I spent Joni Mitchell's 74th birthday in good company, when a wide-ranging array of performers gathered at New York's "The Cutting Room" to celebrate her artistry and raise money for some good causes. The beneficiaries were the Actor's Fund and HOWL! ARTS, INC., a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the work and supporting the performers that make up the artistic culture of the East Village and Lower East Side in Manhattan.
Many of the evening's participants come from this culture, "downtown art" as it's known here. The strengths here were some truly novel and illuminating takes on familiar songs.
An early highlight was Storm Lee (here calling himself Storm of Scotland). His "A Case of You" with its attenuated and rhythmless first verse, beautifully pulled the listener in. His voice is not large, a slightly pinched tenor with hints of ACDC's Bon Scott and Van Morrison. The soul is real though.
Later in the show, Storm of Scotland returned with "Sex Kills", the newest song of the evening, and rocked the house.
Carol Lipnik, a co-curator of the show also contributed to several of the best moments. Her "Blue" was quite sublime, with talented pianist Tracy Stark. Carol also joined Rachelle Garniez for a transcendently weird "Songs to Aging Children Come". Garniez's solo moment was a spooky "Furry Sings the Blues", accompanying herself with haunting harmonica and pointillistic guitar picking, and a vocal somewhat reminiscent of Rickie Lee Jones. Delicious.
Lipnik fondly introduced John Kelly as a mentor (it is through him that I've been exposed to her, both as a singer and songwriter). Kelly knows his way around Joni's music about as well as any performer out there. His "Amelia" was sublime, his vocals blending with the band effortlessly. Kelly also was given the encore, "Urge for Going", beautifully sung.
The Downtown performance vibe came strongly through in several of the male artists' moments. Julian Fleischer led a fun singalong of "The Circle Game", first reminding us of Joni's dictum, "the more out-of-tune voices, the better", and belting the hell out of his final note. Probably the most successful amalgam of downtown actorly style and song was David Cale's "The Last Time I Saw Richard". His voice is not pretty, the vibrato is not under control, the vocal stylings veered dangerously close to Anthony Newley, but he stayed musically true to the difficult melody, rhythm and mood, and caught the strange drama of Joni's masterful composition. Cale had us in his hands by the last line, "these dark café days".
The show was music directed by bassist Tony Conniff, who led a strong band including Larry Saltzman, guitar; Robbie Kondor, piano; Tony Mason, drums and an especially fine Peter Apfelbaum on reeds, including gorgeous melodica on several numbers.
Downtown scenester and Village Voice columnist Michael Musto pointed out that Joni had covered "Why do Fools Fall in Love?" and so gave a great performance of the song, with several performers contributing back-up doo-wops. The finale brought cabaret powerhouse Natalie Douglas to sing a roaring "Woodstock", with nearly all the artists jumping on stage to join her.
Joni Mitchell: the Birthday Concert - A benefit for HOWL Help and The Actors Fund
Musical Director: Tony Conniff - Curated by Carol Lipnik & Kevin Malony
Directed by Kevin Malony
Tuesday, November 7th 2017 8pm
The Cutting Room - 44 East 32nd Street
The Howl Emergency Life Project (HELP) provides emergency financial assistance and social service support to artists who have participated in the annual ...
Amber Martin - Help Me
Amber Martin & David Ilku - Raised on Robbery
Melissa Errico - Night Ride Home
Storm of Scotland - A Case of You
Iris Rose - Marcy
Michael Cavadias, with Matthew Dean Marsh, piano - Rainy Night House with some original material
Sydney Meyer, with Tracy Stark, piano - You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio
Tracy Stark - Dry Cleaner from Des Moines
Dudley Saunders - Hejira
Poor Baby Bree - My Old Man
Charles Busch with Tom Judson, piano - Both Sides Now
Julian Fleischer - The Circle Game
Carol Lipnik, with Tracy Stark, piano - Blue
Rachelle Garniez - Furry Sings the Blues
Carol Lipnik and Rachelle Garniez - Songs to Aging Children Come
John Kelly - Amelia
Nelly McKay - Shades of Scarlet Conquering
Michael Musto - Why do Fools Fall in Love?
Annie Golden - medley, River/Chelsea Morning
David Cale - The Last Time I saw Richard
Storm of Scotland - Sex Kills
Natalie Douglass - Woodstock
John Kelly - Urge for Going
Piano: Robbie Condor
Guitar: Larry Saltzman
Drums: Tony Mason
Reeds, Sax and Melodica: Peter Apfelbaum
Bass and musical direction: Tony Conniff
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