TORONTO — After watching a succession of decorated musicians interpret her vast songbook in a celebration of her upcoming 70th birthday, Joni Mitchell took to the Massey Hall stage, kicked off her shoes and gave the adoring audience an unexpected — and exceedingly rare — gift of her own: a public performance.
Mitchell, who rarely makes appearances and hasn't toured since 2000, looked comfortable and even revitalized on stage, telling blissfully meandering stories, reading a new poem inspired by Emily Carr and singing three songs, each of which was rewarded with a resounding standing ovation at a tribute concert arranged in her honour by the Toronto arts festival Luminato.
"Tonight I must say I feel greatly honoured," Mitchell said upon first taking the stage, only after holding her hand to her forehead and peering into the crowd as they roared.
"I wasn't sure if I could sing tonight. I'm still not sure, but I'm going to try."
Prior to that, the Saskatchewan-raised folk legend had watched with apparent glee as her work was interpreted by the likes of Grammy nominee Rufus Wainwright, Oscar winner Glen Hansard and Ottawa troubadour Kathleen Edwards in the first of two such tribute concerts (the next, scheduled for Wednesday night, will also feature Grammy mainstay Herbie Hancock and jazz breakout Esperanza Spalding), all backed by an airtight band led by longtime Mitchell collaborator Brian Blade.
Around the show's two-hour mark, Mitchell mounted the stage to read a new poem entitled This Rain, This Rain — written during a wet period endured at a home she owns in British Columbia — only after explaining her longtime absence from the spotlight.
"I've been kinda out of it," said Mitchell, referencing struggles with "health problems."
When someone in the crowd yelled in appreciation and asked where she'd been, Mitchell replied: "Thank you. I was sick. That's all. What can ya do? But I'm back."
Indeed, she seemed to thrive in her return to the stage. Before singing Furry Sings The Blues from 1976's HEJIRA, she explained the meaning of the song with a long, funny story about her experience on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tours in the mid-70s, and the habit she developed there of trying to steal police officers' badges — a "psychological adventure" inspired "out of boredom, really."
As she performed, she danced and swayed side to side, snapping her fingers from time to time. When she sang the words "cheap guitars," she mimed her fingers along a fretboard.
Next, she performed Don't Interrupt The Sorrow from 1975's Grammy-nominated THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS. With a hint of mischief, she introduced the tune by quipping: "This song is the closest I've ever come to being a feminist."
After she was finished singing it, she further proved her iconoclastic ways — by lighting a cigarette.
Even before her moment at centre stage, Mitchell could be seen smiling and clapping during an impressive series of performances.
Georgia's Lizz Wright opened the show with a powerful take on The Fiddle And The Drum from Mitchell's formative 1969 recording CLOUDS and went on to put in sultry performances of Shades Of Scarlett Conquering and The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey (from 1979's MINGUS), while Hansard brought a boisterous spirit to a freewheeling Coyote and a singalong Carey that had the audience clapping to the beat.
"I have to say that as a folksinger, the idea of singing Joni's songs is an absolute thrill. (But some songs) took me a month to learn," the Swell Season member added with a laugh before singing The Boho Dance, noting that the lyric-packed compositions are a challenge, as are Mitchell's unique phrasings.
"It's been a wonderful exercise to connect some synapses I didn't have."
Others seemed frankly awed by the opportunity. Cold Specks gloom-soul singer Al Spx, from Toronto, seemed initially daunted as she tackled Black Crow but as her rich, smoky voice filled the room over ominous percussion that soon gave way to a funky, off-kilter beat, she broke into a grin midway through the song. Edwards, too, couldn't help but beam as her You Turn Me On (I'm A Radio) transitioned from its brittle, hushed beginning into a full-band swell.
Later, she was comfortable enough to sing Big Yellow Taxi without a mike — an apparent last-minute addition to the setlist that was aided by an audience gratefully singing along.
"This is a total honour," Edwards said. "Thank you so much for having me at this event."
Wainwright, by contrast, soaked in the spotlight. He wore a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses out to sing All I Want and a glittering bolo tie for a stunning version of 1991's Slouching Toward Bethlehem (from NIGHT RIDE HOME) that he said he was "trying to turn into a Scottish folk song."
And while most performers only uttered a few words of appreciation, Wainwright related his appreciation of Mitchell back to his mother, the late folk star Kate McGarrigle.
"My mother was a great songwriter ... but also a very human woman," he said. "And to be honest, she was just a little jealous of Joni Mitchell. So we didn't have a lot of her at the house."
So, he joked, he's appreciated this opportunity to learn Mitchell's oeuvre.
Even artists who couldn't be present for the concert showed their appreciation. In the program, a heady group of cross-disciplinary heavyweights — including Sting, Leonard Cohen, Shania Twain, Peter Gabriel and filmmakers Cameron Crowe, Atom Egoyan and David Lynch — offered appreciations and birthday wishes for the singer.
And later, Mitchell expressed her deep enthusiasm for all the evening's interpretations.
"They've been so true to the arrangements but they brought something of their own to it," Mitchell marvelled.
"Isn't this a wonderful collection of talent?" she added, rhetorically, later.
Well, when it came time for Mitchell herself to perform, those musicians simply sat down on the stage and watched, grinning.
Eventually, they got the opportunity to back Mitchell on a collective performance of Woodstock, each singer stepping forward to handle a line or two of the oft-covered classic included on 1970's LADIES OF THE CANYON.
After they were done, Mitchell and company took a bow. Then she came back onstage to retrieve her shoes and take yet another bow. When she left and the audience spontaneously sang Happy Birthday — even though Mitchell's big day isn't until November — she re-emerged, again, and took one final bow.
"Thank you, thank you," she said at one point during those final torrents of applause. "This is so much fun."