Stars Celebrate Joni Mitchell at 75


Joni Mitchell was running late.

It’s hard to be anywhere in Los Angeles at 6:30 p.m., unless you leave by 4:30. But the 3,100 people who did have two hours to get themselves to The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to celebrate the songwriter’s 75th birthday on Nov. 7 were sympathetic. They occupied their time by vaping on the veranda, singing “Happy Birthday” and applauding anytime somebody appeared toward the front of the stage. Forty-five minutes after curtain, the guest of honor arrived and a laser-focused reverie overtook the venue.

Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm three years ago and mostly has been wheelchair-bound since. She no longer can play and only has made a few public appearances in the past few years. Her fragile condition and inability to speak made the evening overwhelmingly poignant. It was a night of her words and experiences, delivered through surrogates, a mix of contemporaries in their own states of self-repair, as well as a half-dozen younger artists who flew across the country to pay homage to an unmatched songwriter.

Though born in Canada, Mitchell long has been associated with L.A., moving to the city more than 50 years ago. Her songs are immediately identifiable, raw tales of churning emotions and unorthodox chordal movement. In a pre-recorded message from Peter Gabriel, he declared “I pity the poor bastards that are going to have to sing them tonight.”

Thankfully, the evening was full of ringers.

Norah Jones started off the evening with a gentle rendition of “Court & Spark” before vocalist Glen Hansard came out swinging with “Coyote,” a stomping performance that slowly was consumed by an eerie swell of canine-like howls from violinist Scarlet Rivera and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

Diana Krall and Chaka Khan took Mitchell’s work in opposite directions, as the former delivered “For The Roses” with jarring strikes to the keyboard. Khan engaged the full band—co-led by pianist Jon Cowherd and drummer Brian Blade—in a hollering shout, all big hair and glittering sparkles. Los Lobos brought a taste of old California with help from La Marisoul on “Dreamland,” an uptempo dance-friendly tune soaked in vibrant percussion.

Emmylou Harris and James Taylor, Mitchell’s contemporaries, both took centerstage with their guitars. Harris, accompanied by the full band, performed “Cool Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” grounded by guitarist Greg Leisz’s low-down riffing. Taylor sat on a stool and sang “River,” putting his own inimitable touch on one of Mitchell’s more heralded tunes.

Seal closed the set with a sensitive “Both Sides Now,” eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd that seemed more related to the need to stretch than the performance.

Only a single song not penned by Mitchell was performed during the evening, and after the intermission, Graham Nash approached the piano, alone. The day before had been the midterm elections.

“I’m so pleased to have our house back,” he joked to rousing applause before playing his song, “Our House,” an idyllic paean to domestic bliss inspired by his romantic relationship with Mitchell 50 years ago. Some of Nash’s best songs were the result of Mitchell breaking his heart, and to witness Nash delivering the song to her was sweetly devastating.

It also was the only song Nash performed that night.

Rufus Wainwright returned for the second set with a costume change, performing a tango-tinged take on “All I Want.” It was a joyous performance punctuated by warm brass from Akinmusire and saxophonist Bob Sheppard. Jones, Krall and Hansard returned for a tune apiece, as well, before another gut-punch was delivered.

Kris Kristofferson, a healthy looking 82, was led out by songwriter Brandi Carlile. He was slow to move and didn’t use the guitar slung over his shoulder during the duet of “A Case Of You.” He chuckled and talked through the lyrics, but hung on for the tune in a sweet counterbalance to Carlile’s nearly note-perfect Mitchell inflection.

Following the ensemble finale of “Big Yellow Taxi,” Mitchell was assisted onto to the stage. In a big hat and large red jacket, she waved to the crowd, but didn’t speak. The audience serenaded her with “Happy Birthday” and a standing ovation.

The evening was undoubtedly a celebration, but was delivered with a strong sense of survival. The deterioration of body and mind were lit up and centerstage, but so was the immortal magic of creativity and the enduring legacy of popular song. Despite what Mitchell preached, it doesn’t have to be gone for us to appreciate what we’ve got. DB

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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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