Joni Mitchell sang the blues. At a Luminato Festival event on Tuesday, the first of a pair of tribute concerts in Mitchell's honor at Massey Hall in Toronto, the long-retired icon performed surprisingly and more willingly than would have been imagined. She was only supposed to recite a new poem, set to music. Which she did - This Rain, This Rain was directly inspired by the writings of painter Emily Carr - but not before hinting that something else would follow. "I wasn't sure if I could sing tonight," she said. "I'm still not sure, but I'm going to try."
On Sunday, during an onstage Luminato interview at the Isabel Bader Theatre, the Saskatchewan-raised warbler-supreme had spoke of a time when her voice was up to octave-related challenges. "I could sing any note I could think," said Mitchell, whose musical thoughts were often ambitious. "It was fun," she continued with no lament. "It was effortless."
Onstage at Massey, where she followed performances of her material by a cast singers (Glen Hansard, Liam Titcomb, Rufus Wainwright, Lizz Wright, Kathleen Edwards and Cold Speck's Al Spx), Mitchell's range was revealed as greatly reduced. She blames the vocal decline on Morgellons syndrome, not age or chain-smoking. Whatever the cause, there was grace to the way she managed within her lower register, both on 1975's Don't Interrupt the Sorrow and on Furry Sings the Blues, a character study of the one-legged bluesman Furry Lewis from 1976's Hejira LP.
Furry Sings the Blues is Mitchell at her pop-jazzy poetic best. "Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps in the grey decay" captures the degeneration of Memphis's Beale Street in the 1970's. There are lines about the deteriorating Lewis - "It's mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel, but there was on song he played I could really feel" and there is a comment on the relationship between younger, privileged audiences with older music and its players: "W.C. Handy, I'm rich and I'm fay, and I'm not familiar with what you played/but I get such a strong impression of your heyday."
At Massey, either when Wainwright sang A Case of You or when Mitchell offered three songs herself (including the closer Woodstock, with the guest artists surrounding her), the impressions of Mitchell's own halcyon days were striking and unmistakable, as were her cheekbones, humor, and luminosity.
Mitchell's cannon is unusual in that the songs are both idiosyncratic and eminently coverable. While Wright's rich alto carried Shades of Scarlet Conquering traditionally and elegantly, Spx's version of Black Crow was a spooky imagination. Whether confessional, character-driven or topical, the material is transferrable, thus ensuring the legacy of Mitchell, that Nietzsche-spouting lady with a head full of quandary.
Even though the star doesn't turn 70 until November, the very end of the concert included the crowd's impromptu offering of Happy Birthday. Holding the shoes she had kicked of earlier, Mitchell took a final bow, saying that it had been "so much fun."
Yes, it had been. Mitchell, who danced atop a paradise paved over and who found comfort in melancholy, was something above entertainment, though she was (and still is) very entertaining. Fun and blues are not mutually exclusive, Furry and Joni told us so.