Joni Mitchell Has a Vegas Evening as Brandi Carlile, Jon Batiste and All-Star Cast Offer Three-Hour Salute for MusiCares
With due respect to Joni Mitchell’s lyrical prowess, never were there less prophetic words than “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” — if only for the due that Mitchell herself is receiving while she is around to take it in. The queen of singer-songwriters got what may be the best of all possible salutes Friday night, feted and serenaded in a three-hour tribute concert that capped MusiCares’ annual pre-Grammy MusiCares fundraising dinner.
And even though the event, like the Grammy telecast itself, was transported to Las Vegas this year, with the main ballroom at the MGM Grand Conference Center sitting in for MusiCares’ usual L.A. Convention Center setting, the California-centric mood of Mitchell’s music wasn’t much affected by the shift in locale… Luck, be a lady of the canyon tonight.
“That was such an exciting musical evening for me, to hear my music performed so well by everybody that was on stage,” said the “Chelsea Morning” singer, enjoying her Vegas evening. “I could retire now and just let other people do it.” The irony in that is that she has been assumed retired since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, yet there are frequent reports that she has been a cheerful singer at house parties, and in fact the MusiCares show provided a too-brief hint that the world may not have heard the utter last of her voice yet.
As potent as the three hours of performances by an all-star cast were, Mitchell managed to provide the highlight just with a single line. The legend has not appeared very often in public settings since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, and has sometimes been in a wheelchair when she has gone out. But Friday night, she walked the red carpet with the aid of a cane, smiled for photographers and spoke with press along the way, looking like a sight for sore eyes. At the very end of the evening, after giving a brief speech, she came back on stage to participate in a group-sing of “Big Yellow Taxi” — and although her voice was mostly subsumed in the choral mix, it had been arranged so that everyone else would drop out at the end so that the audience would hear Mitchell sing the final “They paved paradise…” There was an explosion of joy in the house, and at least a few wet eyes when the lights came up.
If Mitchell inevitably won the MVP vocalist of the night award with just that minuscule lead vocal moment, she did actually have some strong competition for it from the long list of powerhouses who preceded her on stage. Billy Porter got the only full standing ovation of the night from the crowd, with a very dramatic and slowed-down rendering of “Both Sides Now.” But there were a number of other performances that effectively galvanized the audience, even if their monkey suits were on too tight to leap to their feet as they should have — from a riveting reading of “Urge for Going” by Yola with the instrumental assistance of Wendy & Lisa to Christian music star Lauren Daigle slaying “Come in From the Cold” with Brandi Carlile and Lucius providing stacked backing vocals that were a marvel in themselves.
Carlile, one of the night’s creative directors, had her own moment at center age, singing a cover of “Woodstock” that started out in spooky, ruminative territory before suddenly exploding into full-bore rock ‘n’ roll mode with Stephen Stills coming out for a guest shred on guitar.
Carlile shared her title and duties for the event with co-director Jon Batiste, who sat at the piano for a medley that climaxed with “Shine,” a 2007 song of Mitchell’s that — as a kind of secular gospel ballad — has started to have a consensus form around it as her greatest 21st century anthem.
Producer-musician Mike Elizondo, meanwhile, was the musical director for the night, whipping the arrangements and band into shape. His efforts provided the expected brightness on Mitchell’s more commercial hits, but he also was more than capable of handling something darker for Beck’s performance, which turned a song as strange as “The Jungle Line,” from “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” into something a little more strangely exhilarating, still.
Others rising to the task of singing Mitchell for Mitchell included John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Cyndi Lauper, Angelique Kidjo, Allison Russell, Sara Bareilles, Leon Bridges, Black Pumas, Chloe Bailey and Pentatonix. With so many seasoned performers on the bill, this was not necessarily the kind of night where newcomers would be thrown into the mix, yet it did have one, who acquitted herself well — Violet Grohl, the daughter of Dave Grohl, mostly seen so far as a backup singer on Foo Fighters tours, who got a big early showcase in the form of one of Mitchell’s biggest hits, “Help Me.”
Although the lineup of performers was announced well prior to the show, on the red carpet, Mitchell told Variety that she had little idea of what was to unfold during the evening. “They won’t let me know who’s gonna perform what yet,” she said. “They’ve kept me completely in the dark.” Nonetheless, she had no aspirations to be a control freak and said, “Oh, it’s great fun… I’m surrounded by people I love.”
Following Mitchell down the carpet a few minutes later, Carlile confirmed, “She doesn’t know anything,” although she indicated it wasn’t for complete lack of effort: “She’s been trying to get it out of me.”
Carlile was not involved in booking the principal performers, beyond her friend Allison Russell, a current thrice-nominated Grammy contender who ended up taking up “Free Man in Paris” after Chaka Khan had to bow out of the show. But once she came on board, Carlile — whose Mitchell love is well-known from the “Blue” concerts she has done at Carnegie Hall and Walt Disney Hall — was extremely active in the song selection.
“The list of people I didn’t come up with,” Carlile said, “but when they came up with the list of people, I was really excited at who was chosen. And I got to be a really active part of helping these artists find their Joni song, the one that their soul sort of drew them to during the arc of a many-decades long career — everything from that first couple of albums all the way to ‘Shine.’ And helping the band arrangements and leaning in with our MD Mike Elizondo was absolutely amazing, and talking with Jon about curating medleys and beautiful background vocals and chamber orchestras. I loved working with Jon — he’s a true abstract, a true avant-garde and an absolute genius. He’s our generation’s Herbie Hancock. … It’s been such a musical journey for me. And I think it’ll change me actually as an artist, having seen the arc of this event.”
Carlile had performed “Woodstock” last Sunday night in West Hollywood with her own band at Elton John’s Oscar-viewing AIDS Foundation benefit, which she called “my practice of it” for MusiCares. Why that song, when she’s covered so many Mitchell songs over the years, including “A Case of You” as a regular feature of her own concerts? “Because when Jon Batiste and I settled on the set list, I felt like it was a moment the show needed. It’s cool because the first part of my arrangement of ‘Woodstock’ is really similar to what she does – it’s Joni-esque; I’m not reinventing the wheel. I want people to hear parts of Joni music live that they won’t hear from Joni. But then at the end of it, some of my city [Seattle] comes into play. It starts to lean in a little bit to Pearl Jam and Nirvana and some of the stuff that makes me feel grounded in my rock ‘n’ roll-ness. So I love the marriage of the two things — and to have Stephen Stills shredding on guitar.”
Stills shared some technical notes about playing “Woodstock” with Carlile. “I had a big record on it!” he said, in an understatement, about the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hit cover. “But better to do Joni’s arrangement than mine… She does it in a key that’s impossible for guitar players. It’s in C sharp, which means that if you hit a wrong note, or you hit an open string, it’s really going to sound horrible. So I tuned my guitar down so that I could play it in the key of G, so it worked for me today (in rehearsal). I got one run-through, which is sufficient, I suppose. If only I can remember what I played.”
Stills was pleased to be the sole on-site representative from CSNY, although Neil Young sent a video message and a strong-voiced Graham Nash filmed a cover of “A Case of You” from a tour stop in Nashville that was the night’s only pre-recorded performance. (He and James Taylor, who also sent a video salute, had been booked for when the show was scheduled in L.A. in January.) “I’m really happy to support Joan and MusiCares,” Stills said, “and I’m really happy for Joan, and it’s about time.”
The a cappella group Pentatonix had an unusual medley to perform: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” the one non-MItchell song of the night, which they said they’d been told is her favorite song, followed by “Raised on Robbery,” which they performed with Elizondo’s full ensemble. Could they end up as converts to full-band music after this? “You never know — we like it a lot,” said Kirstin Maldonado, possibly heretically. Scott Hoying what was hardest to get used to in rehearsal: “The band’s incredible. I just don’t know what to do with my body when they’re performing, because we’re used to singing every second on stage.”
St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, explained on the red carpet that she was among the minority of artists that came in knowing exactly what to perform. “I actually covered ‘Court and Spark’ a couple times before, so I thought maybe I can go with the one that I’ve played for a live audience before. Mike Elizondo is a friend of mine — in fact, so much of this house band are people I’ve played with or have wanted to play with for years, from [pedal steel player] Greg Leisz, who has played on multiple records I’ve done, to Wendy & Lisa. I reached out to Mike when I saw that he was the musical director, and I said, ‘Please, can I play ‘Court and Spark?’ and he said yes. That’s a long-winded way of saying: I asked.”
Of her appreciation for Mitchell, Clark said, “Joni’s just the greatest. There’s nobody who understands human nature or has described human nature in such precise, unflinching and beautiful terms.” Of “Court and Spark” in particular: “I think that there’s a loneliness to it, which I always connect with. There’s this wanting to fall in love, but also being suspicious watching someone play the game. She has this wild kind of affair in her mind and then says, ‘But I couldn’t let go of L.A. I couldn’t let go of my own jadedness to fall in love.’ That resonates.”
Russell appeared twice during the night, first to sing “Free Man in Paris” with Lucius (filling in for Khan, who surely was not going to end it with a clarinet solo, as Russell did), then join Mickey Guyton for a duet. As the only fellow Canadian on the bill, she felt a special responsibility.
Having grown up in an extremely fraught family situation, Russell said that “to be honest, the happiest childhood memories are when she was singing Joni Mitchell records. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to our scratched version of ‘Ladies of the Canyon.’ Those records were like an oasis where we had a joyful thing we could share when everything was rocky. My whole family are obsessed with her writing. It’s the one thing we can all agree on: Half the time, people aren’t talking, but Joni Mitchell, she’s our genius.”
Russell confessed a case of nerves. “I utterly shamed myself in rehearsal today and messed it up and cried, so now that I’ve gotten that over with tonight, hopefully I won’t dishonor Joni with that kind of behavior. I‘ve not been this nervous to play a show since I was 16 years old — as nervous as I’ve ever been. I think i’s gonna be OK, but if you see it go terrible wrong, you’ll go, ‘She’s just disgracing her country and the greatest living Canadian songwriter.’”
The duo Lucius appeared recurringly through the night, being featured alongside Russell on “Free Man in Paris” and Bareilles and Madison Cunningham on “California,” and singing backup for others. They’ve been a guest at Mitchel’s Santa Barbara-area house parties, via the mutual friendship with Carlile, who produced their imminent new album. “It’s a wild mixture of people — there at the piano was Chaka Khan, and Harry Styles was there. We were singing Christmas songs, too, so the first song that we sang together was ‘Jingle Bell Rock’!” recalled Jess Wolfe. “And I have a distinct memory of sitting right beside her and listening to her sing it. And even in this sort of playful, jovial holiday spirit, she was quintessential Joni Mitchell. It’s imprinted in my brain forever.”
Added Wolfe, “Brandi has dedicated so much of her life recently to celebrating Joni’s music, so it felt only natural [for her to do this] — she’s developed this relationship not just with her as a person but with the songs. Just in Brandi fashion, she brings in all of her friends and her sisters to help in the celebration.”
There were also artists on the red carpet who were not participating in the show but were happy to be there as spectators, like Glass Animals, the band that has had the No. 1 song in America for three weeks running and is up for best new artist at the Grammys Sunday night. Said singer David Bayley, “Everyone’s a fan, even if they don’t know they’re a fan. Those songs, they’re in the ether of the world.” Added fellow member Edmund Irwin-Singer, “She did an amazing album with Jaco Pastorius, ‘Court and Spark.’” “Of course the bass player would say that,” noted Bayley.
There have been some notorious speeches at MusiCares’ Person of the Year dinners in the past — Bob Dylan’s most notoriously — but Mitchell kept hers short and sweet and focused on the performance aspect of the evening, not her own legacy. “It was a very special evening,” she said, standing at the dais. “I don’t know what else to say, except I was honored – I mean, that’s obvious. But I was very impressed with the quality of the talent that appeared here tonight. Everybody was splendid and it just kept getting better and better and better. Did you enjoy it? Good. OK, I’m gonna go sit down now.”
But not in the audience — she took a chair at side-stage to take in the final full-cast performance before being led over to join in herself as Carlile held her own mic up for the honoree to lend her voice.