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The stars come out for Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Kevin McDonough
Morning Call (Allentown PA)
April 16, 2000
Original article: PDF

NEW YORK---"I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling, traveling, traveling . . ." Joni Mitchell's songs of love, loss and self-discovery are celebrated by several generations of musicians at the "All Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell" (TNT at 9), taped two weeks ago in New York.

Mitchell's music and career have always been hard to categorize. She first emerged as a songwriter. Two of her signature songs, "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now," were first hits for folk singer Judy Collins. After emerging as a folk star and then the first lady of the singer-songwriter boom of the early 1970s, she moved headlong into jazzy improvisations, first with Tom Scott and most notably with the dying Charles Mingus.

The variety of Mitchell's influences are well-reflected in those who came to pay tribute to her. Bryan Adams and Wynonna Judd kick-start the evening with a rocking roadhouse rendition of "Raised on Robbery," followed by a downbeat, jazzy take on "Carey" by MTV pop star Cyndi Lauper. The difficulty of Mitchell's musical arrangements and the unique quality of her voice are evident when even the extraordinary k. d. lang seems challenged by the 1974 hit, "Help Me." Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin emerge as the most reverent fans, and turn in three strong performances on "Chelsea Morning," "Big Yellow Taxi," and a moving version of "Amelia."

Some of the performances here are more heartfelt than memorable. James Taylor's take on "River" only served to remind this listener that nobody should try to sing that song except Joni Mitchell. Elton John rushes through "Free Man in Paris" like a good sport and then sheepishly tells the audience that playing for Mitchell, sitting regally in a box besides the stage, was far more daunting than playing for the Queen of England. Other notable performances include Richard Thompson's "Woodstock" and "Black Crow." Wynonna Judd returns with an earthy version of "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)," and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson performs the Mitchell-Mingus number, "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines."

Host Ashley Judd has a hard time reigning in her hero-worship for Mitchell, as does the star-studded audience. For her part, Joni Mitchell often seems both bemused and overwhelmed by the fuss. The evening concludes with Mitchell, backed by a full orchestra and making the most effective use of her now limited vocal range, performing a contemplative and autumnal take on "Both Sides Now."

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