When Joni Mitchell finally took the stage near the end of an all-star tribute concert honoring her as this year’s recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, she opted to perform a cover rather than one of her own songs.
The 79-year-old music legend leaned against the piano Wednesday as she crooned a sultry version of “Summertime,” the popular tune from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” an appropriate choice since the award was named after the composer.
But she wasn’t done. The evening’s other performers came to the stage and surrounded Mitchell as she launched into one of her more popular tunes, “The Circle Game.” Graham Nash, James Taylor, Ledisi, Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock, Marcus Mumford, Brandi Carlile and others brought the crowd to their feet in an evening filled with love and admiration.
Before the show, Mitchell, walked the red carpet with a cane, briefly responding to the Associated Press saying the honor was “very exciting.”
Nash, who had dated Mitchell back in the 1970s, spoke of her indelible spirit overcoming gender and physical obstacles.
“She has had many, many difficulties in her life with polio when she was young. And now there’s a brain aneurysm several years ago. But to see her come back and be singing again and playing again is incredible. I mean, talk about resilience,” Nash said.
Later, he performed, “A Case of You,” the song Mitchell wrote about their breakup.
Another former partner of Mitchell’s was James Taylor, who described their time together as “one of the chapters in my life that I’m fondest of.”
“She had a huge effect on me, on my work. And we collaborated during the year or so that we were together on a lot of stuff,” Taylor said.
He added: “Joni is a national treasure.”
Carlile was one of the evening’s busiest performers, adding backing vocals, as well as taking on Mitchell’s “Shine.” Before the concert, the nine-time Grammy-winning admitted not discovering Mitchell’s music until later in her life.
“It felt really feminine to me, really vulnerable, and it made me really uncomfortable, which is a reflection, I think, on my own ego and my coming of age in being a bit of a gender non-conforming person or just not really understanding the way that she was showing me, and all of us, the world. And it wasn’t until I fell in love and met my wife that I realized how multi-dimensional Joni was as an artist,” Carlile said.
Before receiving the award from Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Mitchel was flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn; Patty Murray, D-Wash; and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The Gershwin Prize, created in 2007, has previously honored Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Carole King.
“Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” will be broadcast March 31 on PBS stations, PBS.org, the PBS App and the American Forces Network.