It's not often the star of a show never takes the stage.
Joni Mitchell was clearly the main attraction for the Saskatoon Symphony's presentation, Don't Give Yourself Away, though she never made the trip back to her hometown. Even the posters for the concert conceded Mitchell's dominant presence and featured large simple images of her at various stages of her career.
But if the musicians who took the stage on Saturday were playing supporting roles Saturday, they were a stunning supporting cast.
Canadian songstress Sarah Slean bravely tackled filling Mitchell's shoes on vocals. Known for her artistic flair and musicianship, she proved an excellent choice.
She avoided the trap of impersonation, bringing her own brand of screen-star glamour to the stage with a golden gown and a smooth, dramatic delivery. From the opening standard, At Last, she was paying tribute to the independent spirit of a musical hero by singing the music her own way.
Slean doesn't growl in the lower range like Mitchell, and was less blunt in delivering the lyrics of poetic favourites such as Case of You and Woodstock. But there was clarity and emotion that immediately won over the crowd.
In Cherokee Louise, which both celebrates and indicts life in Mitchell's home of Saskatoon, Slean devastated the crowd with her lyrical telling of the story a pair of young friends.
To honour this successful Saskatchewan export, the SSO imported some impressive talent from the U.S. who have a history working with Mitchell. Vince Mendoza, who arranged and conducted the music for both the albums featured at the concert - Both Sides Now and Travelogue - was on hand to work with the symphony. It took years to get the six-time Grammy winner and 25-time nominee to Saskatoon for this project, and it was worth every ounce of effort.
Drummer Peter Erskine, who played on Both Sides Now, also made the trip north for the concert, along with bassist Edwin Livingston.
The second half of the concert kicked off with the powerful and prophetic Sex Kills, and saw the symphony players bring a sharp edge to their play. From the soft musical strokes needed for Stormy Weather to providing vocals on the chorus of God Must Be a Boogie Man, the SSO delivered on whatever they were asked to do with enthusiasm.
Think it is too obvious to name Both Sides Now as the highlight of the evening? Is it just too predictable? That's too bad. This song has a special place in the history of popular music, so of course its power was made known at this concert. Tears were flowing with the first familiar strains of music.
"A 20-year-old little girl from Saskatoon taught us what life is about," is how Mendoza summarized the piece. Slean and the musicians leaned in to the challenge of doing justice to this classic song, which wrapped up the evening.
Saskatoon doesn't always understand its most famous daughter, but she still deserves to be celebrated. This was a night of high-quality performances, a fitting tribute to her life and work.
The question remains, what would Joni think? We can't know for sure.
What one can hope for, however, is Mitchell waving a cigarette-laden hand and nodding emphatically in approval. Moved by the emotion of the night, one might even imagine a smile.
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