The tribute concert for the Gershwin Prize, designated each year by the Library of Congress to fete an artist’s lifetime contribution to popular music, is by its very nature a love fest. The fact that this year’s event ratcheted up the heartstrings even more than usual is a testament to its 2023 honoree, Joni Mitchell.
The show, which took place earlier this month in Washington, D.C., and airs Friday (March 31) on PBS, brought out a cavalcade of well-wishers, musical talent and friends. That included Brandi Carlile (who, besides performing, acted as an intermittent MC), James Taylor, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, Marcus Mumford, Graham Nash, Angélique Kidjo, Ledisi, Diana Krall and Herbie Hancock.
Mitchell, 79, was an obvious choice for this year’s Gershwin. She’s received a host of recent accolades since she made a remarkable recovery after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her hospitalized. She received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2021, was celebrated as MusiCares’ 2022 Person of the Year and received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music the same year.
Seated front and center in DAR Constitution Hall, which added rows of chairs in front of the stage to accommodate a full house of invitation-only fans and Capitol Hill luminaries, Mitchell swayed and smiled throughout the night, clearly relishing the celebration.
Carlile, who performed her professed favorite Mitchell song, the title track from her 2007 album Shine, sprinkled in stories of spending time with Mitchell during her convalescence and Mitchell’s triumphant return to the Newport Folk Festival last year, where she performed 13 songs.
“The songs of Joni Mitchell, like the woman, speak to innocence and experience, success and failure, overcoming odds, falling short,” Carlile told the crowd. “[Last summer] she showed the world that it was not done with Joni Mitchell, and she showed the world that she was not done with us. All of us on stage here tonight just couldn’t let anything pass without recognition of Joni’s courage, her determination, her spirit, will and grit.”
The performances were strong across the board, all delivered with reverence on a stage that was adorned with images of some of Mitchell’s paintings. And the band comprised musicians who are longtime collaborators and friends of Mitchell, including music director Greg Phillinganes.
Mumford got things started with “Carey,” from Mitchell’s cherished 1971 album Blue. Lennox soared with power and passion on the timeless “Both Sides Now.” Kidjo got creative with her time in the spotlight: while performing Mitchell’s Billboard Adult Contemporary No. 1 “Help Me,” she hopped off the stage and delivered a portion of the song directly to Mitchell, who obliged by dancing along in her seat.
Describing her contribution “Big Yellow Taxi,” Ledisi said Mitchell wanted listeners to understand the importance of maintaining the balance of the natural world, “but she did it in an almost subversive way, wrapping the message in a universally easy-to-sing chorus that sneaks up on you and then hits you in the face with the importance of taking action.”
Nash, who shared a long-resonating love affair with Mitchell between 1968-70, recalled meeting her in 1967. “She took me to her room and played me probably over a dozen of the most incredible songs I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said, before launching into “A Case of You,” which was highlighted by photos of the two in their younger years.
Lauper gave a lilting performance of title track to Blue, though she immediately had to do a second take when Ken Ehrlich of Ken Ehrlich Productions made one of a few mid-show appearances to make sure the event would be ready for its primetime debut. (When Ehrlich came out, halted Taylor’s silky, buttery performance of “California” and asked him to start over, Taylor quipped, “Is this the part where you come in?”)
Excitement was palpable leading to the finale, when a beaming Mitchell rose from her seat and took the stage.
“This is such a great honor; it’s so exciting to see all of these musicians I admire preforming my music. And I wanted to express my gratitude by singing a Gershwin song,” she said, before launching into a jaunty rendition of “Summertime,” which she followed up with her own iconic “The Circle Game,” joined by the cast of performers.