After more than 30 years in the music business, Joni Mitchell is getting her just desserts. Her colleagues and admirers gathered to pay tribute to the singer-songwriter at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom on Thursday (April 6), and there was nothing but love in the room.
Taped for broadcast on April 16, the TNT Masters Series concert featured some of today's most respected songwriters. The natural inclination would be to invite only folk artists, and Shawn Colvin, James Taylor, Richard Thompson, and Sweet Honey in the Rock certainly fit the bill. But the point of the night was to highlight Mitchell's talents as a songwriter of immeasurable intellectual and musical curiosity. Cyndi Lauper, the '80s bad girl of pop, found inspiration in a woman who wrote and played her own songs. "When I was a little girl, there weren't that many," said the subdued Lauper after her subtlety nuanced performance of "Carey," from Mitchell's Blue. "[Her music] really defined my life. She was a gypsy, and she was always beautiful."
"As a guitar player, she has great instincts," Richard Thompson added later. Said k.d. Lang, who slayed the celebrity-heavy crowd with her full-bodied rendition of "Help Me": "It's a very proud thing to be a Canadian singer-songwriter. There isn't a Canadian songwriter who doesn't cite Joni as an icon."
Accolades aside, the evening was about music, and, for the most part, the performers delivered, molding Mitchell's songs to fit their musical personalities. James Taylor injected his sunny melancholy into "River." Sweet Honey in the Rock gave "The Circle Game" African percussive accents, and their voices, otherwise unaccompanied, rang out in celebration. Cassandra Wilson, with eight horns in tow, mined for meaning and minor jazz scales in the multi-layered "Dry Cleaner From Des Moines." Elton John turned in a spirited "Free Man in Paris," and "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)" became a honky-tonk-worthy anthem, thanks to the spunky Wynonna. Thompson subbed for the no-show Stone Temple Pilots, imbuing "Woodstock" with an irony as only a Brit can.
The only misses were the duets. Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter turned in a surprisingly flat performance of the "Chelsea Morning" / "Big Yellow Taxi" medley (even Taylor's harmonizing on the latter couldn't save it). Wynonna and Bryan Adams opened the night with "Raised on Robbery," and the pair's contrasting style (she's a little bit country, he's a little bit rock and roll) never meshed.
But the real draw was Mitchell's performance of "Both Sides Now." It was the album of the same name that brought her the first of many real raves from colleagues, critics, and fans alike, and she has reworked her song for a reinvention called -- duh -- "Both Sides Now," with a full orchestra behind her. Mitchell and producer Larry Klein kept the song's orchestral arrangement simple, and Mitchell, whose strength among strengths was always her liquid poetry, mines the depths of her experience to strip her lyrics raw. It was a typically bravura performance from an artist who ain't done yet.