Joni Mitchell makes emotional return to the stage at MusiCares pre-Grammys tribute

LAS VEGAS – A few years ago, Joni Mitchell couldn't walk or talk, walloped by a brain aneurysm that damaged her motor skills.

On Friday night, Mitchell, 78, her blue eyes twinkling, leaned into Brandi Carlile's gold microphone and joyfully sang along to "Big Yellow Taxi." Surrounded by Carlile, Jon Batiste, Yola, Lauren Daigle and several other performers who had feted the lauded Canadian songstress as the MusiCares Person of the Year, Mitchell basked in the music with an easy smile, her omnipresent physical therapist – who also joined in the singalong – by her side.

Mitchell's participation on her 1970 hit that weaved environmentalism and politics into frisky guitar strums was a celebratory moment inside the pre-Grammy Awards event at the MGM Grand, experienced by an audience that had dwindled as the show stretched more than three hours.  

But those who remained were rewarded with this piece of musical magic, as well as hearing Mitchell share in a few lines of "The Circle Game."

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(From left to right) Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell, Holly Laessig, and Jon Batiste perform onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Joni Mitchell at MGM Grand Marquee Ballroom in Las Vegas on Friday,  April 1, 2022.

MusiCares is the foundation of the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammy Awards, and provides health and human service aid to the music community. Videos from musicians assisted by MusiCares – including some who benefited from the $37 million supplied in COVID-19 relief – played throughout the night, underscoring the importance of its outreach.

The annual event – which took a virtual pandemic-related detour in 2021 – was curated this year by musical directors Carlile and Batiste.

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On the red carpet before the show, Carlile, who also sang to her idol at December’s Kennedy Center Honors, told USA TODAY that her "number one priority" was Mitchell.

"What would make her proud? What would make her laugh? I wanted to help her realize how relevant she is to multiple generations. Everyone wants to sing in front of Joni and no one wants to sing in front of Joni," Carlile said with a knowing grin.

With an eclectic lineup that included Angélique Kidjo ("If"); St. Vincent ("Court and Spark"); Dave Grohl's 15-year-old daughter, Violet ("Help Me"); Chloe Bailey ("Chelsea Morning"); and Pentatonix (a mashup of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" and Mitchell's "Raised on Robbery"), Carlile and Batiste succeeded in showcasing the extensive reach of Mitchell’s auditory poetry.  

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(From left to right) Scott Hoying, Lauren Daigle, Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell, Holly Laessig, Jon Batiste, Jess Wolfe Yola, and Madison Cunningham onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Joni Mitchell at MGM Grand Marquee Ballroom in Las Vegas on Friday, April 1, 2022.

Admiring video messages from marquee names with longtime ties to Mitchell – Elton John, Lionel Richie, Meryl Streep, Neil Young – played on video screens hanging throughout the ballroom. Mitchell’s onetime love and muse, Graham Nash, also appeared virtually from a tour stop in Nashville and presented "Joan," as he called her, with a tender version of "A Case of You."

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Before the show, Mitchell talked to USA TODAY about the extraordinary few months she’s experienced with the Kennedy Center Honors and MusiCares commendation.

"It's interesting that it's been happening – and that it took 50 years to get there," Mitchell said.

So to what does she attribute this sudden interest in her career?

"Maybe people are getting deeper."

Here are some musical highlights from the event.

John Legend, "River": The R&B singer-pianist doesn't always ignite a room with his presence, but his deeply felt version of "River," performed on a rotating platform in the middle of the room, pierced with true emotion. His voice deep and resonant, Legend countered his robust vocals with the delicate plinkings of "Jingle Bells" that are laced into the melancholy song.  

Cyndi Lauper performs "Magdalene Laundries" at the 31st annual MusiCares Person of the Year benefit gala honoring Joni Mitchell on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

Cyndi Lauper, "Magdalene Laundries": Taken from Mitchell's 1994 album, "Turbulent Indigo," the song, Lauper said, is currently relevant as women still struggle for equal rights. Clad in a white hooded jacket with matching glasses and pink frosted lipstick, Lauper, her voice amazingly undiminished, both belted and dipped softly. She sang with her eyes closed, ignoring the giant TelePrompTer at the back of the room, and blew Mitchell a kiss at song’s end. "You left footprints in the sand for me to follow," Lauper said.

Billy Porter performs "Both Sides Now" at the 31st annual MusiCares Person of the Year benefit gala honoring Joni Mitchell on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

Billy Porter, "Both Sides Now": The elegant Porter took a moment before delving into one of Mitchell's most beloved songs to tell her, "We are all better artists because of the lines you dared to cross." His eyes outlined in dark glitter, Porter then engaged in a master class of song interpretation. He extracted the sadness and cautious hopefulness of the ballad with emphatic phrasing and emotional insight and his execution of the final line was absolutely devastating. Porter’s performance, about halfway through the show, earned the first ovation of the night. Some of us would still be standing.

Stephen Stills and Brandi Carlile perform onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Joni Mitchell at MGM Grand Marquee Ballroom in Las Vegas on Friday, April 1, 2022.

Carlile and Stephen Stills: On the red carpet, Stills told USA TODAY that he's "proud" of Mitchell for her resiliency. "She's been brave. We were really worried about her (after the 2015 aneurysm) and now here she is and God bless her." There was no vocalizing from Stills on stage, just an electrifying entrance midway through Carlile’s slow-building version of "Woodstock." Wielding his guitar, Stills strolled out wailing on the instrument while Carlile grabbed a guitar to join him. Carlile is always a joy to watch, and the moment she instinctively leaned her head on Stills’ shoulder as they played was one of unbridled happiness.

Allison Russell, left, and Mickey Guyton perform "For Free" at the 31st annual MusiCares Person of the Year benefit gala honoring Joni Mitchell on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

Mickey Guyton and Allison Russell, "For Free”: It was another spotlight moment for the doe-eyed Guyton, who impressed with her Super Bowl national anthem in February. The song, an album track from Mitchell’s third album, 1970’s “Ladies of the Canyon,” proved an ideal pairing for the pair’s compatible vocals. A little bit of soul and a tinge of country from a pedal steel guitar combined for rootsy melodic beauty.