Earlier this month at DAR Concert Hall in Washington DC, when Joni Mitchell was awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, PBS was there, and captured the evening in this concert special. With performers including Brandi Carlile, Annie Lennox, Angelique Kidjo, James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall, and Cyndi Lauper, the evening also includes video tributes from artists like Gloria Estefan, Billy Joel, and Smokey Robinson, all of whom are also in the Gershwin Prize winners’ club. Also, don’t count Mitchell out to sing a few songs herself.
Opening Shot: Marcus Mumford greets the audience. He’ll perform on percussion throughout the evening, but takes center stage for the opening performance, “Carey,” from 1977’s Blue. “Joni,” Mumford says, “it’s been one of the great privileges of my life, gettin’ to play in your band, play songs in your house, and I love you very much.” Front and center is the guest of honor, looking fabulous in glittery aquamarine.
The Gist: The Gershwin Prize stage is set with a selection of Joni Mitchell’s vivid work as a visual artist, and in addition to performing, Brandi Carlile is your host and emcee. She begins with a look back at Mitchell’s early life in Canada and emergence as one of the leading lights of 1960s folk music, and Annie Lennox drives that home with a terrific take on the 1969 classic “Both Sides, Now.” Then Angelique Kidjo takes her sparkling performance of “Help Me” into the crowd, and nearly into the lap of Mitchell in the front row. The mood is deferential and joyous, in celebration not only of the 79-year-old honoree’s career, but her resilience and recovery after a 2015 brain aneurysm.
James Taylor gets a nice hand, and tells a story about 1971, living with Mitchell in a little house in Los Angeles as they were both writing albums. She had just returned from a trip to Europe, with sketches of the material that would become Blue, and Taylor proceeds to perform the homesick ballad “California” on acoustic guitar. “Joni,” Carlile says later, “sings her sorrows and paints her joy.” And she sings the title track from Mitchell’s last studio album, 2007’s Shine.
There are more testimonials, from Joel, Estefan, and Robinson as well as Garth Brooks and Lionel Ritchie, and after some background footage of rehearsals for the group number “Big Yellow Taxi,” the whole song is driven back into the front row, where Mitchell takes the mic to sing the song’s final deep voice line. Mitchell also graces the stage for the evening’s big finale, performing “Summertime,” the Porgy & Bess classic she sang with Herbie Hancock’s accompaniment on his 1991 album Gershwin’s World.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Laurel Canyon, the LA neighborhood also known as the place where Crosby, Stills, and Nash formed in Joni Mitchell’s living room, was most recently chronicled in a worthwhile two-part documentary on EPIX. Mitchell has also been profiled on the long-running PBS series American Masters, and in the 2004 documentary Woman of Heart and Mind.
Our Take: Annie Lennonx’s performance of “Both Sides Now” is a serious standout here. Lennox, a multiple Grammy winner – the amount of Grammy hardware collectively represented on the Gershwin Prize stage throughout the evening is impressively daunting – begins her interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s 1969 classic singing and playing solo grand piano, and then steps to center stage to tear into the vocal finale with mirth and soulful fervor. It’s powerful, beautiful, and fun, and like many of the evening’s best moments, it’s cool to see Mitchell herself in the front row, likely enjoying it the most. (If you can’t get enough Annie Lennox, she’s also your charming host for a delightful mini-segment inside the program where she visits The Library of Congress, views a few of music’s sacred texts, and gives a shout-out to Lizzo playing James Madison’s crystal flute.) All of the performances in Gershwin Prize are great. Again, a stack of these peoples’ Grammys would reach the heavens. But what stands out most about each of them is how everybody is putting their heart and soul into singing for Mitchell.
Sex and Skin: Content-wise, none of the Washington, DC politicians who are trundled out during the actual bestowment of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song will have anything to worry about here.
Parting Shot: “The Circle Game” from Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece Ladies of the Canyon is the closing jam that brings most everyone back out on stage, and then the woman of the hour, flanked by Brandi Carlile and Angelique Kidjo, gets the crowd out of their seats to sing along.
Sleeper Star: Music legend Carole King is also one of Mitchell’s fellow Gershwin Prize winners who delivers a video testimonial, and she offers a fascinating comparison in craft. (King’s whole vibe also just feels like she’d be the best neighbor.) “We do the same thing,” King says of Mitchell. “But we do it in such different ways. She is an artist, and she goes right there. She goes to the place of total creativity. My way of doing it, I was trained to write on assignment. And I have been struck by The Muse. I have worked at the direction of the The Muse. But that’s Joni’s native habitat.”
Most Pilot-y Line: “American popular song has many antecedents and many places,” Brandi Carlile says during an introduction to a history of Joni Mitchell’s early life. “New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis, San Francisco, Austin, Harlem. So how in the world did Roberta Joan Andeson, a kid from Fort McCloud, Canada, come to play such an important role in changing our musical landscape over the last 50 years?”
Our Call: STREAM IT. With its selection of dedicated, reverential performances of songs representing five decades of her career, Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song is a well-appointed celebration of a recipient who is more than worthy of the accolade.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
By: Ny Post