On Wednesday night, the Music Center in Los Angeles presented a one-of-a-kind tribute to Joni Mitchell, in celebration of her 75th birthday.
The concert brought together an eclectic mix of artists ranging from Norah Jones to Diana Krall to Rufus Wainwright to Emmylou Harris to Chaka Khan. Performing many of Mitchell’s most beloved songs, the evening was a paean to one of the greatest troubadour poets of the 20th century. The stage was constructed to resemble Mitchell’s living room in her Canadian cabin, complete with a canoe hanging from the rafters, and inviting couches and rugs spread across the stage where many of the performers hung throughout the night, watching the proceedings as if it were a casual jam session (or a true birthday party!). The effect was enhanced by the artists hopping off the couch to assist on back-up vocals from time to time, for a roll-up-your-sleeves type vibe.
The performances were interspersed with snippets of Mitchell in her own voice, excerpted from various interviews over the years, speaking to her desire to avoid being stereotyped as a “magic princess,” the inherent emotionally and poetic lyricism of her work, and the defining power of all the “bummers” in her life. Mitchell is also a noted visual artist, and each song was accompanied by various paintings and sketches from her long career, as well as an assortment of beautiful black-and-white photographs of Mitchell over the many decades of her life.
Every detail from the real sod under guests’ feet at the soiree following the concert where Mitchell was presented with the Music Center’s Excellence in Performing Arts Award by Cameron Crowe, to the palpable sense of love, admiration, and artistry in the room, was a pitch-perfect tribute to the folk singer-turned-painter-turned-cultural icon.
Here were just a few of the night’s standout moments.
James Taylor tackles two hits
Taylor’s distinctive, folksy sound owes a clear debt to Mitchell, and the “Sweet Baby James” singer-songwriter was on-hand to play tribute to Joni with two of her greatest hits, “River” and “Woodstock.” Nowadays, “River” has come to be defined as a Christmas song because of its brief mention of the holiday and Taylor even included it on his own Christmas album in 2006. With his acoustic guitar, Taylor delivered a more mellow take on the bluesy ballad about wishing for a river to skate away on. While Mitchell’s take is more melancholy, Taylor had a lighter, more lilting approach, apropos of the celebratory atmosphere.
The musician later returned to the stage for the final performance of the night, for a take on “Woodstock,” Mitchell’s paean to the 1969 music festival. Mitchell has always called the song one of her most emotional, and Taylor held audiences rapt with his deeply felt version.
Seal looks at clouds from “Both Sides Now”
“Both Sides Now” is Mitchell’s most famous song, recorded more than 1,250 times by other artists. Going into the evening, it seemed safe to assume one of the artists with a vocal quality most similar to Mitchell’s might perform this song — but the Music Center selected Seal to do the honors, a stroke of unexpected genius. Seal closed out the first act with Mitchell’s heartbreaking ballad of looking at clouds (and love and life) from both sides. On songs like “Kiss From a Rose,” Seal’s vocals get a bit lost in the overproduction, but here they soared. His soulful and heartfelt take on the beloved track was given a standing ovation.
Mitchell is most famous for her ballads, but one of the highlights of the evening was when Los Lobos — accompanied by La Marisoul, Cesar Castro, and Xochi Flores — kicked things up a notch with the rhythmic beats of “Dreamland.” Throughout the night, many spoke to Mitchell’s desire to incorporate the traditions of the wide array of ethnic groups and diverse peoples who call America home. It was a burst of welcome energy to bring in this assortment of Latin artists to pay tribute to Mitchell’s eclecticism while also calling attention to the political messages of much of her songwriting. While some of the night’s highlights reflected the more somber tenor of Mitchell’s music, the set from Los Lobos — including killer vocals from La Marisoul, instilling a different power and belt that contrasts with Mitchell’s reedier sound and company — was a joyous, rousing moment of celebration.
Graham Nash sings ‘Our House’
The entire collection of songs were titles penned by Joni Mitchell save one — ‘Our House’ by Graham Nash. Nash kicked off the second act explaining that he wrote the ballad for Mitchell when he was 27 and she was 26. In the shadow of a black-and-white image of the two of them together in their twenties, Nash launched into the sparkling love song, making a winking nod to the song’s title, saying, “After the election last night, I’m so grateful to have our house back.” The moment became a particular highlight when Nash invited the entire audience to sing along and the crowd broke into a tinkling chorus as Nash accompanied them on piano. Throughout the night, the room was brimming with love and admiration for Mitchell, but it bloomed into an effusive, electric energy for this brief moment of a shared song.
A Birthday Paradise
To close out the evening, the entire cast of performers returned to the stage to sing Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” with the stacked talent list taking turns delivering duets and solos on one of Mitchell’s most recognizable pop hits. But the kicker was when Mitchell herself was brought onstage surrounded by the cadre of musical legends who had just spent two hours feting her body of work. Joined by the audience, the group sang Mitchell “Happy Birthday” as production staff carried out a cake for her to blow out the candles. There didn’t seem to be a dry eye in the house.