Joni 75: a birthday celebration


Joni Mitchell is seventy-five years old. After suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, she’s probably lucky to have made it this far but, tragically, her condition has robbed her of the ability to perform. This birthday concert, recorded in November 2018 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA, is a celebration of her music, performed by a whole host of artists who openly acknowledge her as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in musical history.

I’ve long been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. I have only to hear the opening chords of All I Want, the first track on Blue, to be transported back in time to a grungy little bedsit in Barkingside. I’m in my twenties, I’m spending my spare time singing with a rock band and I’m beginning to take my first tentative steps towards becoming a published author. And Joni is providing the soundtrack. Heady days.

Blue is, quite simply, an astonishing album, a collection of heartrending confessional songs, chronicling the up-and-down relationship Joni had with Graham Nash in the late 60s. It was followed by a string of equally accomplished albums, her career perhaps reaching its apotheosis in 1975 with the extraordinary jazz-inflected landscapes of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, where Mitchell’s lyrics somehow transcended the idea of mere ‘songs’ and became a series of brilliantly observed short stories set to music – and all this from a young woman who openly claimed that her first love was painting; to her, music was just a ‘sideline.’ Boy, what I wouldn’t give for a sideline like that.

So, here at last is the tribute she’s long deserved – a band of highly skilled session musicians supporting a series of top flight artists all performing songs by Joni. There’s so much to enjoy here and the standard is excellent, but there are, naturally, some particular highlights: Diana Krall crooning a heartfelt Amelia, Rufus Wainwright offering a plaintive rendition of Blue and, perhaps best of all, Seal delivering an absolutely knockout version of Both Sides Now. Graham Nash makes a brief appearance too, singing Our House, the hymn to domestic bliss he wrote for Joni when they were still a couple, and which has the audience singing gleefully along.

Of course, as ever in concerts like this, I miss some of my particular favourites but, when there are so many shimmering nuggets to choose from, it’s inevitable that some absolute treasures are going to be overlooked. As the artists perform, the screen behind them features photographs from Joni’s past and selected paintings that amply demonstrate that she’s no slouch at the artwork either. There’s even a clip from her infamous appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where she berates an uppity crowd for ‘acting like tourists’ and then goes on to slay them with sheer talent.

Of course, the saddest thing here is that Joni is sitting in the audience throughout, a silent spectator, unable to contribute anything to the proceedings beyond blowing out a single candle on her birthday cake. But it’s heartening to see that the big screen at the Cameo is completely sold out tonight. Clearly, there are plenty of others who love her music every bit as much as I do.

Belated birthday greetings, Joni. And many more of them.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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