Star-studded D.C. tribute concert to celebrate Joni Mitchell


WASHINGTON – Alberta-born songstress Joni Mitchell headed up a procession of musical luminaries past and present Wednesday at a gala celebration of her latest lifetime achievement: the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

A roster of performers including Marcus Mumford, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper and Brandi Carlile lit up the stage in tribute to Mitchell at DAR Constitution Hall, a historic venue just down the street from the White House.

Mitchell, 79, is the first Canadian and only the third woman to collect the prestigious accolade since it was established in 2007. But a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2015 had many doubting she would ever perform again.

She’s been proving them wrong ever since.

“My God, it’s overwhelming,” Mitchell, 79, said after climbing to the stage with the help of a handler and a cane to accept the award, alongside an assortment of members of Congress.

“It has been such a gift and so exciting to see all of these musicians that I admire performing my songs.”

With that, she performed the Gershwin classic “Summertime,” her voice strong and pitch-perfect, even as she leaned on a piano for support. She even lingered for a closing encore — “The Circle Game” — alongside all of the night’s performers.

Behind her, the stage was decorated with 12 enormous paintings framed by spotlights, all of them Mitchell’s own work, including a number of self-portraits.

Before taking the stage, Mitchell spent the night seated in the front row, a picture of musical royalty in her flowing green velvet gown, ever-present sunglasses and glittering gold beret atop familiar blond tresses.

Mumford kicked off the proceedings with “Carey,” from the seminal 1971 album “Blue,” long a fixture on all-time best-album lists all over the world.

“Tonight it’s all about Joni,” Mumford said by way of introduction. “Joni, it has been one of the great privileges of my life to get to play in your band, to play songs at your house. I love you very much.”

Mitchell grinned, tapped her cane and mouthed the lyrics as Mumford performed, a routine she performed repeatedly throughout the night.

Lennox took over from Mumford with “Both Sides, Now,” from the sophomore 1969 effort “Clouds.” Her soaring, gut-punch vocals brought the house down with what was only the first of several thunderous standing ovations.

A handler helped Mitchell to her feet to join in each one.

She greeted Angelique Kidjo, the four-time Grammy winner from the West African country of Benin, with a warm hug after her rousing version of “Help Me.”

One musical highlight arrived midway through the set: Carlile, Kidjo, Lauper and Lennox teamed up with New Orleans jazz singer Ledisi and indie popsters Lucius for the iconic Mitchell masterpiece “Big Yellow Taxi.”

During the song, the crowd jumped to its feet and sang along, including Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., one of countless dignitaries and U.S. lawmakers in the audience.

Amid the fray, all of the performers went down to serenade Mitchell in the front row, with Carlile handing over her mic to let the guest of honour deliver the final part of her signature line: “They paved paradise/Put up a parking lot.”

Before the show, Graham Nash, one of Mitchell’s former beaus, was asked which was his favourite Mitchell song: “The one I’m performing,” he said matter-of-factly. That turned out to be “A Case of You,” which he introduced with fond memories of meeting Mitchell in Ottawa in 1968.

“As you know, she suffered a brain aneurysm a few years ago,” Nash said from the stage. “But resilience is the right word for Joni.”

Before the show another former love interest, James Taylor, said simply: “She’s a national treasure.”

Wednesday was just the latest star turn for the resurgent singer-songwriter, who wowed fans last summer with a surprise set alongside Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival, her first full-length public performance in more than 20 years.

That appearance rekindled her love for playing live music, culminating in plans for a sequel of sorts — Carlile has billed it as “Joni Jam 2” — this June at the Gorge Amphitheatre, an outdoor venue two hours east of Seattle.

She also attended in person in December 2021 when she was publicly feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C.

Other stars on Wednesday’s bill included fellow Canadian Diana Krall and the legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.

As a Gershwin prizewinner, Mitchell joins a select group of legendary singer-songwriters including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Carole King. Video tributes to Mitchell from previous honourees were interspersed throughout the night.

Honourees are selected by the Library of Congress in consultation with previous recipients as well as outside experts, with artistic merit, achievements, musical influence and impact on audiences as the main criteria.

On Thursday, in keeping with long-standing tradition, Mitchell will sit down for an hour-long conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in the library’s cavernous Great Hall inside the Thomas Jefferson Building.

A taped broadcast of the Gershwin tribute concert is scheduled to air March 31 on PBS.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2023.


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