Joni 75 – A Magnificent Birthday Tribute to a Challenging Artist

Over the years in LA I have attended several tribute concerts. The formula is generally the same: a group of like-minded artists perform the music of the celebrity being honored. Oftentimes the artists are a great fit (Norah Jones in a duet with Keith Richards on “Wild Horses,” which Gram Parsons recorded before The Stones did). Sometimes the participant flummoxes wonderfully the honoree (Bono serenading Sinatra). In the case of Buddy Holly (or even Buffalo Springfield), the music is so universal that all participants confidently handled the songs. That was what made these prior tribute concerts so joyful.
At the Dorothy Chandler an eclectic array of musicians recently tackled the music of Joni Mitchell, on the occasion of her 75th birthday.
The depth and range of her canon was in the spotlight as the performers tried with a range of success in their interpretations of Mitchell’s challenging songs.
Diana Krall had perhaps the easiest time; her jazz chops equipped her well for Mitchell’s complex chord changes. On the other hand, the brilliant Emmylou Harris had some trouble wrapping her honey sweet voice around the first of two Mitchell songs she assayed.
The stage was filled with instruments, but was also adorned with mostly wooden souvenirs drawing from Mitchell’s Canadian childhood: snowshoes, easel, hockey stick, water skis, paddles and most notably a suspended canoe.

Emmylou Harris, Joni’s self-portrait evoking Van Gogh and a suspended canoe.

A solid back-up band musically anchored the evening. Greg Leisz was especially effective (as always it seems) on an array of six string guitars. Also notable were Brian Blade (co-musical director, drums), Jon Cowherd (co-musical director, piano) and Christopher Thomas handling an incredibly sensitive bass across a diverse range of styles.

The only non-Joni song assayed last night at Dorothy Chandler was when Graham Nash sang his autobiographical ode to their time together that grey afternoon, solo. If anyone in the audience was unaware that he wrote “Our House” for her half a century ago, it was no longer a surprise. It may have arguably been the most poignant time he sang that chestnut. (Nash was no stranger to that stage, he and David Crosby famously appeared there 47 years ago for a much-bootlegged performance later released as “Another Stoney Evening”).

The vase they bought that day.

Seal, clouds and “Both Sides Now.”

Norah Jones also leveraged her jazz affinity for a great version of “Court And Spark” / ”Borderline.”  Of Mitchell’s two most famous songs “Clouds” was delivered in a version by Seal that left most of us breathless. His tonal control was magnificent, and it was likely if we heard Mitchell sing it currently it would have sounded much like Seal’s husky intonation. Mitchell’s other big radio hit was the inevitable show closer, with all hands on stage for “Big Yellow Taxi.”

Also delivering heartfelt renditions of her songs were Chaka Khan, Rufus Wainwright, Glen Hansard and Los Lobos. James Taylor performed “River” and later “Woodstock” with Seal on background vocals. Both are songs of longing. Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile dueted on “A Case Of You,” which provided an incredibly tender display of affection between the two. Carlile helped Kristofferson come in on cue, and he seemed delighted to participate.

Brandi Carlile and Kris Kristofferson

The stage also included couches on each side, from which artists could watch the proceedings after performing. Two magnificent chandeliers were reminiscent of The Last Waltz (where Joni performed 42 years earlier). Audio clip interviews were used as interstitial devices during the quick set changes between artists. Peter Gabriel and Elton John delivered heartfelt video greetings.

Mitchell’s prolific career as a painter was leveraged with some well-chosen works serving as backdrops. The fluffy white clouds from her youth, which Joni often referenced over the years, appeared often. Also adding visual counterpoint to the music were Norman Seeff’s iconic photographs of Mitchell.

In the right hands, tribute concerts strike the right balance of homage and artistry. Given the ambitious nature of her songs, the artists gathered for Joni’s 75 birthday delivered with aplomb.

(photos by Brad Auerbach)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.