Alberta-born singer Joni Mitchell led a procession of musical luminaries past and present Wednesday in a gala celebration of her latest life achievement: the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress.
A roster of artists, including Marcus Mumford, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper and Brandi Carlile, lit up the stage in tribute to Mitchell at DAR Constitution Hall, a historic site just down the street from the White House.
Mitchell, 79, is the first Canadian and only the third woman to receive the prestigious award since it was established in 2007.
The stage was decorated with 12 huge paintings framed by spotlights, some of them self-portraits of Mitchell herself.
Mitchell was sitting in the front row in her signature gold beret and sunglasses, her hair in braids.
Mumford kicked off the process with “Carey,” from the seminal 1971 album “Blue,” which had long been on lists of the greatest albums of all time around the world.
“Tonight it’s all about Joni,” Mumford said by way of introduction. “Joni, it’s been one of the great privileges of my life to be able to play in your band, to play songs at your house. I love you a lot.”
Mitchell smiled and spoke the lyrics along with Mumford along with Carey.
Lennox took over with “Both Sides, Now,” from the 1969 sophomore effort “Clouds.” His version brought the house down to a standing ovation. Even the musicians applauded her.
A handler helped Mitchell to his feet to join the thunderous applause.
Angelique Kidjo, the four-time Grammy winner from the West African country of Benin, delivered her version of “Help Me.”
A standout musical moment came midway through the set: Carlile, Kidjo, Lauper and Lennox joined New Orleans jazz singer Ledisi and indie pop artists Lucius for Mitchell’s iconic masterpiece “Big Yellow Taxi.”
During the song, the crowd jumped to their feet and chanted, including Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the US, one of countless US dignitaries and lawmakers in the audience.
It ended with a flourish: the six singers descended to serenade Mitchell in the front row, with Carlile handing over his microphone to allow the guest of honor to deliver the final part of her signature line: “They paved paradise/Laid a parking lot. ”
Before the show, Graham Nash was asked what his favorite Mitchell song was: “the one I’m performing,” he said matter-of-factly.
“She is a national treasure,” James Taylor said.
It’s just the latest star turn for the resurgent singer-songwriter, who wowed fans last summer with a surprise set with Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival, her first full-length public performance in more than 20 years.
That appearance rekindled his love of playing live music, culminating in plans for a sequel of sorts, Carlile has announced as “Joni Jam 2,” this June at the Gorge Amphitheatre, an open-air venue two hours away. East Seattle.
She also attended in person in DC in December 2021 when she was publicly feted at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Mitchell, who divides his time between a piece of land in BC and his home in the music mecca of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, has been gradually recovering from a ruptured brain aneurysm suffered in 2015.
Other stars on Wednesday’s bill included two of Mitchell’s old boyfriends, James Taylor and Graham Nash, as well as fellow Canadian Diana Krall and legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.
As a Gershwin Award winner, Mitchell joins a select group of legendary singer-songwriters, including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Carole King.
Honorees are selected by the Library of Congress in consultation with previous recipients as well as outside experts, with artistic merit, achievement, musical influence, and audience impact as primary criteria.
On Thursday, following a long tradition, Mitchell will sit down for an hour-long conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in the library’s cavernous Great Room inside the Thomas Jefferson Building.
A recorded broadcast of the Gershwin tribute concert is scheduled for March 31 on PBS.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 1, 2023.