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Celebrating Joni Mitchell -- Poet, Painter, Pinball Wizard -- At 75 Print-ready version

by Steve Baltin
November 3, 2018

Musician Joni Mitchell at the Violet Ray Gallery to celebrate her new album 'Shine' on September 25, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

This Wednesday (November 7) Joni Mitchell, one of music's true poets and greatest living songwriters, will turn 75. How do you celebrate the voice behind Blue, arguably, with Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, the greatest singer/songwriter album of all time?

Well, with music of course. The Music Center's Dorthy Chandler Pavilion, where Mitchell performed twice, is hosting a two-night celebration in Downtown L.A, (November 6 and 7), which will feature James Taylor, Seal, Brandi Carlile, Emmyloud Harris, Graham Nash, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Rufus Wainwright, Chaka Khan, Los Lobos, Glen Hansard and Kris Kristofferson performing the music of Mitchell.

Leading the concerts as music directors will be pianist Jon Cowherd and drummer Brian Blade, who met Mitchell in 1995 and played with her on final three studio albums,Taming The Tiger, Travelogue and Shine.

I spoke with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin and Blade about the event and more importantly, why Mitchell's music continues to not only resonate, but grow in cultural significance.

The conversation with Blade was both fascinating and fun. And when I recalled the story to him of seeing Mitchell running a billiards table for the night at a 2005 3121 party thrown by Prince, he started cracking up and shared his own story of Mitchell as a "pinball wizard."

Steve Baltin: Not only does there remain a vast interest in Joni's music, it seems to be growing over the years. Why do you think that is as a fan of her music?

Steve Berlin: My guess is that there's so few true iconoclasts like Joni anymore that people appreciate those that remain. And she's unique.

Baltin: The thing about any great artist, like Joni, is you ask 50 different people and you get 50 different favorite songs because people see themselves in her lyrics. What is the one Joni song you think best identifies you?

Berlin: I can only speak to the ones I like, like "For The Roses" or "Cold Steel," because of the angularity and the unpredictability like all her best work in my opinion.

Baltin: There are so many tribute concerts for great artists after they pass. It's awesome to do this to celebrate her while she can appreciate it. What does it mean for you to get to celebrate your love of her and her music for Joni?

Berlin: It's so much nicer when the honoree is there to party with us. I have been lucky enough to have done a few of these when the honoree is there and it much more of a party when it's all present tense.

Steve Baltin: What does it mean to get the opportunity to go back and play the music you did with Joni?

Brian Blade: Oh my god, it's in that dream land territory that actually I don't think I ever dreamt. It' s just something I knew had spoken into my life and had enriched my daily view of life itself. She continues to do that. The more I listen the deeper it gets and what will be the task will be to give all we have to whomever's rendering the depth of those lyrics and the beauty of that harmony. We gotta give it our all and hopefully she will smile on us and feel celebrated.

Baltin: You said something interesting. "The more I listen the deeper it gets." And that is true of her music.

Blade: Sometimes you revisit and you've gone through something else or you're just in that place and Joni's music is always sort of waiting for you to be at that place. And it has something for you that's so deep every time and telling and personal.

Baltin: Having had the chance to play so much of her music with her why do you think it ages so well?

Blade: I do believe there is some divine appointment that is only promised to whom is the carrier. She is one of those and no one else can have that place and impart those stories and those feelings in that most unique way. So the enduring quality that her music has is because she's fully devoted herself to that calling. She has to sit and write it down, she has to sing it out off the rock over the water, she has to broadcast what it is, the way it is. And that's her divine right. And we're all better for it. I'm just so thankful when I was 16 and started to drive and a good friend of mine gave me these two cassettes, Hejira and Mingus, I knew my life had changed. They're scrolls and you open them up, "1975, I was only five when that came out, but I'm just discovering it now at 16. Yet, it is so real and so of the moment and perpetually modern." It's just such a rare thing and so beautiful.

Baltin: The thing about any great artist, like Joni, is you ask 50 different people and you get 50 different favorite songs because people see themselves in her lyrics. What is the one Joni song you think best identifies you?

Blade: Right now, because every day it's probably a different one, there's so much she has imparted and burst into the world. So I have to pick a new one daily. But today I would say it's "Refuge Of The Roads." The heart, humility, humor and "Will lighten up your heavy load" she says. That's speaking to me today, those three "H's" she calls them.

Baltin: I was fortunate to see Joni controlling the pool table at a party at Prince's house in 2005. What is your favorite story about Joni that would surprise people?

Blade: (Cracks up) That story doesn't surprise me at all. One thing I remember being about her a little bit wasn't pool, it was actually pinball. She was playing pinball and it was all about this place where you're in your zone, whatever that is. There's a simultaneous knowing of that and not acknowledging that. "Oh, I'm playing well." As soon as you say that you drive off the road or you get a flat. I remember speaking about this while she's playing pinball. She gets to the absence of thinking or constantly critiquing these things, but just to be in it. I can't really articulate exactly how that struck me, but I knew what she meant. So I carry that with me when I try and play with others especially. But when you're really trying to serve the song, to truly do that, you need to move yourself out of the way to a great degree. She brought that to my life, the sort of understanding of that.

Baltin: So what you're saying is she's a pinball wizard too?

Blade: (Cracks up again) Oh yeah!

Baltin: I would imagine being musical director at these Music Center shows, with the musicians involved, you are like the proverbial kid in the candy store.

Blade: I'm just excited that everyone chose their song as soon as they knew they could commit to a celebration. So these songs have already been hopefully been stirring in their spirit and welling up in them. So it's not just like a musical where they're just having to learn the script so to speak. It's like, "These things have been speaking to me for 30 or 40 years." So it's great, everybody is sort of already in that place. So they can step into that light with confidence and deliver cause that's one thing, as music director, my only concern is we serve her music with the greatest of care and regard. Obviously since I've spent so much time with her and sat next to her as she's playing, hearing others render her song can be a thorn bush. These are some of the greatest artists on the planet that are coming to stand in her shoes, so to speak, and render her music. So I'm just excited about that and Jon [Cowherd] and I, we've sort of taken the lion's share and put it in half. And we're both juiced up to hear what the other is thinking and it's gonna be a blast.

Baltin: So often these tribute concerts happen after the artist has passed. What does it mean to you to get to do this in front of her?

Blade: Believe me, that's right, give her her flowers now. That's what's up. Fortunately for her seventieth she was able to come up and do it again. I could tell she was just so juiced from the camaraderie and the companionship and everyone just sort of standing there beaming and giving it everything she had. So I think she'll receive that same stir of love and just that spirit welling from everyone, the listener included. She'll be in the audience, which is just beautiful.

Baltin: What would be the best thing for you to hear from both Joni and the fans when this is done?

Blade: Just that it was beautiful and touching and that somehow we did get to the heart of her vision and her expression through song because anything short of that we missed it. And I can't have her not feeling that her trust has been misplaced. So that my duty is give all we can to each song, each singer and each instrumentalist. I hope it reaches everyone and touches everyone cause the content is already proven and tried and true.

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Added to Library on November 4, 2018. (4948)


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