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Arts & Culture

Generations sing to Joni Mitchell in pre-Grammys tribute

LAS VEGAS — An 81-year-old jazz giant and a 15-year-old rock singer were the first to perform tributes to Joni Mitchell on Friday night.

Such was the diversity of artists honoring a most diverse artist, Mitchell, a Canadian-turned-Californian, folkie-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" that was followed by a rocking version of 1974's "Help Me" from Violet Grohl, the teenage daughter of Foo Fighters frontman 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 of the older entertainers.

"When I first heard Joni Mitchell it was 1968 and I was 15 years old," Cyndi Lauper, now 68, said. "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 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. "Ever since we were both young girls. We didn't know each other, but you sang me into being. You sang my life."

Seven years after a brain aneurysm that left her temporarily unable to walk or speak, Mitchell, 78, was delighted to be in Las Vegas and out at a major public event for the first time since the pandemic began.

"I had the best margarita that 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 behind-the-curtain awards," she said with a laugh.

Inside, sitting a table with Hancock and director Cameron Crowe, Mitchell often appeared near tears as a parade of artists praised her before giving their takes on her songs.

"Not unlike people who lived in the time of Shakespeare, and of Beethoven, we are living in the time of Joni Mitchell, and it shows tonight," said Brandi Carlile, who sang a version of "Woodstock" that began as a quiet ballad before the house band kicked in 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 new approach to this year's MusiCares tribute, organizers appointed Carlile, who is up for five Grammys on Sunday, and Jon Batiste, who is up for 11, as music directors to coordinate the artists and their approaches to the difficult, genre-bending songs of Mitchell's five-decade career.

"We helped shepherd artists to their Joni songs, the ones that their souls connected to," Carlile told the AP. "This isn't easy music. This is complicated, brilliant music that is really hard to interpret."

Before singing one of those esoteric songs, "The Jungle Line" from 1975's "The Hissing of the Summer Lawns," Beck said "preparing for this event I feel like I've been in Joni school."

John Legend gave a surprise performance, singing and playing solo piano on Mitchell's "River" on a spinning stage in the middle of the room as the crowd of 2,400 was finishing their spinning dessert, an edible Grammy trophy on a turntable.

"Everybody was splendid, it just kept getting better and better and better," Mitchell said in a brief acceptance speech near the concert's end. "I can retire now and just let other people do it."

But she showed she's not quite done yet.

Carlile and Batiste brought most of the night's performers back to the stage for a sing-along of "The Circle Game" and "Big Yellow Taxi."

Mitchell eventually made her way to the mic to join them, delivering the famous baritone ending of the latter song.

"Put up a parking lot," she sang, to laughs and whoops from the crowd.

The MusiCares Person of the Year is a career achievement award handed out for a combination of inspiring artistic accomplishments and philanthropy. The gala handing it out raises funds for the programs of MusiCares, the Recording Academy charity that provides health and welfare services to musicians in need.

Past honorees include Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and Aerosmith.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.