Before I get into my review of Saturday's show, I have to thank my JMDL pals who made it possible for me to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event:
Paul, who had never even met me yet opened his home to me and welcomed me so openly & sincerely.
Bob Sartorius, who provided transportation and GREAT company at the Metropolitan Museum and Central Park, where we had hours of enjoyable conversation on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
Heather & Patrick, who shared the concert with me, and also were state-of-the-art tour guides at the Met.
Rose & Nikki who made the effort to get there and enjoy the concert with me.
Debra, who made so many of the arrangements, got a lot of information, and brought water & snacks to keep up our strength during the marathon.
Jenny, always great seeing you, especially when you bring cute friends! :~)
OK, now on to the music - which I was afraid I wasn't going to see due to stalled subways, but luck was with me & I walked in to Symphony Space moments before the program began. As more luck would have it, the day was GORGEOUS and there was a big peace march planned, so there was no line to get in.
Sylvia McNair - Chelsea Morning, California: Sylvia is an accomplished opera singer, and obviously a big Joni fan as well as she effortlessly navigated her way through these 2 with perfect pitch & emotion to wonderful piano accompaniment.
Laurie Anderson - Both Sides Now: My first tears of the day...Laurie was scheduled for later in the program but was on her way to the peace march, so she came out early and performed BSN in a very moving fashion, singing in a multi-octave style, with lots of passion and accompanying herself on violin.
Jason Moran - The Priest: Jason is a jazz pianist, and thus declared that he wasn't going to sing. Played an intense, free-form but focused interpretation of The Priest. Jason Moran/Alicia Hall - Woodstock: He was then joined by vocalist Alicia Hall, and she REALLY brought down the house, and again lots of tears in my case. Very moving, and like so many others she emphasized the pro-peace lyrics in Joni's song and showed those who may not have been aware how relevant Joni's lyrics remain after 35 years.
Lucy Kaplansky - Carey, Willy: A big crowd favorite, she played Carey on the guitar, and Willy on the piano. Like she did on the radio, she intro'd Willy by saying that she played it always in private. Both of these were spot-on.
Lorinda Lisitza - A theatre performer & singer from Canada, she intro'd her set with praise for Joni as a Canadian, and said that she was going to do a "Canadian" set; that is, Joni songs that referenced Canada. Her first song was an acapella Cherokee Louise, which was beautiful, and an appropriate way to present it. She used the starkness & the silence to emphasize the "punch line" that transforms the song to its darker side. She was then joined by vocalist Karen Mack & pianist/vocalist Michael Holland (who has a WONDERFUL cover of "A Case of You" to his credit) and they launched into a fine version of Song For Sharon, with Michael providing dead-on harmonies. You could tell by watching him that this song was written in his soul. Then they delivered a fun, bouncy version of "Ray's Dad's Cadillac", into which Michael inserted a bit of "Car On A Hill" and Karen inserted a bit of "You Dream Flat Tires". This group was well-rehearsed, and it showed. They were clearly overjoyed to be there.
Helga Davis - God Must Be A Boogie Man/Beat Of Black Wings/Love: Like I said, we had NO IDEA what we were about to experience. Every once in a while, an artist doesn't just perform or present a song, but rather they inhabit the piece. Helga, a singer from Harlem, & her co-vocalist Marcel Blatchley accompanied by piano & bass started with 'Boogie Man', and then segued into 'Black Wings' during which Helga became Killer Kyle, feeling & emoting every line of the song in an extremely affecting way, recalling the horrors he expereinced. Even she seemed surprised at the intensity of her presentation. The 2 vocalists then traded off lines in 'Love', and tacked on to the song a sung version of The Beatitudes (The first part of Jesus' Sermon On The Mount), and when they got to "Blessed are the peacemakers" they just kept singing it, each time with more feeling and more energy. This entire piece was performed in segue, so there was never any release from the audience or from the performers. By the time the piece was over, I was literally shaking, awash in tears and trying to hold back from sobbing. I looked at Debra and she was in a similar state. We all were on our feet applauding & cheering and finally releasing what Helga had given to us. Like Debra said, Helga herself was so emotionally spent that she needed her bandmates to support her and help her offstage. This is a performance I'll remember my whole life.
Stretto - Little Green: College acapella is a very important sub-genre of Joni covers. A number of her songs have been done in this style, and many are appropriated quite well. Raised On Robbery, Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock to name a couple, have all been done to good effect in acapella. Little Green, however, is a song of very deep emotion, and to present it in doo-wop acapella fashion is just not appropriate. The vocalists were talented, always in synch and on perfect pitch, but they had NO IDEA what they were singing about, and that made this one more of a parody.
Garland Jeffreys - Peoples Parties, You Turn Me On Me On I'm A Radio: Well, Garland may not have perfect pitch, but his respect for Joni & his ability to sell a song overcomes all that. With a guitar/bass/accordion backing he had a lot of fun with his 2 songs, particularly 'Radio' when he jumped down off the stage, wandered through the aisles, got the audience to sing along, and created a party atmosphere.
Garland also was quoted in the program: "Joni Mitchell has stood at the vanguard of songwriters from the moment she hit the public and has remained there, paving the way for the rest of us to explore the world of music beyond three chords".
Love that quote.
Jane Ira Bloom - Woman Of Heart & Mind: Jane is a saxophonist, she spoke not a word but went straight to her work. Tell you the truth, it took me a while to figure out what she was playing. Now knowing what it is, I'd love to hear it again. It was NOT a straight cop of the melody, I can tell you that.
Morley - This Flight Tonight, River, Chinese Cafe: A young (female) singer-songwriter, Morley had a great band backing her up, including world music legend David Amram on piano and on penny whistle flute. On This Flight Tonight, he played 2 small flutes simultaneously, one harmonizing with the other. An amazing solo. Her 'Chinese Cafe' was outstanding, hitting on all the right emotions and arrangements. She got a standing ovation - well deserved for a terrific performance.
Lauren Flanigan - Song To A Seagull/Nathan LaFraneer/Hejira/Furry Sings The Blues/I Had A King: Imagine if you will the above songs done in medley style, sung by a coloratura soprano and accompanied by an organ-grinder accordian, an under-miked sitar, two percussionists who played everything from congas to the didgereedoo. Sound like a mess? Well it was. Lauren gets BIG points for ambition, but this performance was simply awful. There was never any focus, the musicians never seemed to be in synch with each other, or the rhythm or lyrical intent of the song, there was no one driving the melody, Lauren's voice was either sharp or flat...like I told Debra, she aimed VERY high and missed my a mile. The worst part was that SHE laid claim to 2 Hejira songs, so this was the only treatment that they rec'd. Very disappointing.
Gail Ann Dorsey - Passion Play, The Wolf That Lives In Lindsay: Gail Ann put things immediately back on track. As has been mentioned, she's Bowie's bassist, but these two songs outshone anything in his repertoire. Passion Play is already in our covers collection, so I knew it would be great. She played electric guitar, which made all the chimes and haunting chords in 'Lindsay' that much more striking. And her voice is crystal clear, and being a bassist her sense of rhythm was immaculate. This was awesome!
Ivy Austin - Little Green: A very straightforward reading of the song with piano accompaniment by Lanny Meyers.
Christine Lavin - Urge For Going, Marcie: I like Christine, but she came off as a bit unprofessional and under-rehearsed. She was a bit too casual about it all. She honored Dave van Ronk with her performance of 'Urge', even imitating his rough growl with "The warriors of winter, gave a cold, triumphant shout", and she played it in his chordal arrangement. Marcie was a little rough in spots, she had some difficulties negotiating some of the chord changes. Like Garland Jeffreys, she knows how to sell it, but I expected a higher degree of competence from her.
Suzzy & Maggie Roche - A Case Of You, For The Roses: I've always loved The Roches sound, those skin-tight harmonies. Suzzy played guitar & sang, Maggie played piano & sang, and they harmonized every word of every song. Pretty amazing considering Joni's tricky harmonic devices. Unlike Lavin, they were consummate professionals and were very well-rehearsed. Staying true to their eclecticism, they said they picked 'For The Roses' because it contained the word "Arbutus". And as if they weren't enough, they then introduced Jennifer Glass as a younger singer, and spoke of Joni's influence on the generations after theirs. Jennifer sang "Cactus Tree" in what Patrick described as "American Idol style" and this was a good observation, and took nothing away from the performance. Her voice was stunning, as was she from head to toe. I held my notes to the side at this point so as not to drool on them.
Bob Holman - Jonicento: This was a poetry-slam kinda thing. I'm not very knowledgeable about this genre, and I could appreciate it, but it seemed a bit long and a bit pretentious to me. A "cento" is a work made up of snippets from other work (like Willy The Shake's post 9-11 composition for those who remember that). So Bob and poets Jackie Sheeler & Vicki Hudspith traded Joni lines with a teen-punk band from NJ called Minasian playing "The Jungle Line". Now I was into the music, especially the drummer playing the Burundi rhythms with his padded sticks. But the 3 poets came off like an SNL sketch.
Luciana Souza - Blue, All I Want, Amelia, Jericho: Luciana's set was very pretty and very UN-pretentious. She was accompanied by Adam Rodgers on guitar, and sang while seated and played some percussion by banging the instruments on her thighs. Sounds silly, maybe, but it was very pleasant.
David Krakauer - The Fiddle & The Drum: This was performed on solo clarinet. I'm not familiar with David but he's obviously a virtuoso on his instrument, playing this song over a number of octaves. Although this was obviously an instrumental, he started by reading the lyrics and commenting about how contemporary (and sadly so) they were.
Theo Bleckmann - Refuge Of The Roads/Sisotowbell Lane/Sunny Sunday/Borderline: Theo is a European vocalist - performance artist who has a DEEP love for Joni. You could just see the joy oozing from him during this performance, which was also very challenging & ambitious and had to be seen to be fully appreciated. Accompanying him were John Hollenbeck on percussion and found objects, and Gary Versace on piano & accordian. Besides just singing, Theo recorded his live vocals on a machine, then played them back and harmonized with them, experimented with the rhythms and textures of his voice and its tones. While this was riveting at times, it went on a bit too long for my taste, and when the percussionist ventured away from traditional instruments and started rubbing coffee cans on guitar strings and such, it took away rather than adding to the sonic textures. But for the most part, this was a very unique and enjoyable presentation.
Edie Carey - Night Ride Home: My guess is that Melissa Errico had originally laid claim to NRH, because Edie was going to do 'Come In From The Cold' but did NRH instead when Melissa cancelled. This was a straightforward girl-with-guitar performance, and was very warm & genuine. Edie's originally from NYC but is now based in Atlanta. She was very happy to be a part of W2W. She then introduced Anne Heaton, and they did a jaw-dropping gorgeous take on "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", Edie on guitar, and Anne on electric piano. Perfect harmonies and emotion, and again very moving in its timeliness.
Anne Heaton - For Free: Edie split, and Anne gave a solo performance of For Free, which must be a song she's comfortable with as she seemed so relaxed and in control with it, joyfully playing & singing, and smiling. Very nice.
Julien Fleischer - Conversation: Julien made the first of his 3 appearances, and he intro'd this song as a special request for someone backstage. It wasn't on the program. Julien's voice is very warm, and it was interesting to hear this song presented as a man singing to a man about being trapped in his male-female relationship. Put a very unique spin on it. His playing reminds me of the way our own Claud so effortlessly strums through it.
Burnt Sugar ~ The Arkestra Chamber - The Jungle Line, A Strange Boy: This section (perhaps influenced by the "Arkestra" of Sun Ra) featured Violin, Cello, Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer, Bass, Drums, and vocals. One of the vocalists sang right into the mic and the other sang through a voice manipulator of sorts. And each person was directed by Greg Tate, with his back to the audience, who would point to someone and bring them in, out, up, down like a conductor which is I suppose what I was. Some of this was accessible and some was not, but I didn't dislike it. It certainly was not your Mom's Joni Mitchell. I wondered what Joni would have thought of this one.
Dana Hanchard - The Wolf That Lives In Lindsay: Can you believe it, we got twice as many 'Lindsays' than we did BYT's! Well, it WAS New York after all, so I guess anything can happen! The program shows Dana singing to guitar accompaniment, but as I recall it she accompanied herself on the keyboard. Whichever, it was fabulous, the combination of her smoky jazzy voice and the haunting 'Lindsay'.
Elliott Sharp's Terraplane - Shadows And Light: This was an instrumental, with Elliott playing an electric steel guitar, backed up by drums & bass. It was good when they stuck to the song, but Mr. Sharp got a little show-offish at times and it diminished the performance. Still worthwhile though, as this song is rarely covered.
Gregory Douglas & Jeremy Mendocino - Court & Spark, Free Man In Paris: Some of you caught these guys at the Club Passim tribute. Young, very young, with the enthusiasm of youth, and a LOT of enthusiasm for Joni. Gregory sang and played piano, Jeremy played acoustic guitar. Superb vocals, right on the money. I liked these guys a lot.
Nora York - Both Sides Now, Sex Kills, The Fiddle & The Drum: Nora introduced this piece as a "Triptych" that she assembled as a soundtrack for a film project about Viet Nam. She said that when she asked a soldier what song evoked Viet Nam for him he answered "Both Sides Now". She had a razor-sharp crackerjack of a band, including Claire Daly on a baritone sax as big as she was, and Allison Miller on Drums. Like Helga Davis' presentation, this was presented as a single piece, with segues from song to song and also included inserted sounds like helicopters and war noise. Sex Kills was INCREDIBLE. This is the way Sex Kills was meant to be, edgy and rocking, not smothered with orchestra. Nora's great, her voice is very soulful and she was a real crowd-pleaser.
Melba Joyce - Harlem in Havana: Speaking of crowd pleasers...OMIGOD! Melba is an accomplished NYC jazz singer, and she played with this one and sang it like it was a standard. She had the audience in the palm of her hand, singing to Lanny Meyers accompaniment. It saddened me to think that most of the Joni fans in the audience had probably never heard this song before. I couldn't believe she was only doing this one number, then I saw that she was due back up with The Mingus Big Band - whew!
Carole Pope - Down To You, Raised On Robbery: I felt so foolish, because I had heard SO many good things about her, and when I saw that she was doing "Down To You", one of my top 5 Joni songs, I whispered to Heather that this was going to be killer. And I started out right...Rob Prusse, her pianist, was right on with the keyboard beginning, really nice. But then, Carole started singing, and she was pathetically weak. It was as if she had never heard the song before and was trying to wing it. Missed many notes, never picked up the rhythm of the song, barely emoted what is one of Joni's most powerful songs lyrically. Very disappointing. 'Robbery' was slightly better, but with just a piano backing up it missed the punch that a full band could have given it.
The Four Bags with David Garland - Songs To Aging Children Come, Turbulent Indigo: This guy David Garland must have provided lots of funding for Symphony Space and they promised him he could perform. Wow, he was the el-stinko worst of the day by a mile. Absolutely no sense of anything, pitch, rhythm, you name it. I guarantee you that ANY of us in the audience could have jumped on stage and done better than him. The most embarrassing was when he sang to what he thought was some kind of effect "Turbulent Indigo-wo-wo-wo"...I really felt embarrassed for him. He literally drove Patrick out of the building!
The Four Bags - Wild Things Run Fast, Help Me: So David left, and not a moment too soon. The musicians stayed and they fared much better. I'm thinking these guys are either in college (Julliard?) or freshly out, and they were really very capable players on accordian, clarinet, trombone, guitar. They were tight. They had the eclectic sound of They Might Be Giants, especially when they played "Help Me" as a polka, which the audience including me LOVED! Very playful and fun.
Fred Hersch - My Old Man, All I Want, River: Some of has have already heard Fred do My Old Man, so we know of his supreme accomplishments and abilites as a jazz pianist. He intro'd his set by saying that he was one of the lucky first musicians contacted about the gig, and he immediately jumped at the chance and picked 3 songs from the masterpiece Blue. Fred's love for these compositions really shone through, as he played the familiar melodies, augmented the chords with jazz notes, and played tasteful solos that always complemented and never showboated. I could listen to him all night, he was simply fabulous. The standing O he received made me think that others felt the same way.
Greg Osby - Tax Free, Ethiopia: I had no idea what to expect with this one. I didn't know that Greg is a fixture on the jazz scene and is based in St. Louis. He played alto sax, and led his trio (stand-up bass and guitar) in classic jazz treatments of these two never-before covered DED tunes. After playing the basic melodic line, Greg would solo and then Mike Moreno, his guitarist, would solo. Very clean & melodic solos, and they knew when enough was enough and when to turn it back over. Greg proved the musical viability of these oft-neglected melodies.
Tamar-Kali - Silky Veils Of Ardor: OK, I admit it...I don't recall much about this one, so it must not have been very memorable. A pity too, because I love 'Veils'.
Julien Fleischer - The Last Time I Saw Richard, The Circle Game: Julien's 2nd appearance, back on guitar but this time with Tom Murray on clarinet and Matthew Fries on piano. Both of these were top-notch, the addition of clarinet on 'Richard' was a very welcome color. With 'Circle Game', Julien coaxed the audience to join in on the chorus, reminding us "the more out of tune voices, the better". Again, his naturally warm vocals suited the song and raised it above the cliche it can sometimes be.
Sussan Deyhim - Jericho: This one was tough to take. As has been stated, Sussan sang this one in a middle Eastern wail with her chin at a quiver, and it was not comfortable to watch or hear. Not that it was bad, far from it. it's just that it was a style that most of our ears were not accustomed to hearing. Still, I was relieved that she only did the one number.
Brandon Ross - Off Night Backstreet: Brandon was Sussan Deyhim's guitarist, and he stayed onstage and was joined by another dreadlocked guy on the bass. Heather & I joked that it was Milli Vanilli's comeback performance. This was an effective piece, Brandon played his own arrangement, and seemed to avoid some of the trickier chord progressions in the song. Still, it was very soulful and enjoyable.
After Brandon's subdued presentation, the emcee (there were several throughout the day, all DJ's from WFUV) announced that there would be a short break while they set up for The Mingus Big Band. It didn't take long, and soon everything was in place. Sue Mingus served as emcee for the 5-song extended set, telling lots of stories about Charles & Joni, and even dishing some dirt on Joni & Don Alias entering & winning an anonymous dance contest. The 14-piece band swung as they supported the following vocalists:
Andy Bey - A Chair In The Sky: Andy's chocolate-velvet voice was a perfect choice for this song. Of course, as with all of these, The Mingus Big Band has played them many times, so there was a strong professionalism present.
Dana Hanchard - Sweet Sucker Dance: Dana came back after her lovely turn on 'Lindsay' and did a super job. The band played flawlessly behind her, and each song included some nice solos by saxophonists, trumpets, and behind the rhythm section was a 19-year old who played 'big band' style drume to perfection! Bonus points to Heather who recognized Randy Brecker in the band.
Julien Fleischer - Edith And The Kingpin: The only non-Mingus selection, they had the arrangement from their work with Elvis Costello, and for his third appearance Julien was 3-for-3. Reminded me of seeing Jason Marsalis' set at Pazfest.
Melba Joyce - The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat: As she did previously with Harlem in Havana, Melba capably sang these two with ease, grace & style, never missing a beat in terms of melody and rhythm. Singing jazz couldn't be as easy as she makes it appear. The band really bumped it up a notch for Mingus' signature tune 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat'. When they completed, an instantaneous standing ovation resulted. From a purely musical perspective, this was by far the most amazing performance of the day. A polished gem in every sense.
I would not have wanted to be the act following that, and luckily for everyone I wasn't! That unenviable chore fell on:
Jenifer Jackson - That Song About The Midway, The Gallery: And she wasn't overwhelmed by it in the least. Her performance, accompanied by percussion and guitar, was as pretty as the songs she chose.
Don Byron & Music For Six Musicians + 1 - The Priest, Dreamland: Does the title sound pretentious? This was one of the most pretentious performances I've ever seen, and the sad thing is that the players here were really talented. If not for "Lord" Byron lording over them, literally shouting at them onstage, while they were playing, walking around the stage, playing way too many solos on his clarinet, and allowing the excess that ruined these performances. I mean, each song was 15 minutes long! While all the musicians were very capable, they just had no restraint. At least the performance featured a knockout Brazilian vocalist whose denim skirt appeared to be painted on, and she did lots of dancing onstage, so I had a nice visual while waiting for Byron to end, which Thank God he finally did.
Martha Wainwright - Roses Blue, Big Yellow Taxi: This was a real juxtaposition, because the young daughter of Loudon Wainwright & Kate McGarrigle was as UN-pretentious as they come. She was not that familiar with Joni and had just started to play her songs. You certainly wouldn't have known as she was very good playing & singing Roses Blue (not one of Joni's easiest melodies) and BYT, which she slowed down a lot because she said she was not familiar with it (!!) She was great, but I would have like to have seen a performer that WAS familiar with Joni, like maybe Bryan Thomas!
Marc Anthony Thompson - Don't Interrupt The Sorrow, Hissing Of Summer Lawns: Marc's set was also very quiet...Oren Bloedow backed him on acoustic guitar, and his voice was a good match for these songs. When a baby in the audience started to pitch a hissy fit, instead of singing "wash and balance me", he sang "wash that baby, please" which got a good reaction from the audience. When he sang "a good slave loves the good book", he repeated it a couple of times and then added 'a rebel loves applause". An interesting, provocative, and satisfying set.
OK, so now we've sat through practically 12 hours of Joni covers...one act to go, and it was another winner.
Ute Lemper - Black Crow, Last Chance Lost, Love: Ute was backed by acoustic guitar, bass and percussion. She made some extreme facial contortions when she sang but she sounded great. Black Crow started off very slowly, then she kicked it in and the Crow was flyin! Last Chance Lost was beautifully done, Ute's vocal perhaps even more emotive than Joni's own on TI. I couldn't help but watch the guitarist try to negotiate what looked like some incredibly difficult chord changes. She closed out with a fairly straightforward and very pretty "Love" and when they announced that they were going to close with Joni's clip of her singing "Chelsea Morning", we JMDLer's who have seen it again & again headed out into the New York night for some food, drink and the chance to share our thoughts about the once-in-a-lifetime concert we'd experienced.
Again, my thanks to all of you who helped me share this incredible day, it's not one that I'll be forgetting anytime soon!
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