Over the past couple of years, there has been an apparent resurgence of interest in Joni Mitchell's catalogue, possibly spurred on by Brandi Carlile exposing Joni's music to a whole new generation of fans, the release of the first two volumes of her Archive Series, her being named the MusiCares Person of the Year, and most recently, the Grammy win for Best Historical Recording for Archives - Volume 1. As such, it's not surprising to see various tribute concerts popping up from time to time. What is surprising is when a group of very talented musicians decide to put together a night of Joni music by pairing two of her albums in their entirety, and then picking Blue (arguably her most iconic album) with Mingus (arguably her most challenging and overlooked album). Fortunately, this is exactly what a group of musicians did on May 8, 2022 at The Venue in Aurora, Illinois, a relatively new listening space whose mission "is to promote and preserve music of all genres, including blues, roots, country, soul, classical, and world genres".
When I first heard of this pairing, I had a bit of a WTF moment? As a lifelong Joni fan, if someone was to come to me with an idea to present two of Joni's albums in a tribute concert, the last two I would probably pair would be Blue and Mingus. As excited as I was at the prospect, I just couldn't comprehend why they would pair these two albums.
On the one hand, Blue is considered by many as her early masterpiece - the album that really put her at the forefront of the singer-songwriter movement. It is revered for its intimacy and emotional honesty, and consistently ranks in people's lists of the greatest albums ever. On the other hand, you have Mingus - a bold, extremely non-commercial release that certainly cost Mitchell more fans than it gained her.
Personally, I was more excited to see Mingus performed live, as most of the songs on Blue have been covered pretty frequently, while the songs on Mingus are almost always overlooked. My biggest fear for the show was that most of the people showing up would be there for Blue, and then get up and leave when it was time for Mingus. I don't know if this possibility drove the decision to split the albums into sides, performing both side A's first and then both side B's, but when they announced this is how the night was going to play out, I finally saw the absolute genius behind this pairing, and also how it tied in with the mission of The Venue to "promote and preserve music of all genres". If someone wanted to hear all of Blue, they would have to at least listen to one side of Mingus. I don't remember the exact quote, but when Scott Tipping (the apparent ringleader of the group) announced how the evening was to proceed, he commented "come for Blue, but have your mind blown by Mingus". And that's exactly what happened. This wasn't just an evening about entertainment, it was also about education and enlightenment.
The band consisted of two vocalists - Mary Lou O'Brien Fischer sang Blue, while Typhanie Monique sang Mingus. Scott Tipping played guitar, Chad Watson played bass, Gerald Dowd played drums, Fred Simon played keyboards, and Aaron J. Rybski played sax.
The night started out with side A of Blue. For the most part, the songs on Blue were played with a stripped-down band, primarily consisting of Mary Lou on vocals and keyboards, with Gerald on drums and Scott on guitar filling in on some of the songs.
I must admit, I had some reservations after hearing All I Want. Instead of the expected acoustic guitar one might expect, Mary Lou played the song on her Casio, which in and of itself is no problem, however whatever the settings were on the Casio, it produced a tinny artificial sound that was rather distracting. Knowing the great piano songs still to come, I was worried that sound would really get in the way of enjoying them. To be clear, Mary Lou played and sang beautifully, but the tone of the keyboard was not very pleasant. Fortunately, the keyboard sound was changed (corrected?) after All I Want, and the rest of the piano work sounded beautiful.
Mary Lou's voice brought a sense of maturity to these songs that I found very moving, and she captured the emotion and intensity of the songs brilliantly. For me, the most effective song off of Blue was Little Green. Maybe hearing it on Mother's Day added to the gut-punch reaction I had, but Mary Lou's performance on this song left me in tears. Hearing these lyrics from "a woman of a certain age" just added to the intensity and sadness in the song.
I thought the performance of Carey was a bit of a lost opportunity. Since they weren't doing a religious, note for note replication of Blue (there wasn't a dulcimer anywhere to be found!), I thought Carey would be a great opportunity to bring out the whole band, and let this one rip. Joni was never one for slavishly duplicating her albums in a live setting, so I was hoping for a little interpretive magic here (think Cindy Lauper's version from the 2000 TNT Joni tribute). While the version performed was perfectly fine, it felt a little safe, especially in comparison to what was yet to come. Side A was wrapped up with a gorgeous version of Blue. Through out the set, Mary Lou would tell interesting stories about some of the songs, giving credit to JoniMitchell.com , as well as Malka Marom's book, In Her Own Words, as the source of the information.
At this point Mary Lou left the stage, while Typhanie and the rest of the band came out for side A of Mingus. They started the set by playing a recording of Happy Birthday 1975 (Rap), which is the first track on the Mingus album, and then launched into a fantastic version of God Must Be A Boogie Man. In my opinion, as great as this version was, it was the second lost opportunity of the night. A little audience participation on the "God must be a boogie man!" would have put this over the top. Without those extra voices chiming in, this line just fell a little flat. I think Typhanie realized this because after the song was over, she asked the audience to join her in one final "God must be a boogie man!". Had she asked for audience participation before the song, it would have made the song perfect. But I'm nitpicking because everything else was spot on.
Typhanie is a Chicago-based Jazz singer, who has a simply gorgeous voice. I personally find some jazz singers to be all technique and no emotion, but that is not the case with Typhanie. She connected with this material at such a deep level and delivered it with so much emotion. It was thrilling to witness. In between songs, she told the story of how she got involved in the project. Scott had contacted her, because they needed a jazz singer for a Joni Mitchell tribute he was putting together. Typhanie was excited at the prospect of performing some Joni songs, but when Scott told her they were doing Mingus, she confessed she wasn't familiar with it, but was open to the challenge. She told the audience that "Mingus was the real deal!". Learning that Typhanie just recently began learning the songs from Mingus, made her performance all the more remarkable. She sang these songs like she'd been living with them for years.
And to me, this story sums up why this pairing was such a stroke of genius. If a professional jazz singer isn't aware of an album like Mingus, how many other serious music lovers are unaware as well. At the table I was sitting at, there was a professional bass player, who was a big fan of Jaco Pastorius, and he knew Jaco worked with Joni, but he was completely unfamiliar with the Mingus album. One song into the set, and you could see the audience sitting up and taking notice.
Next up was a silky version of Chair in the Sky. Typhanie and the band had the audience's full attention at this point, but I don't think anyone was prepared for what came next. With only Typhanie, Scott and Gerald on the stage, Scott kicked off The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey, ferociously hammering out the acoustic guitar intro. Scott's guitar work on this was simply astonishing! I quickly realized I was seeing something very special so I picked up my phone and recorded as much of the song as I could. I tragically missed most of the guitar intro, but what I did capture was magical. This song was the highlight of the night for me. It was absolutely brilliant! If I was to critique anything about this song, once again, I would have enrolled the help of the audience to join in on the howling at the end of the song. I couldn't help myself, and let out a few small howls, but to have the whole audience howling at the end would have been the perfect ending to a spectacular performance.
At this time, the band took a short intermission, giving everyone time to run to the washroom, purchase a beverage, and discuss what the hell they just saw. From my conversations with various audience members, the pairing of these two albums was working fantastically, and a whole lot of people were gaining a huge appreciation for the wonders of the Mingus album.
After the intermission, it was time for side B of Blue. Once again, Mary Lou's performance felt genuine and in touch with the emotions of all the songs. Surprisingly, the much-covered River was my favorite performance of this set. So many people have covered this song, that its always a pleasant surprise when someone can make it feel fresh again. Mary Lou's connection to this song was so intense, it was practically palpable. The rest of the Blue set was expertly performed, though lacked any major surprises.
Finally, it was time for side B of Mingus. Leading off the set was Sweet Sucker Dance, one of my favorite vocal performances of Joni's, and once again Typhanie and the band were right on point - sultry and sexy, it was a vocal tour de force.
The next song was the crowd-pleasing Dry Cleaner From Des Moines, and this really gave the band the opportunity to let loose, prompting several audience members to get up and dance. I wish I could provide more details about the individual band members' performances, but all I can say is that collectively, they were mesmerizing. It was a joy to watch Gerald practically dancing with his drum kit, or Chad bravely taking on the challenges of these bass lines, or listening to Aaron's sax solos, or Fred's keyboards, or Scott's excellent guitar work, but every time Typhanie started to sing, it was hard to focus on anything else.
They ended the set with a slow-burning version of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. For an encore, they did a rousing version of Freeman in Paris.
After it was all over, Typhanie restated that prior to this project, she wasn't familiar with this material but that moving forward, it would remain forever in her repertoire. She seemed genuinely moved by this music, and from what I saw, so was the rest of the audience.
I hope there is a reprise of this fantastic night of music. I would be first in line to buy a ticket.
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