LAS VEGAS — An 81-year-old jazz giant and a 15-year-old rock singer were the first to pay their respects to Joni Mitchell on Friday night.
Such was the diversity of artists honoring a most diverse artist, Mitchell, a Canadian-turned-Californian, folk-turned-rocker-turned-jazz explorer who was honored as the 2022 MusiCares Person of the Year by the Recording Academy two days before the Grammy Awards.
Herbie Hancock played a jazz piano rendition of music from Mitchell’s 1976 album “Hejira” which was followed by a rock version of 1974’s “Help Me” by Violet Grohl, the Foo frontman’s teenage daughter Fighters Dave Grohl, to open the tribute concert in a ballroom at the MGM Grand Las Vegas.
Mitchell, sitting at the front table, brought out the teenager in many older performers.
“When I first heard Joni Mitchell was in 1968 and I was 15,” said Cyndi Lauper, now 68. “I had never heard anyone sing so intimately about what it was like to be a young woman navigating this world.”
Lauper recited several of Mitchell’s lines that moved her the most, before launching into “Magdalene Laundry” while playing mountain dulcimer.
“I don’t know how you do what you do, I just know I need it like food,” Meryl Streep said in a video message played for Mitchell and the crowd. “Since we were both young girls. We didn’t know each other, but you sang to me. You sang to my life.”
Seven years after a brain aneurysm that left her temporarily unable to walk or speak, Mitchell, 78, was thrilled to be in Las Vegas and participating in a major public event for the first time since the pandemic began.
“I had the best margarita I’ve ever had at our hotel,” she told The Associated Press as she walked into the gala.
Mitchell is a presenter and a nominee for Best Historical Album at Sunday’s Grammys. She says she’s always found herself in the genres and categories that don’t make the Grammy telecast.
“I usually win the awards behind the curtain,” she said with a laugh.
Inside, seated at a table with Hancock and director Cameron Crowe, Mitchell often appeared on the verge of tears as a parade of artists praised her before giving their thoughts on her songs.
“Much like people who lived in the days of Shakespeare and Beethoven, we live in the days of Joni Mitchell, and it shows tonight,” said Brandi Carlile, who sang a version of “Woodstock.” which started out as a leisurely ballad. before the house band kicked off and Stephen Stills – who played on the most famous version of the 1970 song with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – joined her for an electric guitar solo.
In a fresh take on this year’s MusiCares tribute, organizers have named Carlile, who is up for five Grammys on Sunday, and Jon Batiste, who is up for 11, as musical directors to coordinate artists and their approaches the difficult, genre-bending songs from Mitchell’s five-decade career.
“We helped the artists guide their Joni songs, the ones their souls were connected to,” Carlile told the AP. “It’s not easy music. It’s complicated, brilliant music that’s really hard to interpret.”
Before singing one of these esoteric songs, “The Jungle Line” from 1975’s “The Hissing of the Summer Lawns”, Beck said “in preparing for this event, I feel like I have been to Joni School.
John Legend gave a surprise performance, singing and playing solo piano to Mitchell’s “River” on a revolving stage in the middle of the hall as the crowd of 2,400 finished their revolving dessert, an edible Grammy trophy on a turntable.
“Everyone was gorgeous, it just kept getting better,” Mitchell said in a brief acceptance speech near the end of the concert. “I can retire now and let others do it.”
But she showed she wasn’t quite done yet.
Carlile and Batiste brought most of the night’s performers back on stage to sing “The Circle Game” and “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Mitchell eventually made her way to the mic to join them, delivering the famous baritone ending to that last song.
“Build a parking lot,” she sang, to the laughter and shouts of the crowd.
The MusiCares Person of the Year is a professional achievement award given for a combination of inspirational artistic achievement and philanthropy. The gala giving it away raises money for the programs of MusiCares, the Recording Academy charity that provides health and wellness services to musicians in need.
Past winners include Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and Aerosmith.