After a long night of tributes, Joni Mitchell takes the stage at MusiCares gala

Performers on a stage
Joni Mitchell, center, onstage with other performers including Brandi Carlile (blue suit) and Jon Batiste (in sunglasses) during Friday’s MusiCares Person of the Year gala in Las Vegas.
(Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

Clutching a cane with a handle in the shape of a wolf’s head, Joni Mitchell made her way slowly to the stage at Friday night’s MusiCares Person of the Year gala — it was nearing midnight, but the Person of the Year was her, so people could wait — then peered out at the ballroom full of admirers before her.

“Wow,” said the 78-year-old singer and songwriter. She’d just watched a succession of artists perform her songs as part of this annual pre-Grammys event meant to laud a musician’s philanthropy and cultural impact; now it was time for her to say a few words about … “Well, about what?” she wondered aloud.

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“I don’t want to say I was honored — I mean, that’s obvious,” she told the black-tie-ish crowd at the MGM Grand with a little laugh. “But I was very impressed with the quality of the talent that appeared here.” She asked if we’d enjoyed it, and the response seemed to please her. “OK, I’m going to go and sit down now.”


Nearly seven years into her recovery from a brain aneurysm that made it difficult to move and use her voice, Mitchell’s brief speech — not to mention the few lines she went on to sing during a show-closing group rendition of “Big Yellow Taxi” — was heartening to behold. But it was also classic Joni Mitchell: witty, honest, precise. Just because everybody had gotten dressed up didn’t mean she was going to start throwing around a bunch of pretty, empty words.

Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile
Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile on the red carpet before Friday’s show.
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The MusiCares benefit was the latest in a series of recent accolades for Mitchell, whose 1971 album “Blue” was hailed as a groundbreaking work of folk-rock introspection in countless think pieces tied to its 50th anniversary last year. In December, she was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors; early this year, she drew widespread praise for joining her old friend Neil Young in pulling her music from Spotify to protest what she views as the streaming service’s distribution of COVID-19 misinformation. And then there’s the important role Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now” plays in “CODA,” which just won best picture at the Oscars.

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Friday’s three-hour concert was curated by Brandi Carlile, an avowed Mitchell stan who’s covered “Blue” in concert in its entirety, and Jon Batiste, the jazz composer and “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader who’s up for a leading 11 Grammys at Sunday’s ceremony. The lineup they assembled — including Herbie Hancock, Beck, St. Vincent, Yola, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, Angelique Kidjo, Cyndi Lauper, Leon Bridges and Black Pumas, among others — was respectable if predictably long on the type of rootsy middlebrow Recording Academy faves that always populate these things. (How Pentatonix, the deeply irritating a cappella troupe, wangled an invite, I’ll never understand.)

Two singers in gowns onstage
Allison Russell, left, and Mickey Guyton perform “For Free.”
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Highlights came from Lauper, the most emotionally committed performer of the night, singing “The Magdalene Laundries” as she accompanied herself on dulcimer; Carlile roaring through “Woodstock” with help from Stephen Stills on guitar; Mitchell’s fellow Canadian Allison Russell doing “Free Man in Paris” with a Joni-ish mix of tenderness and swag; and Russell’s team-up with Mickey Guyton on a gorgeously harmonized “For Free.”


Billy Porter chewed his way through “Both Sides Now” in a showy cabaret-style performance that was as much about acting as singing; Beck mystified all the high-rollers in a throbbing punk-jazz take on “The Jungle Line.” Weirdly, nobody talked about Mitchell’s singing in the little testimonies they gave before their songs; people kept repeating the same cliches about Mitchell’s incisive lyrics and her complicated melodies, as though her phrasing were somehow less radical than her writing.

The night was poorly programmed, with too many B-list acts in a row doing deep cuts that all blended together. And though Meryl Streep, Lionel Richie and Elton John sent in touching video messages — Streep even sang a little bit — you had to wonder why at least a couple of Mitchell’s peers couldn’t have schlepped to Las Vegas to be there in person.

Still, Mitchell appeared to be having fun every time a roving cameraperson showed her seated at a front-row table next to Hancock and Cameron Crowe. Nobody had topped her versions of her songs, and wasn’t that something to celebrate?