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Joni 76: A Cerebration

November 6, 2019

        OK, the name of the PBS special this blog post is about is Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration. But I didn’t see it until Canadian singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell was almost 11 months on her way to age 76.

        I’ve been a big fan of Mitchell’s for four and a half decades or so, ever since finding her fourth album, Blue, in that stash of reel-to-reel tapes, given to me by my friends, which I’ve blogged about previously. I’d probably heard her songs before — “Big Yellow Taxi” and “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” in particular, got some Top 40 airplay — but nothing that grabbed me like “A Case of You” or “Little Green.”

        I stumbled across Joni 75, a Public Broadcasting System Great Performances special, on our flight to Portland a month and a half ago. I’m not much of a movie watcher — especially when confronted with a selection like Delta offered at that point — and a program featuring the music of one of my favorite artists was a good alternative. And this week, during which Mitchell turns 76, seems like a good time to write about it.

        I didn’t know who was going to be presenting her music; Mitchell suffered a brain aneurism four years ago, and no longer performs. Good thing I hadn’t seen the PBS website’s claim that “world-renowned artists” had gathered to celebrate her 75th — many of the artists featured are indeed widely-known, but some were question marks to me.

        Emmylou Harris is another one of my favorite female performers, and Kris Kristofferson, Graham Nash and James Taylor are artists whose work in many cases I’ve enjoyed; Chaka Khan, sort of but less so. Brandi Carlile, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Los Lobos and Seal I’ve heard of enough to know they are well-regarded.

        Jones and Krall, both jazz vocalists and pianists, did two of the first four tributes — appropriately, both performing songs from Mitchell’s transition-to-jazz period. But the other two were done by artists I’d never heard of, Glen Hansard and Rufus Wainwright.

        Both of them are guys, which underlines a problem with about half of the show’s lineup. I’ve felt all along that Joni is one of those female songwriters most of whose works come from such a woman’s point of view that it’s hard for men to sing them.

       Hansard did “Coyote,” an ode to a redneck-ish dude who picks up the songwriter hitchhiking, and makes a play for her. So on the PBS show, we had a guy singing “He picks up my scent on his fingers/while he’s watching the waitress’s legs.” Hmmm.

        Wainwright — yes, he is the son of Loudon Wainwright III, he of “Dead Skunk” fame — did “Blue,” the title cut from the above-mentioned album. That’s one of Mitchell’s less-distaff songs, but Wainwright’s rendition was a bit over-the-top, his delivery almost too emotive.

        Two of the other guys performing during the special were exes of Joni’s. The first of those on stage, Graham Nash, was the only artist who during the program sang a song not written by Mitchell: “Our House,” which he wrote for her while they lived together, and recorded with Crosby, Stills and Himself.

        That was one of too many smarmy hippy anthems on that record, in my opinion. And Nash — who famously argued vehemently with the Who’s Peter Townshend 40 years ago or so about how rock could and should be used politically — made it even more dreadful by prefacing the song by saying “The House is ours again” or something like that, referring to the Democratic Party winning the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives the first of the two nights of the live show.

        Taylor, who dumped Mitchell a couple years after she Dear-Johnned Nash, performed “River,” and did it without the noodling he is sometimes wont to do. But that’s one of Joni’s more unisex songs.

        Taylor later did Mitchell’s iconic “Woodstock” — the song sounds autobiographical, but she never got to the 1969 festival. (She was quoted years later criticizing that ’60s watershed moment, and the generation that produced it.) That number included a backing vocal by Seal, a British soul/rhythm and blues artist I’d heard of, but never heard he had impressed me earlier in the show by covering Joni’s “Both Sides Now” — which can come off trite and treacly, but which he made epic.

        Another guy doing Joni songs was Kristofferson, writer of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” among a number of hits, and also a performer and actor. He was literally led onstage by Carlile, and acted like he didn’t know if he was punched or drilled.

        Thinking he was afflicted with something neuromuscular or demential, I looked it up; he is suffering from an acute case of Lyme Disease, which was originally thought to be Alzheimer’s. Carlile, who did a tribute-like version of “Down to You,” had to coach Kris through “A Case of You” — a disappointment for me, because it is one of my favorite Mitchell songs.

        Emmylou and Joni have quite different vocal (and musical) styles, so the former probably wouldn’t do some of the latter’s songs. But it would have been interesting to hear Harris try some of Mitchell’s better-known tunes, rather than the two that were unfamiliar to me.

        Khan, who sang backing vocals on one of Mitchell’s albums years ago, did a nice job on “Help Me” from Court and Spark. She also paid a spoken-word tribute to Joni — as did Peter Gabriel (who Joni worked with at one point) in a videotaped cameo. But the ever-quirky Gabriel’s message included sympathy for “the poor bastards” who were going to try to sing her songs.

        Khan also did backing vocals for Los Lobos and La Mirasoul, on one of Mitchell’s jazz-period extended pieces, “Dreamland.” That, along with Seal’s solo, were the performances that most impressed me from the special.

        All things considered, Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration is, if uneven at times, entertaining and interesting, and I would recommend it to those who like Mitchell’s work. What it most impressed on me, though, was that I need to add to my too-meager collection of Joni’s albums: Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Court and Spark and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.

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