“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” Joni Mitchell famously once wrote. On Wednesday night at Constitution Hall, Mitchell showed that she’s definitely still got it.
The 79-year-old Mitchell, who has performed sparingly since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, closed a concert staged in her honor in dramatic fashion, leaning against the piano and flawlessly delivering a slow and sultry rendition of the Gershwin standard “Summertime” — the highlight of an evening filled with them.
The Library of Congress on Wednesday bestowed its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on Mitchell, the singer-songwriter best known for such 1970s classics as “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Help Me.” Her lyrics were deeply personal, her music was technically accomplished and her sound incorporated elements of folk, pop, rock and jazz.
“Oh, my God, it’s overwhelming. It’s just a beautiful event,” Mitchell said, noting that the evening brought together artists from the entire range of her career. “New friends, old friends — it’s thrilling.”
The cast of admiring musicians on hand to celebrate the Mitchell legacy indeed spanned generations and genres.
There were contemporaries like classic soft rockers Graham Nash and James Taylor. There was Herbie Hancock, one of the great pianists in jazz history and an inspiration for Mitchell’s own forays into the genre. And there were performers who followed in Mitchell’s footsteps, drawing inspiration from her work: ’80s pop divas Cyndi Lauper and Annie Lennox, acclaimed jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, world music star Angélique Kidjo, R&B singer Ledisi, indie pop band Lucius and modern folkies Brandi Carlile and Marcus Mumford.
Mumford kicked things off, walking onto a stage framed by massive reproductions of Mitchell’s paintings — she also is an accomplished visual artist — to perform “Carey.” That song, written by Mitchell while she was living among a cave-dwelling hippie community on the Greek island of Crete, was one of five drawn on Wednesday from her 1971 album “Blue,” regarded by critics as one of the rock era’s great records.
Mitchell broke with Gershwin Prize tradition, eschewing a box seat for a spot in front of the stage — a move that paved the way for performers to get up close and personal with their audience.
Carlile, Kidjo, Ledisi, Lennox, Lauper and Lucius combined their talents on “Big Yellow Taxi,” starting the song on center stage, then dancing their way down the steps and through the crowd, finally singing directly to the woman of the hour sitting in the first row. Kidjo, supported by Lucius, did likewise on her performance of Mitchell’s biggest hit, “Help Me.”
Carlile, a nine-time Grammy winner and ardent Mitchell fan, did a solo turn on “Shine” and brought down the house. Hancock and Ledisi delivered a cool, jazzy version of “River.” Lennox, half of the Grammy-winning 1980s pop duo Eurythmics, delivered a dramatic version of “Both Sides Now,” Mitchell’s best-known song.
Some performances carried a special resonance.
Nash and Mitchell were romantically involved in the late 1960s, and one of his best-known songs, “Our House,” was inspired by the domestic bliss of the home they shared in Laurel Canyon: “I’ll light the fire. You place the flowers in the vase that you bought today.” (Nash said in an interview earlier in the day those lines were a diary-like entry of exactly what the couple had done the day he wrote the song. He composed it in about ninety minutes, he said, while Mitchell was in their garden picking flowers for the new vase.)
More than a half century later, Nash took to the stage to perform “A Case of You” — a song Mitchell wrote after their romantic relationship ended.
“Love is touching souls, surely you touched mine,” Nash sang, a portrait she’d painted of him spotlighted on the stage backdrop. “Cause part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time.”
Lauper recalled the impact of Mitchell’s artistry on her own life and a lesson she learned from it: If Joni can do it, I can too.
“When I was growing up, the landscape of music was mostly men,” Lauper said. “There were a few women — far and few, for me. Joni Mitchell was the first artist who really spoke about what it was like to be a woman navigating in a male world. You taught me so much, Joni.”
Toward the end of the program, Mitchell and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden took the stage, along with members of Congress and Madison Council Chairman David M. Rubenstein.
“Joni Mitchell’s music hits you straight to your heart, down to your soul,” Hayden said in awarding the Gershwin Prize. “Millions grew up listening to Joni’s music — a distinct musical language — and it has touched and moved them uniquely at different periods of all of our lives. You could say she truly helped all of us look at both sides now.”
With the award came a request from Hayden: Would you honor us with a song?
Mitchell would — in fact, she’d make it a double: “Summertime” and a show-closing singalong of “The Circle Game” by the whole cast.
Mitchell chose “Summertime,” she said, as a tribute to the great songwriting team that gave its name to the prize she’d just received. She and Hancock had recorded the song, written by the Gershwin brothers and DuBose Heyward, some 25 years ago for his Grammy-winning album “Gershwin’s World.”
Against a bluesy musical backdrop, her voice husky and the tempo slow, she sang: “One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing. You’ll spread your pretty wings, and you’ll take to the sky.”
“Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” will be broadcast on PBS stations at 9 p.m. EST on March 31.