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A Re-imagining of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’

by Anita Gabrielle
January 19, 2016

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Pilgrimer, A Re-imagining of Joni Mitchell's 'Hejira'
Saturday 16 January 2016
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall reviewer Anita Gabrielle

When Glasgow's skies had opened on Saturday morning to cover the city in snow, it seemed one of those 'coincidences' that thrilled imagination. 'Hejira' the icy album cover, Joni skating across frozen lakes, as at home on the ice as the migratory Sami reindeer herders whose blood she believes she may have inherited from her Father. The beautiful, meandering acoustic guitar of Musical Director, Steven Polwart, carried James Robertson on to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall stage on Saturday night to introduce his Scottish re-imagining of Hejira. Was the Celtic heritage passed by Myrtle Anderson to her daughter, Roberta Joan, in Fort Macleod, Canada during November 1943 becoming more visible? Robertson spoke:

'In this life we are but traivellers,
pilgrimers and strangers, seekin
refuge, looking for hame'

Aimed at the two thousand eager music lovers who packed out the Glasgow Concert Hall, Robertson's words could apply equally to the Scottish, Irish and English immigrants who, in 1874, built and resided in Fort Macleod, the small North Western frontier town where Joni was born.

Robertson had made his own road trip across the USA some years ago and twenty years had passed since he first turned 'Coyote' into a poem about the Scottish fox 'Tod'. The challenge of turning the whole of 'Hejira' into the Scottish language occurred in May, when Celtic Connections Director, Donald Shaw, encouraged and supported Robertson and Musical Directors, Karine and Steven Polwart, to go ahead and develop the work in its entirety. In a conversation with journalist Nicola Meighan about the process of producing the re-imagined 'Hejira', Robertson revealed that all those directing the project felt that original album was so well crafted musically with a side one, side two and a carefully constructed song order that the music would not be radically altered, but all the lyrics would be re written to produce the songs in Scottish and set in Scotland. Months of work followed.

On Saturday night, following Robertson's introduction, Musical Director Karine Polwart, who had been largely responsible for making the poetry work as songs, launched the 'Hejira House Band' into the foxy 'Tod.' Hearing the 'Coyote' melody in broad Scots set the tone for what was going to emerge. 'Amelia' was set to morph into 'St Columba,' but not before Karine brought on stage a very special guest for the evening, Larry Carlton.

The 'less is more' effect of Carlton's mesmeric playing underlined why Joni chose him for the original album, with each note and sound seeming to have the intent of augmenting the song, rather than being a virtuoso display. This sense of space for the songs to breathe came from all members of the outstanding house band. Alongside Steven Polwart and his guitar arsenal, Kevin McGuire on double bass, Calum McIntyre on drums, percussion and vibraphone and the inspired Fraser Fifield on kaval, low whistle and soprano sax brought texture and feel to the work without drowning the vocalists who seemingly effortlessly brought the new lyrics to life.

Led and inspired by Karine, Annie Grace came on to brilliantly turn Memphis into Dundee with 'Pie Jock's Visit tae the Mune' ('Furry Sings The Blues'). 'Strange Boy' was sung with enigmatic stillness by Rod Paterson as 'The Weird Lass a Kippenrait' and in 'The Find', the title track, we were asked:

'Whit is this thing that happens, this ayewis needin tae explain.'

The enormity of the 'Hejira' task was apparent in 'Song for Sharon' when Robertson's spoken tribute, 'Song for Joni' felt slightly awkward. In amongst the musical breaks, he seemed slightly lost or possibly overwhelmed, but the heart of the piece was strong and Karine Polwart and Annie Grace's warm presence and melodic singing were enough to hold and carry both him and the song through.

The only music slightly tampered melodically with was 'Blue Motel Room' but it retained the feel as 'Grey in Grez'. Again the very cool Rod Paterson delivered a great performance, eliciting laughter from the audience, recognising their home from the first line:

'It's rennin, it's poorin,it's dingin it doun'

By this time, the band and Karine had begun cooking and 'Black Crow' became a 'Hoolet' and both Carlton and Fifield let rip before the final song 'Pilgrimer' brought everyone together. For the first time, the 'Refuge of the Roads' had a sing along chorus:

'O we are aw pilgrimers
Thegither or alane
Lookin for refuge as the road turns for hame.'

A standing ovation, fully deserved, followed 'Pilgrimer' and those of us who may not have understood every word, knew that we had witnessed something very special.

By contrast, the second half felt very safe, with a dozen or so of Joni's early catalogue (three songs from 'Blue' and the most recent song being 'The Magdalene Laundries') delivered with competence and love by artists from the first half, but with the addition of a string section and performers, Olivia Chaney, Julie Fowlis, Rose Cousins and Kathryn Joseph.

The artists at Joni Fests are very hard acts to follow, but Joseph's eerie reinterpretation of 'Rainy Night House' and her ferris wheel piano take on 'Both Sides Now' (lots of triplets) with stunning backing vocals from Fowlis, Polwart and Cousins brought incredible new life to Joni's 'lounge lizard.' The most extraordinary contribution to this second half was a low whistle, string droning and vocal harmony arrangement of The Fiddle and The Drum, which was chilling and innovative. The evening concluded with a sing along to 'Free Man In Paris' and 'The Circle Game' led by all the artists during the evening. Finally, a huge wave of thank yous, love and get well wishes were sent up in to the ether from everyone in Glasgow to Joni.

In the conversation about 'Pilgrimer' the next day, when the snow had disappeared from the streets of Glasgow, Robertson said that good art provokes new things. There's no doubt that this project had produced something new and worthwhile. Taking questions, someone asked if the performance had been recorded or if there was a possibility of a recording some time in the future. The answer came that permissions and publishing rights may be too complex. Finally, a question followed which asked whether Joni would approve of 'Pilgrimer' or not. There's not a shadow or light doubt in my mind that, with her Celtic Connections or without them, Joni will love this innovative re-imagining of her work.

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Added to Library on January 19, 2016. (13013)


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