Joni Mitchell’s remarkable return to the public eye—following a 2015 brain aneurysm that temporarily robbed her of speech and movement—is raging right on, as the iconic singer-songwriter has delivered another rare live performance and been awarded another honor for her musical mastery.
Earlier this month, Mitchell received the Gershwin Prize, bestowed each year by the Library of Congress in recognition of an artist’s lifetime contribution to popular music. To mark the occasion, a star-studded concert was filmed in Washington, D.C., and will air this Friday night at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. Along with a performance from Mitchell herself, the show included tributes from a host of her musical friends and admirers: James Taylor, Graham Nash, Brandi Carlile, Herbie Hancock, Annie Lennox, Marcus Mumford, Cyndi Lauper, and more.
In this exclusive clip from the PBS special, Mitchell—looking resplendent in a blue velvet dress and gripping a gold microphone—stands front and center among the group of all-star performers as they sing the chorus of “The Circle Game,” from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon. Then, the group drops out as Mitchell goes solo on the third verse, which remains an exemplar of her poetic songwriting: “Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now / Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town.”
Ken Ehrlich, who produced the PBS special, told The Daily Beast that “The Circle Game” was a last-minute addition to the concert.
“We didn’t add ‘The Circle Game’ until a couple of days before the show,” he said. “I was looking for a finale that would bring everyone together after Joni’s performance of ‘Summertime,’ and we had not yet put ‘Circle Game’ into the show. At the one rehearsal we had for ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ I brought it up, first to the women in that number who loved it, but purposely we never rehearsed it prior to the show. I wanted it to feel real as though it was truly spontaneous and fitting as an exclamation point for Joni... and obviously it worked.”
As seen in the clip, the concert also highlights Mitchell’s visual artwork—her paintings are displayed prominently behind the stage and became an “essential” part of the show, according to Ehrlich.
“One of the things that truly separates the look and feel of this show from other tributes we’ve done (and we’ve done a lot) was the integration of Joni’s artwork into the fabric of the show itself,” he said. “After we had chosen about a dozen of her paintings to feature on our set, it was relatively easy to highlight one, two, three or even all of them as each performance was rehearsed. We had a roadmap, but with the help of our lighting designer Matt Firestone, Joni’s paintings, which are such a part of her life, became an essential part of the show. And it was gratifying that so many people loved that idea.”
The Gershwin Prize is just the latest in a recent string of accolades for the 79-year-old Canadian icon, who received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2021, was celebrated as MusiCares’ 2022 Person of the Year, and received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music last year. Previous recipients of the Gershwin Prize—named for the legendary songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin—include Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Lionel Richie, and Carole King.
Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song premieres Friday night at 9 p.m. ET on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS App.