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Joni Mitchell saluted in song, then takes to the stage at all-star 'JONI 75' birthday concert Print-ready version

by George Varga
Los Angeles Times
November 8, 2018

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The final standing ovation for Joni Mitchell at Wednesday's "JONI 75: A Birthday Celebration" came after 21 of her songs had been performed, even though the iconic Canadian troubadour did not sing one note or say a single word.

But there was no doubt she was the star of the show at the Los Angeles Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The health-challenged Mitchell appeared on stage there for the first time anywhere in five years - and the first time since suffering a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015.

The sold-out audience of 3,000 swooned at her presence and serenaded her with "Happy Birthday" at both the start and conclusion of the concert. They cheered when, seated on stage, Mitchell blew out the candles on her cake.

And some fans were dabbing away tears when Mitchell stood - with assistance - and gingerly swayed along during a reprise of the grand finale of "Big Yellow Taxi," her bouncy 1970 environmental lament (which in later years was recorded by Bob Dylan and sampled by Janet Jackson).

The audience Wednesday contained at least as many celebrities as there were music greats honoring Mitchell on stage. Among them were everyone from Tom Hanks, Angela Bassett, Jake Gyllenhaal and Eric Idle to Jon Hamm, George Takei, Mandy Moore and Oscar-winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe, a 1972 University of San Diego High School graduate.

Crowe wrote the liner notes for Mitchell's 2004 compilation album, "Dreamland." At a post-show arts fundraising dinner Wednesday, he presented Mitchell with the Music Center's Excellence in the Performing Arts Award.

"She remains our best field reporter in matters of the heart, or in the world... or if you're just looking for an excuse to kick up your heels and feel more alive," Crowe said, toasting Mitchell. "She is inspiration at a time when heaven is in short supply."

The featured singers included Seal (who delivered a breathtaking and wonderfully distinctive version of "Both Sides Now"), Brandi Carlile (who was no less stunning on "Down to You") and Rufus Wainwright (who soared on "Blue," then coasted on "All I Want"). The full set list appears below.

The lineup also featured two of Mitchell's former paramours, Graham Nash and James Taylor, the latter of whom struggled to come to grips with the wistful "River" but found his footing on "Woodstock."

Nash led the audience in a sing-along of "Our House," the lilting ode to domesticity he wrote in 1970 when living with Mitchell in Laurel Canyon.

"Every song you'll hear tonight was written by Joni, except this one," Nash said at the start of the second half of the concert. (The first half began more than 40 minutes after its scheduled 6:30 p.m. start time, reportedly because of a traffic backup that ensnared Mitchell.)

"I was 26. You were 27," Nash continued, before adding the only political commentary of the concert. "And, quite frankly, after the elections last night, I'm glad to have 'Our House' back."

Nash and Taylor were clearly delighted to participate at Wednesday's Joni Fest.. Ditto, Harris, Khan and the other featured artists.

"Joni was an inspiration for any girl who ever wanted to pick up a guitar," Harris told the nearly sold-out audience of about 3,000.

"I just want you to know," Khan said later, looking at Mitchell from the stage, "how many times you saved my life (with your songs)."

Despite the performers' obvious reverence for the night's honoree, the musical results Wednesday were consistently uneven - luminous in some instances, but more often innocuous or off-target.

That is partly because many of Mitchell's one-of-a-kind songs are so intricately constructed, utilizing unusual guitar tunings, octave-leaping vocal modulations, jazz-inspired harmonies and quirky chordal and rhythmic changes.

Another factor is that a majority of the singers, including Norah Jones and Diana Krall, delivered Mitchell's lyrics - "For the Roses" and a toned down "Amelia" in Krall's case, "Borderline" and the concert-opening "Court and Spark" - while reading them from teleprompters. Given the challenges presented by Mitchell's dense, often soul-baring lyrics - which are alternately searing and heart-wrenching, poetic and playful, and filled with a wealth of carefully nuanced allusions - the task of doing them justice becomes even more daunting.

And still another factor is that the pairing of some of the songs and artists were curiously misguided none more so than having Glen Hansard perform "Coyote," Mitchell's 1977 chronicle of her affair with the then-married playwright and actor Sam Shepard.

Chaka Khan's two Mitchell songs were also misfires. Her decision to belt out some of the lyrics on "Help Me" and "Two Grey Rooms" did the music and the audience a disservice. And Harris, a music icon in her own right, was given two terrific songs - "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" ("Too many chords," Harris observed) and "The Magdalene Laundries" - that suited neither her vocal range nor her artistic sensibilities.

"We're all feeling the pressure (to do the songs justice)," Harris said before the concert. "You don't want to take too much of Joni out of it."

Or, as Peter Gabriel sagelynoted in a video tribute to Mitchell: "You've inspired generations with songs that bounce like diamonds on a trampoline. I pity the poor bastards who have to sing them tonight."

Even so, the presence of the beaming Mitchell, who sat in a front aisle seat to the left side of the stage provided an unmistakable air of excitement and poignancy. She did not attend Tuesday's "JONI 75" concert, which featured the same songs and performers but took place one day before her actual 75th birthday.

The fact that Mitchell, who hasn't toured since 2000, did not sing or speak to the audience Wednesday was no surprise.

Still recovering from her aneurysm, she now uses a wheelchair. But when Mitchell appeared on stage at the conclusion of the concert, it was with a cane and the steadying support of Charles Valentino and Sauchuen Yu.

The last time she was on a stage anywhere was in 2013 in Toronto, where Mitchell performed three songs, on two successive nights, at a pair of pre-70th birthday concerts in her honor.

Not coincidentally, "JONI 75" was the brainchild of Jörn Weisbrodt, who also put together the 2013 Mitchell tributes and is Rufus Wainwright's husband. The stage design Wednesday paid homage to her Canadian roots, with ice skates hanging on one side, an ice hockey stick and snow shoes near the other. Film clips of Mitchell were shown in between different artists taking the stage, while large blowups of her paintings and photos of her were shown during the performances.

In another coincidence, the co-musical director in Toronto and at this week's two tribute concerts in Los Angeles was jazz drum wizard (and former Mitchell band member) Brian Blade. He performed Oct. 24 at La Jolla's TSRI Auditorium with his Circuit Rider Trio. (Mitchell, incidentally last performed in San Diego in 1983 at the Civic Theater on her "Wild Things Run Free" tour.)

With the exception of guitarist and pedal-steel guitar ace Greg Leisz, the other seven musicians on stage all boast very impressive jazz credentials. Their ensemble work was appropriately accomplished, although one could only wonder how much better the music might have been with more time to prepare and further flesh out the arrangements.

Apart from a few brief instrumental interludes, a Bob Sheppard saxophone solo and an Ambrose Akinmusire trumpet solo, the repertoire seemed designed to ignore the fact that some of Mitchell's most innovative music came when she embraced jazz wholeheartedly.

Then again, her jazziest albums were commercial flops. With Wednesday's concert having been filmed in its entirety for an apparent future broadcast or home-video DVD release, risk-taking was clearly not a priority.

It was doubly ironic, then, that the least orthodox and most daring performance of the evening was easily one of the most rewarding. It came courtesy of one of the concert's younger and lesser-known singers, Marisol Hernandez, the singer in the Grammy-winning Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia.

Accompanied by several members of Los Lobos, tap dancer Xochi Flores and five-stringed jarana player Cesar Castro, Hernandez ignited.on "Dreamland." The song was marred only by some wordless vocal wails by Khan, who appeared on the original recording of "Dreamland" in 1977 and paled on stage next to Hernandez..

The song, from Mitchell's "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" album, was recast by Marisol and her collaborators in the ebullient style of a Mexican son jarocho folk dance from Veracruz. Performing with infectious verve, they boldly and joyously made "Dreamland" their own.

If only more performers had been as willing and able to take chances, "JONI 75" could have been the truly transcendent tribute its singular honoree so richly deserves. Perhaps that will have to wait until 2023 and "JONI 80." Here's hoping.

"JONI 75: A Birthday Celebation"

First set

1. "Court and Spark,"" Norah Jones
2. "Coyote," Glen Hansard
3. "For The Roses," Diana Krall
4. "Blue," Rufus Wainwright
5. "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," Emmylou Harris
6. "The Magdalene Laundries," Emmylou Harris
7. "Help Me," Chaka Khan
8. "Dreamland," Los Lobos," Marisol Hernandez," Cesar Castro & Xochi Flores
9. "Nothing Can Be Done," Los Lobos
10. "River," James Taylor
11. "Both Sides Now," Seal

Set 2

1. "Our House," Graham Nash
2. "A Strange Boy," Seal
3. "All I Want," Rufus Wainwright
4. "Borderline," Norah Jones
5. "Amelia," Diana Krall
6. "The Boho Dance," Glen Hansard
7. "A Case of You," Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile
8. "Down To You," Brandi Carlile
9. "Two Grey Rooms," Chaka Khan
10. "Woodstock," James Taylor
11. "Big Yellow Taxi"

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Added to Library on November 9, 2018. (6617)


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