Reverent tribute to Joni Mitchell has its up and downs
It had to be scary. Maybe even more so than playing in front of Sinatra, because after all, he didn't write his songs.
But the way Joni Mitchell sat in that opera box, with a face like it was carved on Mount Rushmore, was enough to unnerve even a veteran like Elton John.
After playing a perfectly passable version of "Free Man in Paris," John sighed, looked up and remarked, "Every artist backstage is going, 'Oh my God, I can't believe we're playing Joni Mitchell's songs with her sitting in the box.' I've played before the Queen of England, and it's not so intimidating."
That's the kind of respect Mitchell commands from her fellow artists, and finally she gets a little from the industry with TNT's "All-Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell," recorded April 6 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.
Joni fans longing for such an occasion will likely watch with a mix of quiet appreciation and mild horror. For starters, it opens with seven words bound to terrify anyone who treasures their copy of "Blue": "Ladies and gentleman, Bryan Adams ... and Wynonna." Sure enough, they get the show off on the worst possible foot with a painful attempt to rock 'n' roll through "Raised on Robbery."
The tribute, hosted with reverence by a stunning Ashley Judd, carries on with a mix of performances good and bad, in front of an orchestra -- featuring Mitchell's ex-husband, Larry Klein, on bass and Mark Isham on trumpet -- that offers smooth, sensitive backup without ever getting overly excited.
The show also features brief biographical segments charting her rise as a folk-rock phenomenon, her restless excursions into avant-garde jazz and her passion for painting. A vintage performance clip would have been nice, but is not included.
Susan Sarandon, Laurence Fishburne and Tony Bennett appear for testimonials in front of an audience that includes Goldie Hawn and Rosie O'Donnell. Hillary Rodham Clinton grabs the folk-rock vote with an enthusiastic account of how the first couple chose to name their child after "Chelsea Morning," leading into a playful duet of the classic by Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The pair do even better later with a gorgeous and faithful version of Mitchell's lesser-known "Amelia."
Cyndi Lauper, sporting her usual head of ridiculous hair, is way out of her league on "Carey," and Wynonna turns up again to put "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)" through some lame Nashville paces.
James Taylor, looking like a kindly mortician, somehow makes "River" sound like "Shower the People," while the always-on Sweet Honey in the Rock spins "The Circle Game" into a rousing gospel celebration. Unfortunately, k.d. lang, one of the few vocal matches for Mitchell on the show, sounds like she needs some help on a weak "Help Me."
The TNT tribute lacks some of the giants who once cavorted with Mitchell, namely Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Van Morrison and any one of Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young, who were probably busy with their tour.
On the bright side, TNT brings the woefully overlooked Richard Thompson to prime time for probably the first time. The British troubadour/guitar hero does a downright apocalyptic "Woodstock" and then courts a serious electrical spark unearthing "Black Crow." You could tell by her face that the lady approved. Likewise, for jazz diva Diana Krall, another artist of Mitchell's caliber, who torches the place with the sensual tension of "A Case of You."
Even Mitchell, finally descending from her throne, probably didn't want to follow that, especially since her new album steps into Krall's turf. Mitchell was caught holding a cigarette earlier in the show, and she certainly sounds smokier than ever on "Both Sides Now," which is jazzy in a more accessible way than her mid-'70s stuff but ultimately a little bit of a downer.
Here's an idea for the more discriminating Joni Mitchell fan: Tape this and then fast-forward through it later. It will save a lot of time and a little agony.