after year (not honoring any of the rap or a majority of the international music categories on the live, televised broadcast being one of them in 2024) and, last night, they side-stepped speaking on an unthinkable global atrocity by, instead, passing off "peace and love" language as something worth saying that, really, said nothing at all (Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. claimed that "music must always be our safe space" while a genocide is currently being enacted on Palestine, all while mentioning folks like Dua Lipa - whose parents fled Kosovo during the Bosnian War - and host Trevor Noah - who grew up during the apartheid in South Africa - in the same breath).

But, having Joni sing was a bright spot immune to any type of force that might have attempted to dim its glow. I don't know whether or not this will be the last time she ever performs in such a capacity, but I'm trying not to sacrifice the joys of last night for the sake of considering what might come next. Joni is at the doorstep of the final era of her life and career, yes, but she tapped her cane to the rhythm of the instruments that ensconced her radiating, beguiling warmth and delivered an aching power as she fluttered, one more time for the rest of us, "I really don't know life at all." For the last six decades, Joni Mitchell has soundtracked our lives before most of us have even lived them and, miraculously, the 66th Grammys captured that unshakable truth by letting us all cry over and admire love's illusions, clouds, dreams, schemes and circus crowds for a few unparalleled, unforgettable minutes.

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Added to Library on February 19, 2024. (791)

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