Both Sides Now
The Music of Joni Mitchell
The Early Years 1966 - 1974
Irondale Center, Brooklyn, April 26th, 2019
In weekly rehearsals for the non-professional choir this writer sings with, the conductor will often, during our warm up, introduce and work on ways to achieve a wider variety of vocal color. Sometimes the exercise will be a simple as singing "Happy Birthday" several times, breathy like Marilyn Monroe, like a robust opera chorus with tons of vibrato, belted like Broadway or sung in pure tone (in a higher key) like a lunar ballad.
The conductor will sometimes ask us to engage our 'twanger', that is find an edge to the vocal tone that allows the sound and the lyric to cut through. It's not a country sound, much (the conductor is British) but one can hear it in Loretta Lynn, or Linda Ronstadt's lower range. It's not quite a belt, either. You can also hear it in some Eastern European folk music, especially when sung by women.
I thought of that from the earliest moments of Hannah Reimann's concert of Joni Mitchell's music, performed at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn last Friday. Opening the show with "Court and Spark", the title song from Joni's sixth studio album, Reimann sang the song entirely in that chest voice while sitting at the piano. It was striking because Joni herself almost never used that edge in her first 20 years of recording. It was effective, Reimann communicating the lyrics beautifully. The performance was also musically satisfying. Reimann's training as a classical pianist allowed her to be deeply confident and nuanced in executing Mitchell's complicated piano arrangement, while guitarist Michele Temple drew a variety of guitar effects including bended slide-guitar moments that reminded one that that the song was originally released right at the peak of the Southern California country-rock movement.
"Court and Spark" sits low in Joni's range, with little of the airy soprano pyrotechnics that characterize Joni's early work, which also made it easy for Reimann to sing the whole song in that voice. This listener felt a bit of trepidation, especially as Reimann spoke after the opener, telling us she and Temple were going to be performing songs from Mitchell's first six albums, mostly chronologically. How was she going to navigate the high ornamentation that Joni used so extensively in those years?
Reimann's second song, "I had a King" didn't completely reassure me, though it was fine. Her upper range felt a little pinched, though completely accurate, but as she very audibly warmed up and relaxed into the evening, the connection between her ranges and her comfort with the music became more evident. The next song, "Cactus Tree", was an early highlight.
After "Song about the Midway" from Clouds, she and Temple covered sevaral songs from Ladies of the Canyon, Joni's third album, including "For Free" (again showing off her fine piano playing), "Conversation" (an exciting, passionate performance of one of Joni's finest songs, and one in which the "twanger" edge of Reimann's voice was particularly appropriate) and Rainy Night House. Through much of the evening, she read short excerpts from David Yaffe's recent bio of Joni, confirming the Leonard Cohen biography contained within the latter song. The Ladies selections continued with "Big Yellow Taxi" (complete with the big yellow tractor verse, added in performances after the song was recorded) and "Woodstock".
All of these renditions were note-perfect, with Michele Temple's guitar work as consistent as Reimann's vocals. If I had a reservation about the show, it was this: the performances were so close to Joni's recordings of the songs, one began to wonder, "Why does this show need to exist?" "What are these artists bringing to the music that hasn't been said before?"
The longest spoken portion of the evening was before the "Blue" selections. Reimann told us that she'd started working on performing the whole album Blue during a time of great personal pain (while caring for her father sinking into dementia). The Blue songs, all beautifully performed, included "All I Want", "Little Green", "Blue" (exceptional), "California", "A Case of You" and "River". Reimann played dulcimer (very well) on three of the songs.
From For the Roses she only sang the title song, hauntingly. Then she jumped back to the beginning of Joni's recorded career for a spine-tingling a capella "The Fiddle and the Drum" and closed with "Both Sides Now". The encore was "Help Me".
Throughout the evening, the musicianship was extremely strong, from both Reimann and Temple. There are few better ways to spend an evening than to hear Joni Mitchell's music done well. However, the last 20 or so years have seen appreciation of Joni Mitchell's music increasing by a wider audience and a wider array of musicians than ever before. One of my joys in this is the possibility of new and interesting takes on these songs. That's how songs join the canon. I often wished, during Reimann and Temple's concert that they would take more liberties, bring more of themselves to the music. If they continue to perform this music, I hope they'll think deeply about why.
Both Sides Now - The Music of Joni Mitchell - The Early Years 1966 - 1974
Irondale Center, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, April 26th, 2019
- Court and Spark
- I Had a King
- Cactus Tree
- That Song About the Midway
- For Free
- Rainy Night House
- Big Yellow Taxi
- All I want
- Little Green
- A Case Of You
- For the Roses
- The Fiddle and the Drum
- Both Sides Now
- Help Me
- Michele Temple, guitars and backing vocals
More and more explanation as to why we created Both Sides Now was revealed in shows subsequent to the one you attended. Our choices as to the arrangements are very consciously made with a lot of thought and feeling.
Some reasons why we approached the music as we did:
1. To heal the pain and sadness I felt while caring for my dad during the last years of his life I wanted to sing the arrangements and in the keys of the songs from the album, Blue, that Joni Mitchell herself sang, I wanted to feel what it felt like to sing the songs as she did with her pure emotion and very good composing skills. I think she is an excellent composer and artist. The arrangements fit my voice, playing ability and we wanted to honor her abilities not only as a songwriter, but as an unusual instrumentalist and arranger with a style and approach all her own. It was a big job for us to do this, not easy.
2. The number of people who thank me, for performing these original arrangements, including people who had never heard Joni live, increases all the time. We feel honored in our attempt to give them an authentic Joni Mitchell experience which we worked very hard on for nearly seven years. Since Joni isn’t performing anymore, we want to give audiences an experience of hearing the arrangements on the records in person. In many cases, they have asked for this. The musicians that I hire also thank me for the experiences we have together. They tell me they learn a lot from Joni’s arrangements. We have had combinations from one-woman shows through nine people on stage doing songs from Miles of Aisles and Court and Spark and it is always a mind-blowing experience.
3. I have arranged Astor Piazzolla’s music as an instrumentalist. Those arrangements were sometimes significantly adjusted to suit my partner’s and my style plus our wish to condense music for a quintet to a duo team. Michele and I feel that we “put ourselves into the music” as much as we would do for any other music including Classical music, original songs written by me, arrangements of other composers’ work. We wanted to do Joni’s music as she wrote and played it…it has been an incredible experience to do this, an intentional one that has helped us understand her music on a very deep level.
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