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Joni Mitchell honoured with Gershwin Prize at star-studded gala Print-ready version

Mitchell is the 1st Canadian to be honoured with the prize from the U.S. Library of Congress

Canadian Press
March 2, 2023

Legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell performs onstage during the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was honoured with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the U.S. Library of Congress. She became the first Canadian to receive the award during a star-studded tribute concert Wednesday night.

Alberta-born songstress Joni Mitchell headed up a procession of musical luminaries past and present Wednesday at a gala celebration of her latest lifetime achievement: the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

A roster of performers including Marcus Mumford, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper and Brandi Carlile lit up the stage in tribute to Mitchell at DAR Constitution Hall, a historic venue just down the street from the White House.

Mitchell, 79, is the first Canadian and only the third woman to collect the prestigious accolade since it was established in 2007.

The stage was decorated with 12 enormous paintings framed by spotlights, some of them self-portraits of Mitchell herself.

Mitchell was seated in the front row in gold beret and sunglasses, her hair in braids.

Mumford kicked off the proceedings with Carey, from the seminal 1971 album Blue, long a fixture on all-time best-album lists all over the world.

"Tonight it's all about Joni," Mumford said by way of introduction. "Joni, it has been one of the great privileges of my life to get to play in your band, to play songs at your house. I love you very much."

Mitchell grinned and mouthed the lyrics along with Mumford throughout Carey.

Re-emergence after health issues

Lennox took over with Both Sides, Now, from the sophomore 1969 effort Clouds. Her version brought the house down with a standing ovation. Even the musicians applauded her.

A handler helped Mitchell to her feet to join in the thunderous ovation.

Angelique Kidjo, the four-time Grammy winner from the West African country of Benin, then delivered her version of Help Me.

One musical highlight arrived midway through the set: Carlile, Kidjo, Lauper and Lennox teamed up with New Orleans jazz singer Ledisi and indie popsters Lucius for the iconic Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi.

During the song, the crowd jumped to its feet and sang along, including Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., one of countless dignitaries and U.S. lawmakers in the audience.

It ended with a flourish: all six singers went down to serenade Mitchell in the front row, with Carlile handing over her mic to let the guest of honour deliver the final part of her signature line: "They paved paradise/Put up a parking lot."

Joni Mitchell's Blue: Celebrating one of the greatest albums ever To close the night, Mitchell was taken to the stage and leaned on a piano.

"It has been such a gift and so exciting to see all of these musicians that I admire performing my songs," Mitchell said.

"I wanted to express my gratitude by singing a Gershwin song."

With that, she performed the Gershwin classic Summertime, her voice strong and pitch perfect.

It's just the latest star turn for the resurgent singer-songwriter, who wowed fans last summer with a surprise set alongside Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival, her first full-length public performance in more than 20 years.

That appearance rekindled her love for playing live music, culminating in plans for a sequel of sorts - Carlile has billed it as "Joni Jam 2" - this June at an outdoor venue two hours east of Seattle.

She also attended in person in D.C. in December 2021 as she was publicly feted at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Mitchell, who divides her time between an acreage in B.C. and her home in Los Angeles, has been gradually recovering from a ruptured brain aneurysm she suffered in 2015.

'A national treasure'

Other stars on Wednesday's bill included two of Mitchell's former beaus, James Taylor and Graham Nash, as well as fellow Canadian Diana Krall and the legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.

"She's a national treasure," said Taylor.

Before the show, Nash was asked which was his favourite Mitchell song: "The one I'm performing," he said matter-of-factly. Nash would go on to perform A Case of You from Blue.

As a Gershwin prizewinner, Mitchell joins a select group of legendary singer-songwriters including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder and Carole King.

Honourees are selected by the Library of Congress in consultation with previous recipients as well as outside experts, with artistic merit, achievements, musical influence and impact on audiences as the main criteria.

On Thursday, in keeping with long-standing tradition, Mitchell will sit down for an hour-long conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in the library's cavernous Great Hall inside the Thomas Jefferson Building.

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Added to Library on March 2, 2023. (3092)

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