The moment that Joni Mitchell entered the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday evening—a rare public appearance for the influential singer-songwriter on her 75th birthday—the entire theater full of her friends and fans leapt to their feet for a “Happy Birthday” serenade.
It was the least that the 3,000-plus audience could do—the eight-time Grammy winner spent her career inspiring artists and dreamers with her deeply personal lyrics and compositions. As the music writer-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe said during his toast, “For every dark and light thought we thought might not be understandable or relatable, for every time we wondered whether anyone understood, there was a Joni song or painting or story or performance to whisper in our ear, ‘You’re not alone. I’ve been there. I am there. Let’s be brave.’”
And the diverse turnout at Wednesday evening’s “Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration” was a testament to the vast cross section Mitchell had touched. Lily Tomlin, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Angela Bassett, Mandy Moore, and Jake Gyllenhaal sat in the multi-generational audience, singing along as Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, Diana Krall, Kris Kristofferson, Los Lobos, Seal, and Rufus Wainwright performed covers of Mitchell’s songs onstage. Harris called Mitchell “an inspiration for any woman who wanted to pick up a guitar,” and lauded her fearlessness in tackling deep, dark subjects through song. Peter Gabriel, appearing via video message, commended Mitchell for giving the world “melodies that would sparkle like jewels on a trampoline, jumping all around with movement and freedom in composition.” With a laugh, he added, “I pity the poor bastards who have to try and sing them in front of you tonight.” Meryl Streep, Anjelica Huston, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, David Geffen, and Rosanna Arquette penned personal birthday messages to Mitchell that appeared in the concert program. Streep, in particular, thanked Mitchell’s parents for creating such a brilliant artist. Her music is “entwined in my personal history,” wrote the Oscar-winning actress. “Her music defined the feeling of being alive for me, for oh these many years.”
Though the artists onstage performed Mitchell covers—as photographs of her throughout her career, and her colorful paintings filled a screen behind them—there was one moving exception. Graham Nash, the singer-songwriter who dated and lived with Mitchell in Laurel Canyon, sat down at the piano, and performed “Our House,” the song he had written about Mitchell and their happy home life some 50 years earlier. “You put the flowers in the vase that you bought today / Staring at the fire for hours and hours while I listen to you / Play your love songs all night long for me, only for me.” Mitchell, who had a red flower tucked behind one ear, sang along from the audience for the first and only time that evening.
At the end of the concert—presented by the Music Center of Los Angeles, in partnership with Vanity Fair and editor Radhika Jones—the evening’s performers gathered onstage for a sing-along rendition of “Big Yellow Taxi.” Mitchell joined them for a curtain call and cake presentation that elicited another standing ovation from her adoring fans. Afterward, guests moved upstairs for dinner on the second floor of the concert venue, which had been transformed into an earthy oasis inspired by Mitchell’s music—grass on the floor, woodland tablescapes, blankets slung cozily over chairs, and the Pacific Ocean itself, projected on a giant backdrop screen. There, Mitchell was presented with an elaborate art piece constructed from her own paintbrushes—when the piece spun, each paintbrush played a different musical note—another cake, and one last “Happy Birthday” serenade.
It seems impossible to express what Mitchell’s music has meant to generations of listeners, but Cameron Crowe did his best: “She has given us heavenly inspiration when heaven is in short supply.”