Saturday August 3, 2019
The Palladium, St. Petersburg, Florida
The Florida Bjorkestra is a merry, revolving band of seriously trained local musicians who have quickly built a reputation for quality and sometimes quirky tribute shows. They thrive and succeed in an unfortunately growing popular and cheesy entertainment genre geared to Baby Boomers who still pay for live entertainment. Check out the calendars for most performing arts venues and you'll find them by the dozens. The Florida Bjorkestra have performed sold out Buffy the Vampire shows that included stage puppets, a David Bowie show, and of course, Bjork. Lead player/pianist/founder Jeremy Douglas can be counted on to inspire the spirit and soul of the music rather than a note by note recreation of the original recordings. During the show Jeremy told the audience he lived in Palladium neighborhood right out of high school as a struggling musician. It was a fun, cheap place to live back then long before the millionaires and wealthy early retirees discovered it and started building residential behemoths. The Palladium was a Christian Science church back then. Luckily the historic building was saved by locals and is now a revered premiere performing arts center focusing on local and regional art performance and development. Many hands came on deck to save and convert the gorgeous space including the recently passed Hazel Hough for whom the performing hall is named. I bought my tickets early, knowing it would sell out quickly, which it did. I was also happy it would take place in the more intimate Side Door Theater even though it meant a smaller Bjorkestra than the norm. My tickets read The Florida Bjorkestra: Nick Drake & Joni Mitchell. I was a bit worried and a little than skeptical about the more "Twitter/Facebook Friendly" moniker Joni Hearts Nick. To my knowledge Joni has not ever even mentioned Nick. And Joni Hearts very few musicians/ songwriters/much of anyone. The first half of the show was all Nick Drake songs. Years back a Joni freak/local painter gave me Pink Moon to listen to and though I remember enjoying and admiring the songs they just didn't stick with me. Listening to them performed here I found a couple that would juxtapose interestingly with the Joni songs with which I admittedly am much more familiar. All the vocals were by guitarist Ed Woltil of the well-regarded local group Ditchflowers who wisely let the lyrics take the lead over any extraneous stylizations. His performance of Drake's songs created a contemporary feel that made them sound as if they were written today. No easy task for lyrics written almost 50 years ago and a tribute to both Drake as a writer and Woltil as an artist. He showed respect for the songs without treating them as historic artifacts. Throughout the set, Jeremy Douglass played piano and was musically in charge of the players including Dave Hamar on drums, Daniel Navarro on bass, LaRue Nickleson on guitar, and Tom Kersey on cello. All played in stellar style and contributions were essential without sounding forced or cluttered. For one song, lead vocalist Whitney James and backup vocalists Colleen Cherry, Jamie Perlow and Rebecca Zapen joined onstage with Woltil. In another, microphones were turned off and violin, viola, and cello performed acoustically. In such a small space the sound was glorious and rare. Ed Woltil joked that though he jumped at the chance to perform when the project was first discussed he realized that both Nick and Joni lived in alternate tuning worlds. Joni solved it with the VG-8. Ed had a guitar buddy there changing tunings between numbers and joked it was his first show that used a "guitar tech." I'm sure it was no easy job.
Great opening, now after an intermission it was on to the main event, at least at my table. Fears of another Both Sides Now/Big Yellow Taxi show were quickly dissolved with the opening choices of Cotton Avenue and Hissing of Summer Lawns. These are deep cuts in Joni's catalog, especially the former. Whitney James performed all the vocals of the Joni set. I've seen Whitney perform several times and she often talks about her love for Joni and desire to do a show of her music. In a recent interview she said it was almost impossible to pick just twelve songs for the show and a future show should be all Joni. No disagreement here. The players were the same as the Drake set but they definitely heat things up for Joni's free form style. Still no imitation here but I was happy to hear echoes of Jaco Pastorious' licks from Navarro's bass. Whitney is most known as an accomplished jazz singer so Blue Motel Room from Joni's seminal Hejira allowed for improv and vocal stretch that surpassed even Erin Hamilton's version I heard at Joni's Jazz Concert in Central Park (July 1999) that Joni attended. Because of her training and experience, James' phrasing comes across as light and natural in a way that even Joni's doesn't in some of her vocals. Before tearing into The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines, she said as a vocal student she was asked by her teacher who she admired, who did she listen to. Whitney responded with the usual three, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McCrea, all giants to be sure. He told her to take home a certain recording and to listen carefully to Joni singing jazz in The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines and James was hooked for life. She and Bjorkestra sounded tight, well- rehearsed yet free and easy in the way Joni meant the song to be. After all the players left the stage except for James and Douglass the familiar piano opening of River began and a heartbreaking, emotional vocal interpretation followed. Every syllable of Joni's well-known lyrics sounded fresh and true. James admitted the cost of riding the emotional roller coaster Joni created can be exhausting but at the same time rewarding. It certainly was for the audience. Then right into an appropriately ripping Sex Kills, one of many of Joni's straight forward social commentary musical compositions. Again, one not heard often but definitely one of Joni's favorites. She played it often while promoting her Grammy winning Turbulent Indigo. A Case of You is from what Joni calls her helium voice years and Whitney gave those high notes her best, mentioning afterwards that maybe a lower key would have made it less of a challenge. She need not have worried. In her experienced hands the song shined brightly. The surprise selection of the night was Off Night Backstreet from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. The band's leader Jeremy Douglass said it was for songs like these that they do shows like this. It's a brave choice that keeps us coming. The only recording other than Joni's I know of is from JMDL's (Joni Mitchel Discussion List) own David Lahm on his follow up More Jazz Takes on Joni Mitchell. The classic Blue followed, with James allowing a less jazz and more soulful take. Two more deep cuts, Edith and the Kingpin and The Silky Veils of Ardor are appreciated surprises that follow. Whitney's unique interpretation adds new layers to Joni's already complex compositions. These are challenging songs to tackle but James and The Florida Bjorkestra members show the Joni Love with rewarding results and rousing audience response. All hands were on deck for a rousing closer, Free Man in Paris, from one of Joni's best known and biggest selling records, Court and Spark. All the vocals and instruments soared, again proving great music provides for freedom rather than slavish devotion. The entire evening was sophisticated and exciting. Everyone's work was critical to the result, from Bjorkestra leader Douglass' piano and leadership to the tuning ear of the running "guitar tech." I not sure Joni Hearts Nick, but I think she would have loved the way her work was presented here. Please, sir, we want some more.
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