Shortly before performing "River," Brandi Carlile remarked that she "wanted to get it just like Joni." That she did.
On Monday night at a very sold out Disney Hall, Carlile appeared to perform Joni Mitchell's landmark 1971 LP, Blue in its entirety. Ruminating about the significance of this kind of album is a fool's errand; its far-reaching and enduring influence is immeasurable. It is airy, warm, pure, and endlessly personal. It is an album of place, color, and memory.
So there we were in the bowels of the great ship Disney to hear Carlile bring these songs to life. Fueled by an obvious reverence for Joni, she did so with an impeccable attention to detail.
Mitchell's trademark mezzo-soprano inflection does the lion's share in establishing the character of her songs. Brandi Carlile had to have spent many hours in practice as she replicated nearly every contour of Joni's voice on Blue verbatim.
Though prepared with perfection in mind, the performance itself felt surprisingly loose. When not seated at the piano for a couple tunes, Carlile moved about the stage and past the monitors to engage the room like a Vegas lounge crooner in her bright blue suit and tie.
In all, there were 13 musicians that helped bring Blue to life, including a string quartet, and Los Angeles' own duo Lucius, who joined on a playful rendition of "Carey" and the regretful "This Flight Tonight." Tim Hanseroth, a longtime member of Carlile's band, helped out the homage; he revived the Appalachian dulcimer on lead track "All I Want," as Carlile sang of intimate quotidian memories.
As the evening progressed, Brandi Carlile offered a variety of heartfelt anecdotes as to why she wanted to take on this daunting one-off show, describing the LP as "the gateway drug" to Joni Mitchell's music.
She also called back to 2005, when T Bone Burnett played Blue for her. At a time in her life when she was looking "to be tough, spit, swear and cuss," the album taught her "how much toughness there is in femininity."
Carlile's vocals stood out most on jazzy title track "Blue" - for which she received a standing ovation - as well as "California," in which her easy flow lyrics were basically rapped. But no moment hit harder or deeper than the pin drop silence during "A Case of You."
She handled the first half of the song on her own, sounding as punch drunk as Joni once was. The strings snuck in midway through. Towards its end, Carlile held the microphone a few feet from her mouth for certain phrasings, helping to create the depth that comes with a sonic third dimension.
As she sang out, the melodies that decorate the song carried Brandi Carlile around the stage as if she were floating.
The yearning "River" was the Blue song that Carlile made most her own, taking a bit of melodic liberty on the Christmas-related song that she performed alone at the piano. As she introduced it, she cited its impact in licensing listeners to grieve during a celebratory time of year that often is an emotionally difficult time.
The encore included two thoughtful, if disparate, selections. Carlile chose a song from late in Joni's career (2007's "Shine") to illustrate that "nothing about Joni Mitchell began or ended with Blue." The tune took the room to church, wishing mercy upon both the deserving and undeserving.
Before playing the last song, she referenced something Joni Mitchell once said about her own songs. That if you find her in her songs, then she hasn't done her job; it's when you find you in her songs, that her work has been done.
And with that, Brandi Carlile came full circle by looking within to play her own song, "Party of One" as the evening's coda.
When all was said and done, the crowd went wild with enthusiastic praise and yet another round of standing applause. But it was only the second loudest ovation of the night. The biggest roar came just before the show started when an unexpected guest was escorted in to the Hall.
Clad in a red jacket and wide-brimmed black hat, and moving gently to a seat with cane in hand, it was Joni Mitchell.
All I Want
My Old Man
This Flight Tonight
A Case of You
The Last Time I Saw Richard
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Shine (Joni Mitchell song)
Party of One (Brandi Carlile song)
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