To singer Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell is “the most revolutionary songwriter alive.”
To Rufus Wainwright, she’s the “ultimate communicator of inner feelings,” while jazz keyboardist Diana Krall has special awe for her skills as a piano player. “On top of all of her other talents, the musicianship in her songs is extraordinary,” she says.
Small wonder these artists, and more, leapt at the chance to tackle Mitchell’s songs at two all-star tribute concerts to her, held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. last November 6 and 7, the latter show timed with the legend’s 75th birthday. The concerts, which also featured Norah Jones, James Taylor, Seal, Graham Nash, and more, have now spawned a movie (in theaters Feb. 7) and an album (out March 8), both titled Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration.
The set list from the shows plucks songs from four decades of Mitchell’s music, mingling well-known pieces (“Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Blue”) with deep cuts (“The Boho Dance,” “The Magdalene Laundries,” “A Strange Boy”). The movie version shows Mitchell herself in the audience at the second night’s set, resplendent in red and beaming, an encouraging sign given the fact that nearly four years ago she suffered a brain aneurysm, an often-fatal event. Since that time, Mitchell has been progressing slowly, but with steady fortitude, friends say.
The film also includes background projections from the show, the most telling of which captures a scene at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival where a hurt and angry Mitchell castigated an unruly crowd for “acting like tourists,” and for being disrespectful to the performers.
Such forthright speech mirrors a history of bracing candor in Mitchell’s lyrics. Her most accusatory words presage today’s “call out culture” by some five decades. Ex-lovers have often come in for heavy scrutiny in her lyrics, starting with first husband, Chuck Mitchell, who, in the 1967 song “I Had a King,” she painted as a contemptuous simpleton, through Jackson Browne, who, in the ‘90s ballad, “You Are Not to Blame,” she excoriated him over allegations that he assaulted his then-girlfriend Darryl Hannah. “All of her life, she has been fearless in calling out people,” says Carlile, who, in the show, performs “Down to You” and “A Case of You” (the latter in tandem with Kris Kristofferson).
Carlile, who is up for six Grammys this week including Album and Song of the Year, had a rather dramatic, and late-arriving, conversion to Mitchell’s music. “The first time I heard her song ‘All I Want,” the lyric which reads ‘I want to renew you/I want to shampoo you,’ really bothered me,” she says. “It just felt so submissive, and the voice she sang it in seemed frail and feminine to me. I was more drawn to women with loud voices and tough stances, like Joan Jett or Tanya Tucker.”
Carlile’s incentive to listen deeper came from a woman she was dating at the time, a Joni fundamentalist whom she later married. “She actually said to me, ‘I don’t think we can continue to see each other if you don’t understand Blue and Court and Spark,” Carlile says. “So, I took a deep dive into Blue and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized that ‘Little Green’ (which is about Mitchell giving up her daughter at birth) is the toughest song that’s ever been written about anything.”
Carlile says her immersion into Mitchell’s world “didn’t just change me musically, it changed me fundamentally. It made me address my internalized sexism and changed what I thought ‘tough’ meant and what I thought ‘feminine’ meant. Joni is a true bad ass.”
For Rufus Wainwright, who performs “Blue” and “All I Want” in the show, falling for Joni has been something of a family affair. His late mother, Kate McGarrigle, was a rival singer on the Canadian folk scene when Mitchell was coming up. And five years ago, his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, organized a tribute show for the icon’s 70th birthday in Toronto at the Luminato Festival, for which he is creative director. (Weisbrodt was also the musical director for the 75th birthday concert.) “When some people come in contact with her music, it totally alters their life,” Wainwright says. “That happened to my husband.”
Wainwright’s own passion was stoked by Mitchell’s unparalleled verbal skills. “I love her melodies but her words are what really struck me,” he says. “To me, lyrics are the key to great songs.”
Graham Nash, who was in a romantic relationship with Mitchell in the late ‘60s, is the only participant in the tribute who performed a song about her rather than by her — namely “Our House,” his ode to the domestic bliss they shared, which he recorded in 1970 with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. Singing any of Mitchell’s songs, he says, would have been “too emotional for me” — especially one she wrote about him during their relationship, “Willie.” “I was totally in love with Joni Mitchell,” Nash says. “So, of course, it would be emotional. We spent a couple of years together and I was on cloud nine. The end of our romance left a little to be desired, but I loved Joan so.”
Regardless, the two stayed friends, a relationship Mitchell has retained with most of her ex-lovers (Jackson Browne is a notable exception). She has done so despite the harsh nature of some of the songs she has written about them. In “Woman of Heart and Mind” she disparaged James Taylor’s talents, while in “Cold Blue Steel,” she wrote about his heroin addiction (if empathically). In “Coyote,” she amusingly chronicled the womanizing of playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she had a mid-’70s fling. Nash says one reason the men have been so forgiving is because “you can’t argue with the truth. And the truth is often not very flattering,” he says. “Most people would be thrilled to even be mentioned, or know that Joni’s music is about them.”
That’s especially true, given her songs’ erudition. Nash has compared her work to Shakespeare. “I believe she will be seen in that light,” he says.
Krall also likens Mitchell’s songs to drama. “They’re like plays you can perform over and over and they’ll be different each night,” she says. “There are so many ways to interpret them.”
Krall proved that point in the show by performing “Amelia” and “For the Roses” in creative arrangements on the piano, rather than on the guitar, as they were originally delivered. In his contribution to the concert, Wainwright, backed by a full band, brought out the jazz possibilities in “All I Want,” while Los Lobos and guest singer La Marisoul delivered “Dreamland” as a boisterous Latin show-stopper.
Many of the artists involved maintain a deep friendship with Mitchell. Old, and new, friends who’ve seen her lately say she is improving dramatically. “She’s laughing it off, saying ‘I’ve overcome worse than this,’” Carlile reports.
Nash revealed that the stroke has caused Mitchell — who has smoked multiple packs of cigarettes every day since age nine — to lose the memory of needing nicotine. “It’s astonishing, and great, that she has forgotten that she smoked!,” he says.
Better, Nash says that when he asked her recently if she had any ideas for new songs or paintings, “she looked at me and said, ‘not yet.’ That three-letter word — yet — speaks volumes,” he says. “Because you know damn well that she’s looking and experiencing 360 degrees. I do have a feeling that, when her faculties come back, she will have a lot of experience to create from.”
For a list of theaters playing Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration head here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of Grammys Brandi Carlile is nominated for this year, and misspelled her last name.