WASHINGTON – Eight years ago, Joni Mitchell was felled by a brain aneurysm that temporarily robbed her of speech and movement.
On Wednesday, one of music’s most venerated singer-songwriters leaned inside the curve of a grand piano, her right hand clasping a gold microphone to match her jauntily angled hat, and sang.
The slow burn of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” echoed through an otherwise silent DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., as Mitchell utilized the nuances of her husky voice, sounding both sultry and languid.
She ignored the teleprompter at the back of the venue that rolled the song’s lyrics, feeling the music and unfurling the “Porgy and Bess” classic with confidence.
Mitchell, for those who haven’t been paying attention, is back.
Her performance – which included a finale of “The Circle Game” – came toward the end of a two-hour concert to honor her as the 2023 recipient of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Previous appointees include Lionel Richie, Garth Brooks, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett and Carole King.
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The Gershwin Prize – named for the legendary songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin to recognize a living musical artist’s lifetime achievement in promoting the song genre – is the latest in a parade of accolades for the 79-year-old Canadian icon. She was appointed a Kennedy Center Honor in 2021 and named the MusiCares Person of the Year in 2022.
At Wednesday’s show, both her resilience and legendary songbook were applauded by an extensive lineup of musical admirers: Annie Lennox, James Taylor, Cyndi Lauper, Marcus Mumford, Graham Nash, Diana Krall, Ledisi, Angelique Kidjo, Herbie Hancock and Mitchell’s artistic caretaker, Brandi Carlile.
“So many people I care about are here tonight,” Mitchell said while receiving her award. “New friends, old friends. It’s kind of thrilling.”
The invite-only concert, which included members of Congress, Library of Congress supporters and guests of PBS, will air at 9 p.m. EDT March 31 on PBS and PBS.org.
Here are some highlights from the show.
Annie Lennox, ‘Both Sides Now’
On the red carpet before the show, Lennox said Mitchell’s music was, “A guide to me about how a woman could be a singer-songwriter.”
Seated behind a grand piano, Lennox, in a black sequined jacket, constructed her rendition of one of Mitchell’s most identifiable ballads from quiet contemplation to a visceral emotional wallop.
As she moved to the microphone at center stage, Lennox shook her finger in a “no” movement as she sang, “I really don’t know love at all.” She swayed with her arms in the air as her muscular voice cascaded through “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day,” prompting Nash to vault out of his seat to stand and clap at her final notes.
Angelique Kidjo, ‘Help Me’
Resplendent in an orange pantsuit and matching headdress, the spunky Beninese American singer added a jazzy touch to the swooping song. Backed on vocals by Brandi Carlile and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, Kidjo took a bold step midway through her performance and marched down the stairs in front of the stage to sing directly to Mitchell.
A clearly delighted Mitchell rocked in her seat as Kidjo peppered the ending of the song with percussive vocal curlicues, which also enlivened Lauper, sitting in her seat a few rows back.
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James Taylor, ‘California’
Sitting on a stool, acoustic guitar on his knees, Taylor tipped his trademark pageboy cap toward Mitchell as he reminisced about 1971, the year they spent together working on her seminal “Blue” album.
He infused the nostalgic strummer with the comforting sway inherently buried in everything he sings, as Mitchell tapped her cane along to the beat.
Before the show, Taylor contemplated the deeper meaning of performing for his longtime friend.
“As you approach the end of a long career, your colleagues from the same graduating class are being honored. It’s a facet of this time of life,” he said.
Brandi Carlile, ‘Shine’
No artist has been as instrumental in persuading Mitchell to appear and perform again in public as Carlile, a constant champion and unabashed admirer of the folk-pop luminary (whose affection for Carlile is mutual).
“I feel like a bit of a disciple,” Carlile said with a smile before the concert. “I love that this is happening for her now.”
Onstage, Carlile, with Lucius providing background harmonies, dove into what she said is her favorite Mitchell song, the title track of 2007’s “Shine” album. With musical director Greg Phillinganes behind her on piano, Carlile rolled through the lyrically potent song, her voice eliciting a cabaret vibe and her left hand pointing and waving to emphasize Mitchell’s pointed lyrics about technology, “lousy leadership,” “mass destruction” and other topics seesawing between positive and negative.
Carlile was a constant presence throughout the show, introducing biographical clips of Mitchell and singing background for several artists.
Ledisi, with Cyndi Lauper, Lennox, Carlile and Kidjo, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’
Explaining Mitchell’s early commitment to environmental causes, Ledisi noted that the singer managed to “wrap the message in a chorus that sneaks up on you.”
As the song’s head-nodding percussion kicked in, Ledisi was joined by her fellow powerhouse singers for a group singalong of one of Mitchell’s most popular musical creations.
The quintet bopped into the audience to dance around Mitchell, who put the punctuation mark on the song with a final deep-voiced intonation of, “put up a parking lot.”
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Cyndi Lauper, ‘Blue’
With her lavender hair fashioned into a stylish Mohawk, Lauper quietly shared that she used to sing the title track of Mitchell’s 1971 album to herself as a young girl as a form of comfort.
“Thank you for teaching me how to paint with words, with sounds and … with paint,” Lauper said before edging into the melancholy song. The mournful sounds of cello, piano and trumpet underscored the introspective lyrics while Lauper’s voice, dripping in beauty and sadness, mesmerized.
Graham Nash, ‘A Case of You’
The long-ago paramour of Mitchell’s – she was the muse for Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 1970 charmer “Our House” – recalled how, after meeting Mitchell in 1967, “She took me into her room … and played me over a dozen of the most wonderful songs I had heard in my life.”
With a harmonica and guitar around his neck, Nash unspooled the devastating love song, his voice not always pitch-perfect, but the emotion undeniable.
Before the show, Nash praised Mitchell as “an incredible writer” and reminisced about their time together: “We spent a couple of years in paradise.”