LAS VEGAS — A few years ago, Joni Mitchell couldn’t walk or talk after a brain aneurysm damaged her motor skills.
On Friday night, Mitchell, 78, her blue eyes twinkling, leaned into Brandi Carlile’s golden microphone and happily sang “Big Yellow Taxi.” Surrounded by Carlile, Jon Batiste, Yola, Lauren Daigle and several other performers who had celebrated the famous Canadian singer as MusiCares Person of the Year, Mitchell basked in the music with an easy smile, her ever-present physiotherapist – who s is also attached to the chanter – at his side.
Mitchell’s appearance on his 1970 hit, which weaved environmentalism and politics into dashing guitar chords, was a celebratory moment inside the Marquee Ballroom at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, experienced by an audience that had dwindled as the show stretched over three hours.
But those who stayed were rewarded with this piece of musical magic, as well as hearing Mitchell share a few lines from “The Circle Game.”
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MusiCares is the foundation of The Recording Academy, which administers the Grammy Awards, and provides health and social services assistance to the music community. Videos of musicians assisted by MusiCares — some of whom have benefited from the $37 million provided in COVID-19 relief — played throughout the night, highlighting the importance of its outreach.
The annual event – which took a pandemic-related virtual detour in 2021 – was hosted this year by music directors Carlile and Batiste.
On the red carpet before the show, Carlile, who also performed for his idol at December’s Kennedy Center Honors, told USA TODAY his “number one priority” was Mitchell.
“What would make her proud? What would make her laugh? I wanted to help her realize how relevant she is for multiple generations. Everyone wants to sing in front of Joni and no one wants to sing in front of Joni,” Carlile said with a knowing smile.
With an eclectic lineup that included Angélique Kidjo (“If”); St. Vincent (“Court and Spark”); Dave Grohl’s 15-year-old daughter, Violet (“Help Me”); Chloe Bailey (“Chelsea Morning”); and Pentatonix (a mashup of Mitchell’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “Raised on Robbery”), Carlile and Batiste managed to showcase the broad scope of Mitchell’s aural poetry.
Admire video messages from high-profile names with longtime ties to Mitchell — Elton John, Lionel Richie, Meryl Streep, Neil Young — played on video screens suspended throughout the ballroom. Mitchell’s former love and muse, Graham Nash, also appeared virtually from a stop on the tour in Nashville and performed “Joan,” as he called her, with a tender version of “A Case of You.”
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Before the show, Mitchell spoke to USA TODAY about the amazing few months she’s had with the Kennedy Center Honors and the MusiCares honour.
“It’s interesting that this is happening – and it’s taken 50 years to get there,” Mitchell said.
So what does she attribute this sudden interest in her career to?
“Maybe people go deeper.”
Here are some musical excerpts from the event.
John Legend, “River”: The R&B singer-pianist doesn’t always ignite a room with his presence, but his deeply felt version of “River,” performed on a rotating platform in the middle of the room, pierced with genuine emotion. His deep, resonant vocals, Legend countered his rugged voice with the delicate plinkings of “Jingle Bells” that are tied to the soulful song.
Cyndi Lauper, “Magdalene Laundries”: Taken from Mitchell’s 1994 album, “Turbulent Indigo,” the song, Lauper said, is currently relevant as women continue to fight for equal rights. Dressed in a white hooded jacket with matching glasses and pink frosted lipstick, Lauper, her voice surprisingly intact, both belted and softly drenched. She sang with her eyes closed, ignoring the giant TelePrompTer at the back of the room, and blew Mitchell as a kiss at the end of the song. “You left footprints in the sand for me to follow,” Lauper said.
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Billy Porter, “Both Sides Now”: The elegant Porter took a moment before delving into one of Mitchell’s most beloved songs to say, “We’re all better artists because of the lines you dared to cross.” Her eyes lined with dark glitter, Porter then embarked on a masterclass in songwriting. He extracted the ballad’s sadness and cautious hope with emphatic phrasing and emotional insight and his execution of the final line was absolutely devastating. Porter’s performance, about halfway through the show, earned the first standing ovation of the night. Some of us would still be standing.
Carlile and Stephen Stills: On the red carpet, Stills told USA TODAY he was “proud” of Mitchell for his resilience. “She was brave. We were really worried about her (after the aneurysm in 2015) and now she’s here and God bless her.” There was no vocals from Stills onstage, just an electrifying entrance halfway through the slow version of Carlile’s “Woodstock.” Brandishing his guitar, Stills walked around moaning over the instrument as Carlile grabbed a guitar to join him. Carlile is always a joy to watch, and the moment she instinctively leaned her head on Stills’ shoulder as they played was a moment of unbridled happiness.
Mickey Guyton and Allison Russell, “For Free”: It was another highlight moment for doe-eyed Guyton, who impressed with his national Super Bowl anthem in February. The song, an album track from Mitchell’s third album, 1970s “Ladies of the Canyon,” proved an ideal match for the duo’s compatible vocals. A bit of soul and a touch of country from a pedal steel guitar combined for melodic roots beauty.