A silence fell over a hushed crowd at the MGM Grand’s Marquee Ballroom in Las Vegas as Billy Porter took on “Both Sides Now.”
Originally released 53 years ago and first recorded by the singer Judy Collins, the monumental song with its ruminative lyrics and unforgettable melody, is perhaps one of Joni Mitchell’s most well known. Here at the MuisCares Person of the Year Gala honoring Mitchell on Friday (April 1), Porter had the unenviable task of covering the classic.
But as he reached the song’s second chorus it was clear his interpretation, with sparse instrumentation coupled with a stunning and poetic vocal prowess, effectively put Mitchell’s words front-and-center both audibly and visually (her handwritten lyrics were shown scrolling, karaoke-style, behind him). The combination of one passionate and singular artist honoring another was the theme of the night, and Porter’s performance left the audience moved, with the room leaping to their feet as he wrapped up the song. It was a testament that when a track is that well-crafted, in the right hands it can make you feel like it was your first time hearing it when in reality it’s actually been with you your entire life.
So went the night’s efforts to honor Mitchell, the latest MusiCares recipient in a long line of legends the charity has feted during an event that has become an emotional, can’t-miss highlight of Grammy weekend (past recipients include 2020’s honoree Aerosmith and Dolly Parton in 2019). There was an open question as to whether Mitchell, who only a few years ago suffered a brain aneurysm and was confined to a wheelchair, would attend. But those worries were quashed when the 78-year-old artist sauntered down the red carpet and took her seat inside.
Unlike in MusiCares past, 2022’s edition featured two disparate artists who were the night’s artistic directors: Brandi Carlile and Jon Batiste, the latter this year’s most nominated name at Sunday’s (April 3) Grammy Awards. Each invited a potpourri of unique talent to put unique spins on both Mitchell’s biggest hits and deep cuts, zigzagging between genres, feelings and the decades. This year the starry roster included the likes of John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Sara Bareilles, Leon Bridges, Yola, Black Pumas and Stephen Stills.
“When I heard that Joni was named Person of the Year, I knew I wanted to be involved in a meaningful way,” Batiste said as he opened the night’s proceedings. “Brandi and I worked with the producers to paint a beautiful picture of poetry and music through Joni’s eyes.”
Throughout the nearly four-hour show, no facet of Mitchell’s career was left unturned and no superlative was left unsaid, with artists emotionally recalling the moments Mitchell’s music inspired them, and the honoree’s friends recalling what makes her special, including Meryl Streep, who pre-recorded a video message that said in no uncertain terms, “You are immortal.”
“She has the ability to pour a lyric out from the depth of her soul,” singer Lauren Daigle told Billboard, who performed Mitchell’s “Come in From the Cold.” “One of the lyrics from that song is, ’I don’t know who the arsonist was, which incendiary soul, but all I ever wanted was just to come in from the cold.’ When you think about lines like those, with their depth and brevity and how she has the ability to fit all of those syllables and be melodic and beautiful, I’m so inspired by her.”
Bridges meanwhile, who delivered a spin on Mitchell’s cut “Amelia” from her 1976 album, Hejira, echoed those sentiments. “The fact that she lets out her strengths and weaknesses and stories for all the world to see; as a musician I appreciate those kinds of writers,” he tells Billboard. “She absolutely blessed the world with her sound. It’s humbling to be asked to give her version of such a beautiful tune.”
Alongside the new class of artists, Mitchell’s friends also showed out in force, including Herbie Hancock, a frequent collaborator, and Stills who surprised the audience with a rollicking guitar solo during Carlile’s rendition of Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” famously written in response to Mitchell missing the festival to tape a television appearance. (Stills and his band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released a memorable cover of the track in 1970.)
“We actually played for her the second-ever time we ever performed together,” Stills recollected before the show. “Two other members of the band insisted we sang in front of Joni the first time, but I know that’s not true because I never could have done it. I was too intimidated by her. I would have froze right up.”
Stills’ cohort Graham Nash also performed, but remotely from Nashville, where he’s currently on tour. Nash originally was supposed to be in-house, but that changed when the gala was shifted from its original date in January in Los Angeles, a result of the rescheduling and relocation of Grammy week events due to the Omicron surge earlier this year.
For organizers, the shift was no easy feat. “We had to recreate the same show two months later in a different city with our limited staff while also doing pandemic relief,” Laura Segura, executive director of MusiCares, told Billboard of the charity that has given away $37.5 million since the pandemic turned life upside down in March 2020.
According to Segura, when it came to choosing Mitchell as this year’s honoree, it was a decision made in light of her recent absence from the public spotlight. “When she stepped away, it took the music community the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a second, we need to celebrate Joni Mitchell for what she’s done for us.’” (It was also the second major honor for Mitchell in short order, as she received a Kennedy Center Honor just last year.)
As midnight approached and the proceedings wound down, a visibly touched Mitchell took the stage to accept the honor and thank the performers and audience in a brief speech, which ended with the legend cracking, “I need to sit down.” However, she stayed on stage for a finale in the form of all-star renditions of both “The Circle Game” and the ahead-of-its-time environmental hit “Big Yellow Taxi,” which featured Carlile and Mitchell on the mic.
“Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone,” they sang. It was an ironic sentiment considering the palpable passion in the room and the expression shown on Mitchell’s face, which beamed with joy and emotion as the night went on.