It's fair to say that if an Uncut reader were pulling together an all-star tribute to one of the defining artists of the 20th century like Joni Mitchell, your first choices might include, let's see . . . Joanna Newsom, k.d. lang, Kamasi Washington, Julia Holter, Dirty Projectors, Ryley Walker, The Weather Station, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and maybe, holographic afterlife technology permitting, Prince---artists all touched in one way or another by her example, who have continued her reckless, restless, adventurous approach to words and music into the 21st century. It probably wouldn't, at a guess, include Glen Hansard from The Frames, Los Lobos, or, well, Seal.
You have to feel some sympathy for Joni, on the occasion of her 75th birthday, witnessing the bottled lightning of her back catalogue smoothed into a succession of sometimes excruciatingly polite, often inscrutably programmed, occasionally piercingly beautiful performances across two nights last November at LA's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Though she has pride of place in the audience, the cutaway reaction shots in this two-hour production are strangely impassive, even following the emotional high point of the set, Graham Nash's irresistible "Our House" (as he shamelessly admits, with dazzling white happy-sad smile, the only song tonight not written by Joni). Instead, she's most present in the looming photos, paintings and film clips projected onto the backdrop, as though casting imperious judgement on the whole affair.
What does she make of it? Her presence overhangs the performances, as though intimidating the singers into politeness for fear of offending her. It may be morbid to say, but you feel that in a posthumous concert the performers might feel greater freedom to pour more of themselves into these singular songs.
Peter Gabriel and Elton John pop up incongruously to add some star power midway through via video message, with Gabriel memorably paying tribute to songs with "melodies that sparkle like jewels on a trampoline. I envy the poor bastards who have to sing them tonight."
That said, it's probably a good test of a song to see how well it stands up to being interpreted by Hansard ---backed by Brian Blade's impeccable house band, he can't inflict much damage on the mighty "Coyote." But too often, even with singers of the quality of Norah Jones, Rufus Wainwright (beaming with pride for his husband having organized the event) and a distinctly uncomfortable Chaka Khan, these brave, questing tunes feel aimless and meandering.
Notable highlights are an imperious Emmylou Harris (beginning her version of "Magdalene Laundries" with the lines "I'm going to lighten the mood a little now, with a song about women who were enslaved back in the convents of Ireland"), Diana Krall, exploring the endlessly rich and strange "Amelia," and James Taylor, taking "River" into new directions of his own devising. But best of all is Kris Kristofferson, gingerly stepping through the chords of "A Case Of You" like an old guy on an unfamiliar staircase, accompanied by Brandi Carlile, bringing the vintage bitter to her flutteringly sweet voice. It's hardly the most musically brilliant performance of the set, but there's delight in how this careful, creaking rendition brings the brilliance of the song once more to life.
But the most startling moment of the evening is the famous footage of Mitchell herself, on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, laying into the audience: "Last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert, and there were a lot of people there.... And there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and [there were] Indians who were getting into it like tourists. And I think that you're acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect!" The sudden irruption of this fearless young woman, addressing a crowd of half a million, into today's comfortable auditorium (tickets were reportedly $2,500, to raise funds for the centre's educational activities) couldn't be more pronounced.*
The evening concludes, almost inevitably, with a ramshackle, awkward romp through "Big Yellow Taxi"---the Joni Mitchell song for people who don't really like Joni Mitchell---and finally, Joni herself appears on stage with a bemused smile and a regal wave.
* Transcriber note (Kevin Christopher) - An exact quote, which the above is not, reads as follows: "It's like last Sunday, I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert, and there were a lot of people there, and there were tourists. And there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and Indians who were getting into it like tourists. And I think that you're acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect!"
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