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Court and Spark turns 40: the event   Print

by Lois Alter Mark
Midlife at the Oasis
January 22, 2014

As I wrote the other day, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Joni Mitchell's iconic Court and Spark. This album was so important to so many people that Louise Crawford, who runs Brooklyn Social Media, organized a very special event in her neighborhood to commemorate the occasion. It's one of those times I wished I still lived in New York.

Louise is the founder of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, a popular Brooklyn blog; Brooklyn Reading, a monthly thematic reading series at The Old Stone House; and the Brooklyn Blogfest, an annual networking event for bloggers and entrepreneurs. And, as I found out, we both went to the same college at the same time!

I begged her to give me the behind-the-scenes account of the big night. Put Court and Spark on the stereo and imagine you were there.

Can you give us a little background about why you decided to commemorate Court and Spark's anniversary in such a big way?

The idea for this event was born a year ago when I discovered that Court and Spark was turning 40 in 2014. Forty years. It seemed impossible that the day I cracked open Court and Spark and put the LP on the turntable was forty years ago. I would have been 15, a very young woman of heart and mind who was crazy about Joni Mitchell. My god, she turned me on like a radio.

This event sounded like a simple idea. I'd find a few singers to perform all the songs on Joni Mitchell's 1974 album and we'd do it at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn's Park Slope. Since 2005, I've run a monthly thematic literary series there with poets and writers. I'd never done a musical event.

Then I noticed that Sheila Weller, bestselling author of Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation, was a Facebook friend. I knew I had a great counterpart to the music if she would agree to share the stories behind the songs.

She said yes! I loved the idea of combining the singers with a biographical author like Sheila Weller.

Finding singers, kindred spirits in their love of Joni Mitchell's music, was an enjoyable task. I reached out to some singers I know and put something on Facebook. One thing led to another and, before I knew it, I had a full roster of talented performers. In the month before the show, singers dropped out, songs were rearranged; there was the requisite chaos that goes into any show. But about two weeks before the show, everything was as set as it could be. The rest would be up to the flow and serendipity of the evening.

It was interesting to see which song each singer chose. It seemed to say a lot about that person. Some knew immediately, others wavered a bit. All settled on a song that they felt connected to, that seemed to express something about themselves.

What was it about that album that was so important to you? What did it mean to you personally?

I would have to say that I am a Joni Mitchell fan because of my father, who would have been eighty on the day of the show. Born on January 16, 1929, he died in 2008. He brought Joni's first two albums Songs to Seagulls and Clouds into our Riverside apartment all those years ago. A jazz and classical music buff, he was an avid reader of High Fidelity magazine and always knew what pop music was making the critics swoon. We'd listen to and analyze the songs together. He was amazed by Joni's classical song craft. He loved "I Don't Know Where I Stand."

This event was very, very personal. I was a huge Joni Mitchell fan. I idolized her as a tween and teenager. I was also a singer/songwriter myself in high school and college and hugely influenced by Joni. I loved to sing the songs from Blue ("All I Want," "A Case of You"), which is my favorite Joni album. I also love Hejira. I remember hearing Court and Spark and thinking that Joni had discovered a new palette, a new musical vocabulary. I loved the album but not the way I loved Blue. After this experience, I love the album so much.

What really stands out to me when I listen to Court and Spark now is how perfect it is an album. The songs totally flow into each other, tell a story and make a powerful impact as a package. Today, with iTunes, iPods, playlists, we just don't listen to albums as a whole any more and I think kids today are missing out on what were some really formative experiences of our growing up years. Court and Spark is such proof of that. What do you think?

Court and Spark is really a song cycle. It chronicles Joni's trajectory from abject despair to healing. One songs flows into the next. There are portraits of others, like the portrait of David Geffen in "Free Man in Paris," but it's also intensely autobiographical. Some albums are like novels - there's a real narrative arc, a sense of story. Thanks to iTunes, it's so different now. We make our own song lists, we order songs any way we want. We can put Joni next to Lorde next to Beyonce next to the Rolling Stones. With the LP, we obediently and joyfully listened from start to finish, in order. We not only listened to a song, but also anticipated the transition to the next song in a palpable way. It was a real emotional experience from start to finish. Then you'd have to get up and turn the record over, put the needle on the groove ...

What were people's reactions when you started planning the event? How did you decide who/what to include?

The response was immediately positive. I reached out to a lot of singers. The songs are difficult to play and iconic, so some singers were reluctant to tamper with them. Others were eager to dive in. I wanted the performers to feel comfortable making the songs their own. I didn't want people to feel beholden to the arrangements or the way Joni sings it. I wasn't looking for carbon copies.

Did you reach out to Joni herself?

No. But I will if I do it again. My hope was to have Norah Jones. She lives in Brooklyn. Maybe for the next show.

What was the overall message you wanted the event to get across?

I wanted the audience to experience the album from start to finish through the interpretations of this talented group of performers. I wanted them to perceive and feel the narrative arc of this song cycle. At the same time, I wanted Sheila Weller to fill us in on the stories behind the songs. I was hoping for magical synergy and we nailed it.

So, give us the play by play so we can pretend we were there - because we wish we were!

The house was packed at 7:30 for the 8PM sold-out show. We started around 8:15PM. I got up and started talking about my dad, who turned me on to Joni. He died in 2008 and the day of the show was his birthday, so I started to cry. That sort of set the tone for the evening. Emotional and raw.

First up was Nancy O. Graham, who did an capella version of Court and Spark. She rang a singing bowl gong and then started to sing - very raw, very minimal, very intense. It was like the start of a sacred ritual.

Next up was Amy Burton, who sang a mellifluous and sensual version of "Help Me," joined by her brother Andy Burton's ravishing piano (he plays keyboards for John Mayer) and her son Joshua Musto on guitar (he's normally a heavy metalist). Very sweet to have three members of this talented family playing together. Amy is an acclaimed opera singer but has roots in the 1970's singer-songwriter idiom.

Sheila Weller, who is a delight, then regaled us with fascinating tales about the first side of the album. She clued us into Joni's love affairs, her mental state during the making of the album, the stakes that were involved.

After that we heard from Hillary Barleaux, a young singer who brought a fabulous Brooklyn modernness to "Free Man in Paris." At one point she forgot the words and the entire audience helped her out. And, of course, everyone in the audience knew the words.

Caitlinn Claessens did a lilting and beautiful rendition of "People's Parties," accompanying herself on the ukulele. She's a talented up-and-comer, who sings on the subway.

Next up was Lauren Fox accompanied by the multi-talented Jon Weber on piano. Looking like Joni Mitchell with long bangs and a Laurel Canyon-style embroidered dress, she sang "The Same Situation" with so much meaning and poignancy. The words were vivid and alive in the room through her haunting interpretation. We then took a break for intermission and wine.

The second act started with the enthusiastic and fascinating Sheila Weller telling us the story of "Car on the Hill." Nina Sandy, a psychoanalyst who hadn't sung professionally in 27 years, sang that song with sass and sincerity. She nailed it, banging on her tambourine. Her pianist Pam Martinez did a great job on a virtuosic arrangement.

Ina May Wolf then did an earth shattering version of "Down to You," bringing such a dark soulfulness to the song that she virtually reinvented it for her own voice and sensibility.

Lauren Fox with Jon Weber on piano, brought a beautiful sense of wonder to "Just Like This Train," which is like a journal entry penned on a train, Joni taking in all she is seeing and feeling.

Peter Silsbee did a raucous blues version of "Raised on Robbery." The only male singer in the program, he changed the mood of the room in an instant with his male rock and roll energy. Finally, Jennifer Lewis Bennett and Tim Moore (who wrote the song "Second Avenue" and was signed to Asylum records in the 1970s) did a spacious, jazzy and powerful version of "Trouble Child," Joni's chronicle of her time in a sanitarium that brought out the song's redemptive beauty.

And then it was time for Annie Ross, founding member of Lambert Hendricks and Ross, and author of the lyrics for "Twisted," the final song on Court and Spark and probably the only cover that Joni has ever done. As Sheila said in her introduction, Annie was Joni's idol. Lambert Hendricks and Ross were Joni's Beatles. The crowd went wild. Before she even got to the stage, the audience was on its feet cheering. She spoke to the audience a bit and then launched into a version of "Twisted" that we will not soon forget. Funny, jazzy, fabulous.

Are you planning any other big events next? Any other album anniversaries you think warrant a celebration like this?

Yes to planning more big events. Yes to more anniversary albums with a biographical component. I also hope to do Court and Spark again in a larger venue.

If you revisit Court and Spark at 50, I'm going to be there!

 

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