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'Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration' is a Tribute That's Long Overdue
March 2, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 3 comments

Nobody has ever sung songs, or written them, quite like Joni Mitchell. Some of her friends and admirers got together in Los Angeles recently to say that right out loud, and PBS filmed the results.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration starts airing Saturday. (Check local listings).

Mitchell herself, who has had serious health challenges lately, doesn’t perform or speak. She sits in the audience, wearing bright red and looking quite pleased at the parade of performers who do.

She has one rather lovely interactive moment that serves to end the show.

The production feels much like the ABC special for Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday in 1995, with some performers that you would expect from a long association with the star, and others who are there to pay musical homage.

In Mitchell’s case, the former group includes James Taylor, who sings the melancholy Christmas song “River” in an appropriately pensive tone and later returns to sing “Woodstock” with Seal providing backup vocals.

Seal gets one of Mitchell’s best-known tunes, “Both Sides Now.” Like Taylor, he chooses a slow, pensive tone, starting nearly acapella and treating several lines almost as opera.

Those used to the most popular version of the song, the Judy Collins hit, will find this more somber. That seems fitting, since the song is built on reflections of life, and anyone is likely to have more of those in his or her 70s than in their 20s, which was Mitchell’s age when she wrote it.

Still, the prize for the most downbeat song of the night – and in this case, that’s not criticism – goes to Emmylou Harris for singing “The Magdalene Laundries,” a haunting tune about real-life women imprisoned in a convent for the sin of being “bad girls.”

Not too many writers would have found song material there. That Mitchell did reflects her impressive sensibility and her singular legacy.

Wisely, the singers here do not try to emulate Mitchell’s equally singular vocal style, though of course they are often guided by her quirky rhythms.

That includes Los Lobos’ performance of “Nothing Can Be Done,” which proves that not every song Mitchell wrote was moody.

The same can be said for Glen Hansard’s rendition of “Coyote,” which opens the show, and for the duet between Brandi Carlile and Kris Kristofferson on “A Case of You.”

Mitchell’s old friend Graham Nash plays “Our House,” the one song not written by Mitchell, but about her. Nash explains that he wrote it with Mitchell in mind “when I was 27 and Joni was 26.”

Rufus Wainwright sings two numbers, “Blue” and “All I Want,” while Diana Krall spins “For the Roses” out into an extended jazz piano riff.

As is traditional in these sorts of tributes, everyone piles on stage at the end, in this instance to sing another of Mitchell’s best-known songs, “Big Yellow Taxi.”

It’s a fast-paced show, without a lot of talking beyond expressions of affection, and it showcases a remarkably literate body of work.

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Sophia P.
Joni, Joni, Joni. She has the talent of three great artists. Why say It’s Overdue! If Joni was a man she would’ve had been honored, praised and revered more, as much as - who was it . . . what’s his name . . Sinatra, that dude.
Mar 14, 2019   |  Reply
There is a very long list of musicians of all genders who have, for various reasons, never received the attention they deserve, but Joni isn't one of them. She has been the recipient of more honor, praise and reverence than most musicians could ever dream of. How many people ever get a televised tribute concert? She's had at least two. I knew her first as a songwriter back in the 60's and I've been a fan ever since and I have every album of new material she's ever released. I don't think turning her into a faux victim actually does much to enhance her reputation and I don't get why people seem so intent on doing it. She's great and I really don't hear many people denying that.
Mar 16, 2019
I don't quite get the defensiveness in the headline. It sounds as though up until now Joni has gone unrecognized and unhonored and that just isn't the case. Yes, she was shamefully overlooked by the Grammys for years, but she shares that honor with a lot of other great musicians. However, she's never lacked for critical attention and this isn't even the first television tribute concert. There was another one some years ago which you can find on youtube:
Mar 8, 2019   |  Reply
Keith H
I know that it would be impossible to perform everything in Mitchell's catalogue but I'd love to hear someone take on "Cherokee Louise."
Mar 7, 2019   |  Reply
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