Now with one scheduled concert coming up in Washington state in June, Mitchell capped yet another tribute to her rich catalog of music at the Library of Congress event by favoring the audience with two songs, on a stage where 13 of her oil paintings from over the years were largely projected.
The first was a suitably languorous version of “Summertime” by the prize namesakes, George and Ira Gershwin.
At 79, Mitchell with her long blonde hair and a velvety robe, looked every bit the regal high priestess of song. But while one might expect her voice to reflect the effects of time and ailments, it was a revelation that while it is certainly lower than the ringing tones of her 1970s heyday, it was clear and rich and made room for some smart and cool note variations.
Alongside the piano of the show’s musical director Greg Phillinganes, a tasty solo from the guitarist Celisse and a lonely trumpet of Mark Isham (playing, for this song, from out in the seats for some reason (acoustics? TV angles?), Mitchell was further bolstered by backing (and back-and-forth) vocals by Carlile, the Grammy-rich enabler who has helped smooth the legend’s path back to recovery and ultimately public performance. But it was Joni in full control.
Then came the finale, drawing the impressive cast of performers for the event. It was dominated by women she inspired (Carlile, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Krall, Angelique Kidjo), but also a couple of ex boyfriends (Graham Nash and James Taylor).
The singalong inevitably chosen for the finale was her delightful musing about the passage of time, itself dating back 56 years, “The Circle Game.”
The previously-unannounced “surprise” Mitchell performance was no surprise to her, of course. With musicians at the ready and lyrics unnecessarily in the teleprompter, it came immediately after the official awarding of the Gershwin Prize. Surrounded by a half dozen politicians, Democratic and Republican alike, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and admitted superfan Sen. Amy Klobuchar, provided the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden with her best quip, that at least as politics were concerned, “you’ve got both sides now.”
The evening had begun in fact with “Both Sides Now” in a stirring performance by Annie Lennox that triggered the first of what would be constant, and deserving ovations for every performer who followed.
It was Marcus Mumford who gave the first song of the night, “Carrie,” after a heartfelt introduction from host and chief ringleader Carlile. Some may have wondered why the Mumford and Sons frontman was even connected, though he said earlier on the red carpet that he had been among the musicians invited to Mitchell’s house for informal Joni Jams that eased her path back to performing — and healing. Mumford had also been among the musicians backing Mitchell at Newport last August.
Angelique Kidjo who said before the performance that songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” inspired her as a youth in Africa to become a singer and eventually come to America, took on “Help Me,” climbing off stage and into the audience where Mitchell, in a change from previous years, sat in the front row rather than in a box at the side of the stage.
James Taylor has a long and rich history with Mitchell, providing guitar for her and knocking around Europe when she was on tour there in 1971. He reminisced briefly about this on stage before doing one of the songs he played on for her classic album Blue, “California.”
He also suffered the indignity though, of having his song stopped midway for some technical reasons. “I’m sorry James, we have to stop” repeated a disembodied voice that he initially ignored. It wasn’t until show producer Ken Ehrlich put a hand on his shoulder that he halted.
“Is this where you come in?” Taylor deadpanned to him before he started the whole thing over.
Ehrlich, veteran of many a successful Grammy broadcasts, succeeds in acquiring talent and creating memorable television, but it’s not nearly as fun for those watching it live. Long pauses before musical numbers for stage setups were often used to show clips or random congratulatory clips from past Gershwin recipients, but sure changed the pacing of the live experience.
Cyndi Lauper, for example, did a lovely, heartbreaking version of the very difficult title song from Blue only to have to do the whole thing over again for TV reasons. Speeches too had to be repeated, robbing them of their immediacy.
“TV!” Mitchell herself said with bemused exasperation as she too had to wait for all manner of stage preparations before her own performance.
The individual performances made up for that, not only of beloved songs defining the crowning point of the singer-songwriter era but at least one lesser known selection, the stirring title song from Mitchell’s last album from 2007, “Shine.”
As performed by Carlile the somewhat sardonic benediction for the times got chuckles for a line about “asshole[s] passing on the right” and sporadic applause one about “lousy leadership,” knowing who else was in the hall listening.
Nash may have had the closest relationship with Mitchell — they shared a home everyone knows as “Our House” and collaborated for a few years romantically and artistically. Still, at 81 he seemed a little stilted on stage as he sang “A Case of You,” an odd choice since it was thought to have been written about him.
Mitchell’s jazzy forays were evident not only in her own vocal phrasing but in songs like “For the Roses,” well performed by Diana Krall, and Herbie Hancock’s reading of the title song from his Grammy-winning 2007 “River: The Joni Letters,” with vocals by Ledisi. Ledisi had earlier led the crowd in a rousing “Big Yellow Taxi” whose the final notes were sung in delightfully low tones by the song’s revered author: “put up a parking lot.”
- “Carey,” Marcus Mumford
- “Both Sides Now,” Annie Lennox
- “Help Me,” Angelique Kidjo
- “California,” James Taylor
- “Shine,” Brandi Carlile
- “Big Yellow Taxi,” Ledisi
- “Blue,” Cyndi Lauper
- “A Case of You,” Graham Nash
- “For the Roses,” Diana Krall
- “River,” Herbie Hancock with Ledisi
- “Summertime,” Joni Mitchell
- “The Circle Game,” Joni Mitchell and ensemble
“Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” will air March 31 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.