Music’s legends and hitmakers turned out Friday to honour Joni Mitchell — the Canadian-born folk icon behind classics including “A Case Of You” — at a charity gala ahead of the Grammys that featured moving tributes and glassy eyes.
The 78-year-old Mitchell donned a sequinned kimono-style robe, bejewelled black beret and bright red nails at the MusiCares show where artists including Herbie Hancock, Cyndi Lauper, Angelique Kidjo and Stephen Stills, along with this year’s leading Grammy nominee Jon Batiste, paid homage to her vast oeuvre.
“It’s been quite a year,” the artist known for her distinct contralto and open-tuned guitar told journalists on the red carpet.
In December she was among the inductees at the Kennedy Center Honors gala, one of America’s most prestigious arts awards.
The evening marked a rare public appearance for the trailblazing Mitchell, who in 2015 suffered a brain aneurysm that left her temporarily unable to speak, the aftermath of which has involved extensive physical therapy.
But on Friday she was glowing, telling reporters she’s been having artistic “ideas” even as she continues to focus on improving her health.
The influential artist who inspired everyone from Neil Diamond to Prince is perhaps best known for the intensely personal 1971 album “Blue,” a deep dive into emotional heartache.
Last summer “Blue” charted number one on iTunes as it hit its 50th anniversary — outperforming even pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour.”
Voicing her own astonishment over the milestone, Mitchell explained her album’s enduring popularity and recent resurgence: “Maybe people want to get a little bit deeper.”
And asked by reporters how she was feeling health-wise, she said “pretty good,” adding she’d been “making improvements.”
‘Touches the world’
Jazz great Hancock — who in 2007 released a tribute album to Mitchell entitled “River: The Joni Letters” — hailed his longtime friend’s artistic “courage.”
“She bares her soul, but she does it in such a poetic way,” Hancock told AFP on the red carpet, in the hours before he delivered a performance of Mitchell’s song “Hejira” onstage.
He credited Mitchell, who is widely considered among the 20th century’s greatest songwriters — with teaching him “how to listen to lyrics.”
“Some people — and I’m one of ‘em — when we listen to music, we hear the harmonies and the musical textures, and the lyrics sound like gibberish,” he continued.
Yet Mitchell’s “poetry” still strikes him, Hancock said: “Nobody writes lyrics like Joni.”
“She’s given all of us the courage to tell the truth,” said performer Billy Porter, who paid tribute to Mitchell singing her beloved “Both Sides Now” onstage. “To use our art to grow; to use our art to heal.”
“To set some other people free — she’s powerful that way.”
The star-studded gala is an annual tradition from MusiCares, the charitable wing of the Recording Academy that raises money to help musicians in need prior to the Grammy Awards.
This year’s celebration also featured an affecting remote performance of “A Case Of You” from Graham Nash, of the folk supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, a band Mitchell both deeply influenced and shared a rich working relationship with.
She also dated both David Crosby and Nash, and mined the latter break-up for inspiration on a number of the songs comprising the seminal “Blue,” including the touching “A Case of You.”
Neil Young appeared in a video message sending Mitchell “lots of love,” while Stephen Stills attended the ceremony in Las Vegas and praised Mitchell as “one of the great artists of this world.”
“Back when we were kids we had a good time trying to figure out the tunings that she used. Crosby happened to be the most adept at it,” he told AFP. Crosby produced her debut album, “Song to a Seagull.”
Stills played guitar as Brandi Carlile belted out a rollicking rendition of “Woodstock” on an evening flush with performances, that left many in the room, especially Mitchell, with tears welling.
“I could retire now, and just let other people do it,” she joked when she accepted her award. “Everybody was splendid.”
“Did you enjoy it?” she asked the audience to rounds of applause, before joining the night’s performers to sing “The Circle Game” and “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Stills summed up the mood: “God bless you Joni Mitchell, for being in our lives.”