The singer-songwriter tradition takes center stage as women stars lead a benefit.
Stars aplenty shone from the Wiltern stage Wednesday at the second "Stormy Weather" concert, a fund-raiser for Don Henley's Walden Woods Project. Yet despite many stellar performances among short sets by Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Paula Cole, Deborah Cox, Susan Tedeschi and Michelle Branch, the star of the evening wasn't a single one of them.
The true headliner was the singer-songwriter tradition itself. The 10 women, each given time for a couple of songs with a 60-piece orchestra, championed that tradition, from newcomer Branch's opening notes to Mitchell's captivating closing set more than two hours later.
In addition to samples of their own songs, most of the participants saluted at least one of their favorite songwriters.
Mitchell easily handled Bob Dylan's Mitchell-esque "Sweetheart Like You," Jones glided through the Band's "It Makes No Difference" and Crow deftly rendered Steve Earle's heartbreaking "Goodbye." Cole inhabited Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's "House Where Nobody Lives," while Yearwood aced Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "The Man That Got Away."
There were moments, however, when some of the relative newcomers didn't seem quite at home alone in front of an orchestra. The blues-based Tedeschi, for instance, did an admirable job as a torch singer, both on the standard "These Foolish Things" and in an appropriately moody reading of Mitchell's melancholy holiday song "River." Still, you ached for someone to hand her a guitar so she could really cut loose.
Likewise, jazz-blues sensation Jones, while exhibiting the evocative vocal phrasing that has made her one of the year's brightest arrivals, appeared especially ill at ease without her piano in front of her.
That may have been as much a function of experience as sheer comfort level. As the show progressed to the veterans, the poise and confidence level rose.
McEntire gave a reminder of what a marvelous straight country singer she was before she became a mistress of all media, with her treatment of the Ray Price hit "I Won't Mention It Again."
Even Nicks stepped convincingly out of character, delving deeply into the blues of Etta James' "Sunday Kind of Love."
Mitchell capped the evening as spiritual godmother to the women who had preceded her onstage with a stunning update of "Woodstock" that recast its original wide-eyed optimism into a haunting fable that mourned the loss of youthful idealism.
If she truly intends to retire from music, as she's been quoted as saying recently, she made it clear that when she does, she's not about to go gentle into that good night.
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