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Poetic Doyenne Holds Court With an Enduring Spark   Print

by Ann Powers
New York Times
April 8, 2000

One of these things is not like the other: the air-kiss superficiality of Hollywood tributes, the schmoozy performances of stars at such events, and the deep, uncompromising music of Joni Mitchell.

That's why Thursday's taping of the TNT -sponsored all-star tribute to Ms. Mitchell, to be broadcast on April 16 at 9 p.m., was an odd affair. At the Hammerstein Ballroom the famously imperious Ms. Mitchell was gushed over by action-movie stars like the evening's host, Ashley Judd, and by musicians far more acquainted with compromise, like Elton John and Ms. Judd's sister, Wynonna.

Celebrities littered the stage and the audience: Laurence Fishburne, Tony Bennett, Susan Sarandon, Bryan Adams, Goldie Hawn, Rosie O'Donnell, Michael Bolton. The fun of being at the taping was witnessing Ms. Mitchell in this environment. She did as she pleased, eating a banana, smoking and signing autographs when not receiving accolades.

When the cameras turned toward her, the honored artiste responded with arms gratefully extended, like a monarch. "Jone, the bone, on her throne," James Taylor said, in a rare ribbing of the doyenne before applying his easy style to her song "River."

Sir Elton seconded that aristocratic reference. "I've played before the queen of England, and it's not so intimidating," he said after his savvy take on "Free Man in Paris."

Such gestures saved the show from banality. Despite its dazzle, this homage really did run on the spirit of profound admiration.

Ms. Mitchell's great songs are irresistible to singers, who take on their swoops and blue notes as aptitude tests and relish the poeticism of her lyrics.

"We're not you, but we're happy to pay tribute to you," said Shawn Colvin, who took two turns harmonizing with Mary Chapin Carpenter.

No one could sleepwalk through these technically rigorous songs. K. D. Lang didn't quite nail the famously difficult beginning of "Help Me," but she quickly recovered, subtly coloring the song's sustained notes. Cyndi Lauper hit the highs and deployed great timing on "Carey." Wynonna Judd warmed up "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)" with country feeling.

Slightly more obscure premium artists also shared the bill, including the trumpeter Mark Isham and the slide guitarist Greg Leisz, who played in the band.

Cassandra Wilson led a horn section through a rousing improvisation on a song from Ms. Mitchell's jazziest album, "Mingus." Richard Thompson, the cool guitar god, added rock flavor to his two selections. The a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock gave "The Circle Game" the resonance of a hymn.

Finally Ms. Mitchell took the stage, backed by a full string section, for "Both Sides Now." She transformed the famous composition in her current style, as a torch singer proclaiming time's lessons. Standing alone, supported by so many, she delivered the last word on her greatness. That regal aura of great influence and isolation still makes her a fascinating artist.

 

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