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Review: The Music of Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

City Winery NYC, November 5, 2023

by Chris Coccaro
November 6, 2023

The Music of Joni Mitchell, City Winery NYC, November 5, 2023

There are no shortage of Joni Mitchell birthday tribute shows this year. Whether this be because of her milestone 80th or the recent interest sparked by her appearances at last year’s Newport Folk Festival and the Gorge Amphitheatre engineered by Brandi Carlile, the subsequent celebration surrounding her Library of Congress Gershwin Award for Popular Music, or just a return of zeitgeist, there seems no real need to speculate. For one of the higher profile venues in a city that has welcomed and enjoyed Joni Mitchell with relative consistency through the past six decades, City Winery NYC made use of the celebration to honor Mitchell and to raise charity funds for The Theatre Within, an organization whose mission is to provide ongoing, free workshops and programs in creative expression and mindfulness to communities in need. To that end, the evening included a raffle and auction of nicely framed photographs of Mitchell donated by celebrity photographers that went for healthy prices. The music served did not disappoint, either.

After some quizzically inaccurate comments by the City Winery NYC music creative director which would continue through the evening (I recommend he spend more time on this website given his professed love and obsession for Joni Mitchell), there began an evening of a fine mix of tracks from a fairly broad swath of her career proudly creating “raceless, genderless” music, even if suggested in comment that it was the province of women for full understanding.

First up in the night club space that held about 400, Maura and Pete Kennedy performed a confident “Cactus Tree,” followed by a surprisingly accessible cover of “Midnight Cowboy,” Maura citing the unknown song’s inclusion on the JMA Archives Vol. 2. This version seemed to somehow mitigate some of the awkward lyrical directness without changing a word. The Kennedys were joined by Lucy Kaplansky for harmony on “Urge for Going.” These were some of the earliest tracks performed.

Chrissi Poland took the stage next in a sparkly sequined robe, accompanying herself to give forth a theatrical and bold “For Free.” She was joined by her husband, the fine Ari Hest for guitar and harmony on a dark and rich and appropriately “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire.” Mr. Hest had tuned his guitar to accommodate, he has worked recently co-writing with Judy Collins. Ms. Poland returned to the piano for a somber yet gently percussive “Woodstock” that took some harmonic steps afield.

Singer Morley was up next, bringing two guests with her: Chris Bruce on guitar and a surprise musical elder statesman David Amram to deliver her set. Her deep and smoky vocal tone delivered a haunting “River” against Bruce’s finger picked guitar and Amram’s soft piano punctuations delivered much the way Wayne Shorter would enhance Joni’s later tracks. Amram chose a high wooden flute (piccolo?) to wind “This Flight Tonight” to a greater height. Joining for the crowd pleasing “Big Yellow Taxi” was Martha Redbone who injected some soul presence into the ecology space.

Local Bronx native and hometown favorite KJ Denhert stole one from Joni’s recent playbook, accessing the stage with the help of a cane. Full disclosure: KJ and I are friends from high school, and we will always be 14-year-olds, remarking with astonishment upon the release of “Court and Spark” in early 1974, “A band...And they stayed!” True to form accompanying herself on her acoustic guitar, KJ and her band members Adam Armstrong (standing bass), Marc McIntyre (guitar) and Eric Halvorson (drums) delivered a deliberate, slow and swinging “Twisted” from which KJ wrang every bit of insanity, followed by a reverent and beautiful “Night Ride Home”, and ending (with a forewarned fear for lyric accuracy) with a driving “Coyote” making easy work of the difficult and dynamic rhythm. Chops and props. KJ admitted she took a break from contemporaneously following Joni between Hejira and Night Ride Home albums but I’d love to hear her attack something from Mingus. Jus’ sayin’.

A tidy intermission followed, after which Lucy Kaplansky took the stage with guitar to offer her confident country blues infused take on three songs from “Blue”: “Carey”, “A Case of You” and “California.”

Martha Redbone returned for her set, with Marvin Sewell and Aaron Whitby. Her choices were personal and surprising, offering encouragement for the audience to seek the under the radar “Wild Things Run Fast” collection from which she opened with “Ladies Man”, revealing its soul roots. After a false start, the difficult shuffle fell into place for “Cherokee Louise” (no easy keyboard arrangement via Whitby), Redbone anchoring herself with a shaker. The set concluded with “Chinese Café” which was atmospheric with ghosts, via Sewell’s electric guitar sustains and Whitby’s rhythmic and orchestral keyboard supporting Redbone’s respectful, direct and resigned vocal that turned that all important corner perfectly during the "Unchained Melody" cover section. This was a high point that had audience members familiar with the tracks on their feet.

Mary Fahl was the last solo performer to take the stage with the help of Aaron Whitby. There was a bit of technical issue, some kind of argument between Fahl’s electric guitar and Whitby’s keyboard but still the soundscape was unique as Fahl’s bright voice juxtaposed with her dark and cavernous guitar rang with Whitby’s warm support on keyboard for “Help Me”, “Court and Spark” and an ethereal U2-ish “Both Sides Now” to close the evening before the whole cast gathered to engage the audience for what has become the unifying anthem, “Circle Game.” Nobody sang “Happy Birthday.”

Thanks to City Winery. If all the tribute shows happening now are half as good as this one, now is, as has been suggested, “a great time to be a fan.”

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Added to Library on November 6, 2023. (1058)


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