It’s impossible to tell from watching Brandi Carlile’s heartrending performance of “River” at the Kennedy Center Honors, but there was a time when the out Americana singer wasn't the Joni Mitchell devotee she is now. Now Carlile, who released her memoir Broken Horses and the album In These Silent Days this year, is more than a fan. Having performed for Mitchell at her 75th birthday celebration in 2018 and performed the seminal 1971 album Blue in concert, she’s widely considered to be the preeminent interpreter of Mitchell’s work. The women have also become friends, which was evidenced by Carlile’s shoutout to the Canadian chanteuse and painter following the Kennedy Center Honors performance.
“I love you, Joni, you magical thing,” Carlile called out as she blew a kiss to Mitchell, who was being honored along with Bette Midler, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, and opera singer Justino Díaz. The ceremony, which was recorded earlier but aired Wednesday, featured several appearances by LGBTQ+ performers. Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy introduced Carlile, while the out front woman for Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard, sang Mitchell’s churned-down jazz version of the hit “Both Sides Now.” Pose star Billy Porter performed for Midler with her hit “From a Distance.” Beanie Feldstein, who costarred in Hello, Dolly! with Midler, was part of a trio that sang “Friends.” Meanwhile, SNL veteran Kate McKinnon honored Michaels.
In an interview with The Advocate ahead of the 75th birthday concert, Carlile said of Mitchell, “She is peerless. She has no contemporaries.”
Watch Carlile perform “River” at the Kennedy Center Honors below.