Music Review: JONI 75: A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION LIVE (Various Artists at the Chandler in Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on November 7, 2018

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


A blindingly colossal line-up of some of music’s greatest stars offered their interpretation of Joni Mitchell songs last night in Los Angeles. With names including James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Seal, Chaka Khan, and Joni’s fellow Canadians Diana Krall and Rufus Wainwright, the excitement was palpable from the sold-out crowd — a sea of mostly middle-aged and older white folk, the original generation that Joni’s repertoire defined. During the concert, birthday greetings came via video from Elton John and Peter Gabriel, who presciently stated about Joni’s complex lyrics and melodies, “I pity the people who have to sing them tonight.”

While we fastened our seat belts for this promising event, what we got was a bumpy ride from brilliant to mostly blotchy, magical to mostly meh, touching to mostly trite, and inspired to mostly ill-advised and/or ill-prepared. (Given that this was election night, polarization was definitely in the air.) Even looking at the show from both sides now, it seemed that patrons (who were spending a LOT on tickets) seemed happy to bask in waves of nostalgia, with a true appreciation of Mitchell’s multifaceted genius. But rarely did the entertainers touch our hearts, which left me a little bit blue.

I thought we — and Joni — deserved a better show, which would have benefited greatly from more acoustical accompaniment and less rock-show amplification: that alone certainly would have helped a slew of sound gaffes, lost lyrics, and silent breaks in between the mini-sets  — but then again, so would reminding some of these big guns that slurring and yowling isn’t the same thing as emoting. (And it’s tough to be emotional when you’re dependent on a downstage prompter to remember lyrics, as I noticed three performers doing — this is how you honor one of, if not the, greatest female contributor to pop music?)

And whose bright idea was it to allow the audience to take pictures and film the concert (without flash, natch)? It only heightened the sense of disconnect as viewers incessantly lifted up their phones (which many couldn’t operate, shining light onto the crowd). It’s telling that when a performer had that rare connection to the audience, the phones came down. Otherwise, I was shocked at the disruptive, uncaring behavior from so many so-called fans. In the words of Mitchell herself while berating an audience for being unruly at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970: “I think that you’re acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect!”

Ironically, one of the best acts was the only non-Joni song of the night. Graham Nash, whose voice is holding up far better than some of his other contemporaries on hand, sat at the piano offering an acoustic version of “Our House.” This love song he wrote for Joni when they were dating in their early 20s sent a collective shiver through the house. At Nash’s request, thousands of people gently sang along for the chorus.

Also getting respect was Diana Krall, who overcame her so-so vocals and derivative keyboard (sorry, her fame eludes me) by clearly examining the incisive lyrics of “For the Roses,” which explores the frustration and sadness of being a celebrity. Returning after intermission (as some other acts did), Krall was out-of-synch with brilliant bassist Christopher Thomas, but honored Mitchell’s jazz influence with a well-thought-out “Amelia” from Hejira. (Another irony: my least favorite artist won my respect. I ain’t no tourist.)

The act that represented how this tribute was both embarrassing and heartening arrived when alt-folk singer Brandi Carlile, who possessed the most crystalline Mitchell-like voice on stage, was paired with Kris Kristofferson, who looks awesome for 82. The mismatched pair were given “A Case of You,” a song that should have been interpreted by one of them, not both. She’s urgent, youthful, propulsive and earthy. He’s magnetic, delightful, mumbling, hoary and seemingly stoned. But she sang directly to him as if she was his attending nurse. Weird.

After that, Carlile showed off her forceful pipes and ease with tonal switches in a song that should be our National Anthem in these blaming times: “Down to You.” The extraordinary house band, co-music directed by drummer Brian Blade and pianist Jon Cowherd, honored the original Grammy-winning arrangement complete with that haunting clarinet solo played by Bob Sheppard.

Chaka Khan truly energized the room with “Help Me” (unaided by the low-miked back-up vocals of Wainwright and Seal), later joining the earth-mother, rich voice of La Marisoul. Both were accompanied by Los Lobos on “Dreamland” (which Khan sang with Joni on the album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter). Khan inexplicably walked off-stage, after which the group gave a Latin tinge (complete with percussive jawbone) to Night Ride Home‘s “Nothing Can Be Done.” Even here, it all felt sorta slapdash to the point that when Khan returned later, all I wrote in my notes was “ZZZZzzzzzz.”

Both Glen Hansard (The Hissing Of Summer Lawns‘ “The Boho Dance”) and James Taylor (“River” and “Woodstock”) totally rethought the melodies in a fascinating way, but failed to make the songs magical. A grey-bearded Rufus Wainwright did a sweet, introspective “Blue” but came back with a forced “All I Want.” I thought it odd that he remained on stage with Harris and Hansard on one of the set’s couches, but everyone else departed. Why else was the stage homily dressed for friends to sit among north woods rusticity, complete with large, funky chandeliers hanging over barrels, oars, large snowshoes, and other outdoor gear like the lobby of the Country Bear Jamboree?

For Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live, Mitchell, who was pro-feminist before it became de rigueur, offered proposals and endorsements from her vast catalog (she has released 19 studio albums) to producer Danny Kapilian, a longtime pal. This probably explains why we heard many songs that weren’t just “hits,” but the blah factor ran high regardless with Norah Jones’s “Court and Spark,” Hansard’s “Coyote,” and Seal’s “A Strange Boy” (although he did offer a dramatic but sincere “Both Sides Now”). Ms. Harris slurred and glanced at the prompter and didn’t play guitar for “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” (“The chords,” she said with a laugh, “are too hard for me.”) What the..? Then why did you..? Oh, never mind.

It’s proof again that hardly anyone does Joni better than Joni. As with Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre, the songs must be performed like mini-stories by great actors who can interpret the dense lyrics.

Her magnificent artwork was projected upstage powerpoint-fashion alongside astounding photos of Joni by Henry Diltz, Nurit Wilde, and the amazing Norman Seeff, whose retrospective of over 40 years of photos, Joni: The Joni Mitchell Sessions, is being released in hardback by the rock-and-roll photographer.

The tribute coincided with the singer-songwriter’s 75th birthday, which is actually today, Nov. 7, when the second of two concerts will be followed by a gala dinner benefiting The Music Center, the non-profit performing arts organization that is home to the LA Opera and LA Philharmonic. I saw L.A. resident Mitchell at Seal’s spectacular Standards concert at the Hollywood Bowl this summer; she is recovering from a 2015 brain aneurysm and will be in attendance on her actual birthday to receive The Music Center’s Excellence in the Performing Arts Award.

As the cast assembled for the erratic finale, a practically improvised “Big Yellow Taxi,” another irony came to mind: Surrounding the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown L.A., it’s the parking lots that are being paved over to build the unaffordable paradise of high-rise retail and living complexes. Talk about “Help Me”…

photos by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live
The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on November 7, 2018
for tickets, call 213.972.0711 or visit The Music Center

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nancy February 8, 2019 at 5:20 am

I was fortunate to witness the Joni 75 celebration last night when it was screened in Coconut Creek, Florida. From beginning to end I cried and sang and admired all the talent that performed numerous hits that Joni made famous. The highlight for me was Graham Nash singing “Our House,” a song he wrote for Joni.

I thought Alison Krauss nailed it and really did a great job. As much as I LOVE Chaka Khan, I didn’t like her intruding on the Los Lobos set and thought that wasn’t necessary. At one point I thought Kris Kristofferson was blind… I don’t know if he is — and I doubt he is — but the duet with Brandi Carlile wasn’t that great.

Still, if you missed this, you missed several decades of beautiful music and a celebration ending with Joni blowing out a candle on her birthday cake that was presented to her. I was glad I got to see it!


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