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Ladies of the canon Print-ready version

by Chris Slattery
The Gazette (Gaithersburg, MD)
August 6, 2008

The D.C. area's favorite female folkies (and rockers, and jazz artists, too) channel Joni Mitchell in a tribute at Strathmore

In the beginning, there was Joni Mitchell.

Beautiful, ethereal, emotional: She had a guitar in her hands and a brain in her head - and a mind of her own that she was unafraid to use, man's world or not.

And it was a man's world in 1967, when Mitchell moved to New York City to launch her career as a folk singer. A visual artist from Saskatchewan, Mitchell started spinning her life experiences into songs that were at once personal and universal.

She perfected the genre of folk rock with songs like "Both Sides Now," won a Grammy for best folk performance in 1970, and wrote the undisputed anthem of her generation, "Woodstock." Her artwork graced the covers of her own LPs and those of other artists, and when she changed course musically to explore the world of jazz she brought her fans along for the ride.

Next Thursday, on the elegant stage of the Music Center at Strathmore, an assemblage of D.C. area musicians will gather to pay tribute to Mitchell (who will not appear) - and many of them will be women. That's a departure from past tribute shows, which honored Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Band and, at the very first tribute back in 2003, Bethesda native Nils Lofgren.

"This thing started with the Nils show," says Ronnie Newmeyer, whose Band House Gigs is a producer of the tribute series. "That was 95 percent people I've known my whole life, people I'd grown up with and played music with."

Newmeyer is a 2008 Washington Area Music Awards nominee for "most supportive to local music," although he sees that honor "as a nod to Bandhouse Gigs.

"Being the more public face of this ensemble frequently finds me feeling a bit embarrassed," says Newmeyer. "There's no way I can do this alone - it's Chuck Sullivan, David Sless and Danny Schwartz, along with lots of volunteers."

Newmeyer, a veteran of the D.C. music scene, has become a mentor to young artists and - suddenly - to more experienced performers who are finding brand new connections through this year's tribute concert.

"It's a tribute to the artist," he says, "but it's also a tribute to the D.C. music scene. So, not wanting to stagnate, we've widened the circle.

"When we choose someone as an honoree," he adds, "we need someone whose music we love and who has worked in many musical styles - and Joni Mitchell certainly fits the bill."

Challenges

Roberta Joan Anderson was born in 1943, and she grew up an only child in a conventional middle-class Canadian family. In 1964, she left art college and headed to Toronto to become a folk singer; early the next year, she gave birth to a daughter, married musician Chuck Mitchell and reluctantly gave up her daughter for adoption. By 1967, she'd emigrated to the States, shed her husband, and discovered the emerging folk scene in Greenwich Village.

The Byrds' David Crosby gets credit for "discovering" Mitchell in a Florida coffeehouse and convincing her to come to L.A., where a hippie-rock scene was starting to percolate. She didn't just join that scene; she bent it to her will.

The songs Mitchell wrote were covered by others at first - Tom Rush recorded "Urge for Going," Buffy Sainte-Marie covered "The Circle Game," and Judy Collins had a huge hit with "Both Sides, Now." Mitchell released her eponymous debut, a disc that came to be known as "Song for a Seagull," in 1968; a year later, "Clouds" made her a star.

Presenting a tribute to Joni Mitchell, says Newmeyer, "is very challenging for two reasons.

"First of all, Joni's music is so much more harmonically rich and complex than the other artists we've covered.

"She created so may of her own chords," he explains, "and didn't settle for just the majors and minors to express the nuances of her feelings.

"There are very few three-chord songs."

The second reason? By recruiting a bevy of female singer-songwriters to cover the Mitchell canon, Newmeyer and his colleagues found themselves working with "a lot of new people."

After four tribute concerts, Newmeyer says, "there's a format.

"We need to be extremely compact with time, and I'm proud of the fact that with each show we've done, we've managed to get a better pace each time."

That has been accomplished in a number of ways. The first three tribute concerts were held on the Strathmore lawn; last year, for the Bob Dylan tribute, the show moved indoors to the Music Center.

"The old shows were so much fun," says Newmeyer, "but the quiet songs were harder to get across. It's a great festival atmosphere, but not conducive to every type of music."

By moving things indoors, the organizers have been able to elevate the tone and pick up the pace of the concert, using the raised choral box as a second stage and bringing in the variety of musicians necessary to every Mitchell mood from folk to rock to jazz.

Little Green

Carey Creed is one of the new girls on the block - at least when it comes to the Joni Mitchell Tribute Concert.

"It's exciting and it's daunting," says Creed, 57. "There's some pretty sophisticated material to perform.

The contemporary folk artist goes way back with Mitchell.

"I was in junior college," she remembers, "and Joni Mitchell was just being played up and down the halls.

"I fell in love with her."

Maybe a little too much: "I thought, ëI'm going to sound like a poor cousin if I listen to much more of this,' so I backed off a bit."

As a songwriter, Creed tries to follow the trail Mitchell started blazing 40 years ago. She loves when listeners "project their own story onto a song that I've written.

"Sometimes you make a song so personal it becomes universal," she says. "You write your heart, and people plug into it."

Like Mitchell's "Little Green," about the daughter she gave up for adoption during a time when single motherhood was almost unheard of.

"That song slayed me," says Creed, "because I was adopted.

"If a song is good, if it touches a nerve, the audience will take it where they need to go.

"If it's a great song, everybody will relate to it."

It's not just Mitchell's words that endure, according to Margot MacDonald. The 17-year-old has been recording music since she was 12. For her, the wispy blonde Canadian folksinger is just a part of life's background music.

"My dad is a big fan," MacDonald explains. "From a young age, her voice has loomed around the house."

The big-voiced teenager, who will be an artist-in-residence at Strathmore this September, was recommended to Newmeyer by tribute concert alumni. Grammy-winner Jon Carroll and producer John Jennings had both recorded the young performer, and Daniel Brindley had booked her at Jammin Java, his Vienna, Va., coffeehouse.

"It sounded like a great idea, a great opportunity," she says. "And it's been really fun - working with people I never met, artists I'd never heard of. It's bringing lots of individual musicians together."

What can a youngster learn from an old-school folkie like Mitchell?

"She's a fantastic musician," says MacDonald. "Some of it is very simple to the ear, but once you try to sing it you see how complicated it really is."

Both sides now

For Lea, the 30-year-old Silver Spring musician who likes to go by one name, Joni Mitchell was the most influential artist she'd never heard.

"I'd been told that my sound resembled hers," says Lea, "and once I did listen, I realized: She certainly had influenced me. I didn't even know it!"

There is that certain ubiquitous quality to Mitchell's body of work; she's had just three Top 40 hits ("Both Sides Now," "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris"), but her songs are everywhere, whether in their original versions or re-released as covers.

But Lea, who says that some of her own first musical memories were "singing with the family band," admires the tenacity with which Mitchell has pursued every musical dream.

"I think I'm a fairly straight-ahead folk-rock songwriter," she says. "Joni was so outside of the box!

"She's pioneered an openness to different ideas and to different styles of writing. Ö She went wherever her voice would go, and that's pretty brave."

For some performers, that kind of courage wasn't always easy to understand.

"I was listening to her when I was in my late teens," says Grace Griffith, 52. "I was a real die-hard fan back then.

"But I had to grow up to appreciate her later stuff."

Griffith, a contemporary folk singer whose sound veers toward Celtic and traditional music, says she admires Mitchell's phrasing and interpretation of music, as well as her writing.

"Joni was the first writer, maybe except Laura Nyro, who included personal confessions in songs," Griffith says.

And in Mitchell's story there's one particular chapter - a childhood battle with polio that affects her still - to which the singer, who was diagnosed in 1998 with Parkinson's Disease, can relate.

"It really presents a challenge in performing," says Griffith. "I'm not glad that Joni has an affliction that makes performing difficult, but it gives me inspiration.

"I feel very strongly," she adds. "If we were all more open about our challenges, we'd all feel less isolated."

Looking good

It's getting to be a tradition, this mid-August hootenanny that hatched from Strathmore's Timeline Concert Series and has taken on a life of its own.

"It's grown because we're getting a lot of help from a lot of people," Newmeyer says. "They feel invested in this show - not for monetary reasons, but because they like what we're doing. They want to be part of it."

For performers, he says, "it's pretty unique to get the opportunity to play in that concert hall in front of a couple of thousand people.

"It's an honor to be able to do this at Strathmore."

But Strathmore's Director of Programming Shelley Brown says the honor is theirs.

"This is a wonderful community event that's grown in artistic quality and depth," she says. "We have gender diversity this year, yes - but you need to have a good, solid, ripping band that underpins everything."

Brown says that band is in place - with Carrol and Jennings, Newmeyer and Steuert Smith, who performs with the Eagles and played with Mitchell herself back in the day.

"They're starting with a core band that can carry a concert that has incredible production complexity," says Brown, "and [Band House Gigs] is stepping beyond just going into the Rolodex to find performers for the show."

Brown says it's her "secret agenda" to get as many beloved local performers as possible onto the Music Center stage. And in the run-up to the show, as pockets of performers meet to rehearse and perfect their solos and backups, the buzz is beginning to build.

"This is delightful," says Creed. "There are quite a few women in this stew, and we're having a blast; getting to know one another and working on our harmonies."

Newmeyer acknowledges that this show will have an original feel. It's not just all the new female talent; he has three music producers - Carroll and Jennings plus Steuert Smith - "putting it all together and producing songs for this show. We're honored by that.

"It's all getting easier as the show is gaining a foothold," he adds. "The musicians are basically thrilled to the gills to stand on that stage and perform. I think we've got a shot at a sellout again this year.

"Things are looking pretty good."

Creed likes the way things are looking, too.

"I really think Joni Mitchell is a genius," she says. "When I look at her, I'm not looking across. I'm looking up. What a monster intellect!

"The way she sees things, that's what stays with me," she adds. "Joni Mitchell moved pop music forward."

Band House Gigs and Strathmore present "A Tribute to Joni Mitchell" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14, in the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Admission is $15. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.

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Added to Library on August 7, 2008. (1155)

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