It’s impossible to overestimate Joni Mitchell’s influence on other musicians, so the lineup of talent for the JONI 75 tribute to celebrate her 75th birthday in November at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. was hardly surprising. But most revealing was that instead of just going for star power, producer Danny Kapilian chose a diverse group who could bring something distinctive to Joni’s canon.
Thanks to PBS’s “American Masters,” I was able to view highlights of the concert. (It’s available in a slightly different form on CD and DVD.) After spending a couple of years as a recluse recovering from an aneurysm, Joni was an inspiring sight in the audience in her red coat and stylish hat, flanked by “two gentlemen escorting me to the halls.”
Much credit must go to the nine-piece house band, led by pianist Jon Cowherd and drummer Brian Blade (of the Fellowship Band) as musical directors, with such standouts as Greg Leisz on pedal steel and Marvin Sewell on guitar. Even the selections from the folkier side of her catalogue (beginning with Ladies of the Canyon) had a touch of jazz in the arrangements, which seemed appropriate for the evolution in Joni’s music. Slides of her paintings added to the appreciation.
Jazzy chanteuse-pianist Norah Jones chose simply to sing and not play “Court and Spark,” but Diana Krall did a stunning a piano and vocal version of “For the Roses.” Glenn Hansard beautifully captured both the sophisticated guitar parts and lyrics of “Coyote.” Rufus Wainwright invested “Blue” with deep-seated passion, while turning “All I Want” into a syncopated, horn-drive joy ride.
James Taylor, the apparent inspiration for Blue, didn’t fare as well with a pedestrian “River,” but made up for it with a contemplative “Woodstock.” That song featured, along with a trumpet solo, background vocals by Seal, who also was tapped for “Both Sides Now.” That was an unexpected choice, but his gorgeous voice was filled with conviction. So was Emmylou’s on the dark song, “The Magdalene Laundries.” Less successful was Chaka Khan’s “Help Me,” which seemed over-sung, but the pairing of the Mexican singer La Marisoul with Los Lobos on the obscure “Nothing Can Be Done” from Night Ride Home was a riveting highlight.
Another collaboration, Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile on “A Case of You,” was both ragged and moving, with Kris’s guttural vocals mixing with Brandi’s clear soprano. It seemed as though that Brandi was offering moral support to Kris, who has memory issues (brought on by Lyme disease). After Kris left the stage, Brandi recounted that he had urged Joni after the “Blue” album to “save something for yourself.” Brandi then thanked Joni for not doing that and “letting us live inside your songs,” and proceeded to do a breathtaking, extended version of “Down to You.”
Joni’s onetime paramour, Graham Nash, pointed that all of the songs were Joni compositions, except one, “Our House,” written while they were living together. It was a nice, personal touch, with the audience singing along on the chorus. The encore was an all-hands-on-deck singalong on “Big Yellow Taxi,” which brought Joni to center stage. It appeared that she, too, was singing along and even smiling. Considering what she’s been through, that was quite a sight.