Notes on a Joni Mitchell Experience in Skaneateles, NY
One of the most ambitious, crazy, organic things I've ever done as a mature musician was to produce and perform a tribute concert to Joni Mitchell. I grew up listening to Joni's music in the 70's, and by the time I was eleven I had learned to play, in a rudimentary way, and sing a bunch of her songs. Those were the days of Song to a Seagull, Ladies of the Canyon, For the Roses, Blue, and Court and Spark. The songs on those records got completely into my bloodstream. My sister Tori and I got ourselves booked in local coffeehouses and pubs, singing (in harmony) a repertoire relying heavily on Joni Mitchell's work.
Years passed. At 21 I discovered the richness and joy of singing jazz. Devoting myself to learning improvisation, the jazz idiom and songbook, I dropped the guitar and got serious about singing standards. Along the way, I had friends tell me they missed hearing me do the Joni Mitchell music. More than 20 years later, one friend begged me for two solid years to do a night of Joni's songs. I finally relented, and wound up relearning the guitar with Joni's own original tunings. I shedded hard on about 20 of her early songs. Some were easy; most were not.
Finally on January 13, 2007, I performed those songs. Two Sets, All Joni, One Night Only. My promotion of the event was entirely grass-roots -- a homemade black-and-white poster, the local press's events calendars, my friend's radio show on our hometown jazz station, WAER. To my surprise, the music editor of the newspaper put in a tidbit about the tribute concert about a month before the show. My phone started ringing, and three weeks before the event, it was sold out. Something was happening that way out of my control. I realized these were completely different people than the jazz audience I was used to wooing. These were Joni lovers. I had people in the crowd who not only sang every word along with me under their breaths, but sat like crouching panthers in anticipation of every word I said about Joni during the entire evening - hoping to catch me in some inaccuracy, I guessed. I had the feeling of being out of my body most of the night, and my only recurring thought was, If I can just get through this song& Thankfully, I had enlisted the musical support of five of my talented neighbors, including my sister. Without them I would surely have turned into a puddle on the stage of Jazz Central.
By the next morning, the music critic of the newspaper had written a six-column rave review about the show with a photo of me singing the night before. I was out grocery shopping when the president of the Skaneateles Area Arts Council, Joe Strodel, called me and insisted on my doing the show again, soon, in Skaneateles. Skaneateles is the most beautiful of the Finger Lakes, in Upstate New York. It hosts a highly respected classical music festival in the summer. The Clintons have vacationed there more than once. Exhausted, I said yes.
For three months Joe and I communicated almost daily, planning the concert in all its many details. He was tireless in gaining sponsorship and support from Central New York arts organizations and patrons as well as people connected with Joni Mitchell herself. He had a vision of surrounding the concert with Joni's art and Henry Diltz's photographs of her, and he never let up. I had never seen anything like it. I knew we were going to have a sensational event, but I had no idea&...we ended up exhibiting six stunning works of Joni art at the concert, three of which were signed by her.
On April 28, 2007, the six of us once again took the stage to perform A Joni Mitchell Tribute: A Concert by Maria De Angelis and Friends. This time we had a different pianist, as our first one, David Yaffe, was busy being a successful music critic and professor. (We're hoping he'll write a great new biography of Joni, by the way.) Barry Blumenthal gave very sensitive and jazzy renditions of the piano songs (Down To You, The Last Time I Saw Richard, Rainy Night House, etc.). Phil Flanigan, a bassist who has backed Benny Goodman, Maxine Sullivan and Rosemary Clooney, held down solid and sometimes rocking bass lines in most of the ensemble numbers. His favorite tune was Help Me. My three female backup singers, Hanna Richardson, Karen Oberlin, and Tori De Angelis, all performed multiple functions, playing percussion and other instruments as well as laying down near-perfect harmonies. Again, it was wicked hard. This time we had a sound man, but we also had a much bigger crowd - three times bigger - and the acoustic complexities of performing in an old church. I stayed in my body this time. On the other hand, I had learned a little basic dulcimer for this concert, so I was once again petrified most of the time I was actually playing. It was only singing those soaring lyrics that allowed me to remain somewhat centered on stage.
I had borrowed a few excellent vintage guitars for the show to get around the problem of constantly retuning on stage. I think we used seven or eight of Joni's tunings in 16 songs. Of course the dulcimer had to be retuned too, which caused the only moment of real panic - one of its four strings sounded like it had broken& fortunately it hadn't. My stories of Joni in this concert were largely about her songwriting process, and were much fewer than the first show. I felt a little bad about this, but there were so many people at the concert to acknowledge!
Again, to my amazement, the crowd of over 300 loved it. They jumped to their feet. They hooted and hollered. They wanted more. I gave them a jazz standard, very much in the tradition of Joni herself. Joe Strodel gave all of the ladies flowers. The local Skaneateles papers covered it. The Journal gave us a paean of praise. The Press called me flighty and very California [compared] to her usual New York jazz artist. The Press didn't know the half of it.
All I could think of was how nervous Joni herself used to get when performing her own songs. I now totally understood why. They do not lend themselves to a high degree of comfort. That said, her music gave me enormous satisfaction to perform. It wasn't that I conquered it, exactly, in the way a pianist would conquer Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto. It was that the music required me to go out on a ledge and take a deep breath, and jump. I am so glad I did it. I am so glad it's behind me!
And now I can take the time to thank Joni Mitchell's web manager, Les Irvin, for his gracious support and blessing of these efforts. It has been nothing short of incredible to know that we have been a part of Joni's website for months, and that we have had their full artistic support. And to Joni Mitchell herself, I say: I stand in awe of your ongoing achievement as a multifaceted artist of the highest conscience, discipline, and beauty. I am so appreciative that you have shared these gifts with our world.
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