Television/Music Review: Next At the Kennedy Center — A Joni Mitchell Songbook, on PBS

By | November 13, 2022

By Daniel Gewertz

I put Joni Mitchell on a brief checklist of essentially the most notable pop music artists of the 60s and early 70s. Longevity of excellence is not the purpose right here, simply most incandescence.

Subsequent On the Kennedy Middle: A Joni Mitchell Songbook, on PBS, premieres Friday, November 18, 9-10 p.m.

Joni Mitchell on the 2022 Newport Folks Competition. Picture: Paul Robicheau.

Here is the idea: the songs of Joni Mitchell reimagined by the 100-piece Nationwide Symphony Orchestra. For a Joni fan like me, the thought is not fairly scary, precisely: extra bored. Intimacy is the primary possible sufferer of such an official and radical challenge; Mitchell’s advanced private imaginative and prescient can also be in jeopardy. So, to my fellow Joni worshipers, let or not it’s stated immediately, “No worries.”

A group of songs by Joni Mitchell — premiering on PBS on November 18 as a part of the Then to the Kennedy Middle sequence — normally does not sacrifice intimacy for grandeur. It is an excellent greater orchestra than Mitchell herself used to document those self same songs on the flip of the twenty first century. With this Washington, DC establishment — finest recognized for its ceremonial state applications equivalent to “A Capital 4th” — class is predicted. This one-hour, eight-song program goes manner past expectations. A few of the interpretations are significantly better than others, however general the Nationwide achieves a kinship with Mitchell’s very private work; a few of the outcomes are nearly magical. Credit score goes to arranger-bandleader Vince Mendoza, and the even handed manner he interprets Mitchell’s fusion of conflicting feelings. (Mendoza organized his 2000 orchestral CD, Each side nowand received a Grammy for the title observe.

The singers, acceptable to the fabric, come from numerous fields. They usually vary from well-known to little-known. It is no shock that soprano megastar Renée Fleming is sublimely evocative, digging deep into “The Circle Recreation.” However, alternatively, Jimmie Herrod seems to be a revelation. Finest generally known as America’s Present Finalist of the Final Yr To have expertise A TV present, Herrod — who has a bachelor’s diploma in jazz research — additionally contains a classical schooling and background in musical theater. His model of “A Case of You” is maybe the spotlight of the sequence: he often drifts with brooding ease, however his studying is all the time underpinned by an internal pressure, an oceanic undercurrent. Even the road “Go to him however put together to bleed” is delivered subtly: with an air of inevitability greater than melodramatic.

(Herrod’s model of “Hejira” additionally tries for intense drama, however is much less touching.)

Nothing exhibits Mitchell’s career-long vary higher than Lalah Hathaway’s two picks. The R&B singer navigates the vituperative fury of “Intercourse Kills” in addition to the open-hearted self-questioning of “Each Sides Now” with equal emotion. She really wrests new which means from the boyish knowledge of that final track: extra so than Mitchell’s unique hit or Judy Collins’ melodious 1968 hit. Whereas Collins appeared enamored with lavish romantic poetry, Hathaway performs the a part of a affected person explainer. Because the lyrics darken, the singer is neither a delighted idiot nor a untimely cynic, however an sincere and self-critical narrator. In these lovely moments of interpretation, one can think about Mendoza’s guiding hand, sculpting the studying strains, very like the contact of a theater director. Even because the 100 musicians climax, Hathaway halts his climb up the emotional ladder and mutters the final line with somber reflection: “I actually do not know love in any respect.” (In a private twist within the final verse, she alters the phrase “life” to “love.”) As drummer Brian Blade stated of Mitchell’s personal orchestral model in 2000, “She does not take into consideration harmonics. She thinks concerning the unfolding story. The identical could be stated of Hathaway.

The vary of performers is gratifying. It honors the thought of ​​Mitchell being a folk-pop genius with beneficiant undercurrents of jazz and avant-garde in his mid-to-late profession. There’s expressive Latin singer/guitarist Raul Midón on the upbeat “Be Cool” and the nightmarish “Intercourse Kills.” Two songs function Boston’s Aoife O’Donovan, the folks singer, previously of the band Crooked Nonetheless. On “River”, (the one uncollected track on Mitchell’s two orchestral albums), his voice grew to become wider however extra reflective than in his earlier work. With O’Donovan’s coronary heart on full show, the orchestra appears like one solitary instrument. This is among the three highlights of the hour. When she sings “I made my child cry”, it’s totally expressive, completely intimate.

The third absolute gem of the hour is “The Circle Recreation” by Renée Fleming. Certainly one of Mitchell’s well-known early songs, Fleming mentions that it was written for fellow Canadian Neil Younger, to assuage Younger’s anger at rising outdated. (He was 20!) With Fleming’s interpretive depth and restrained energy – and the orchestra pushing the track nicely past its easy people association – ​​one can sense what younger Mitchell as soon as had in frequent. with musical theatre.

Like Dylan, Mitchell was first recognized by others singing her songs, particularly Tom Rush, Dave Von Ronk, George Hamilton IV, her Canadian heroine, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and later, Judy Collins. Not like Dylan, she did not have a robust supervisor or main document firm to push her materials, simply her folksy (and barely older) colleagues who had her again. Commercially talking, “Each Sides Now” was his “Blowin’ Within the Wind”. But regardless of the early surge of songs recorded by others, as his fame grew and his materials grew to become more and more private, the songs proved much less straightforward to carry out.

Joni Mitchell – her sequence of poorly recorded albums from 1968 Songs to a Seagull to 1976 Hegira can solely be in comparison with Dylan’s astonishing frenzy from 1962 (Freewheel) to 1967 (John Wesley Harding).

The very best of the transient “speaking heads” segments belongs to Graham Nash. He talks eloquently about his former girlfriend’s overwhelming abilities, then shyly admits that some strains in “River” can solely be about him.

I am not a fan of the present’s rendition of “Woodstock” and thought it wasn’t the only option to kick off the present. It is arduous to tug off, the unique being so personally fascinated by the glad social hopes of an rising world, a paradise that, after all, by no means noticed the sunshine of day. Mitchell’s dreamy majesty is changed by O’Donovan’s extra pressing studying. Is it a dated track at this level? One may think about a model that reveres the outdated dream, but additionally acknowledges the ensuing lack of innocence. This extra insistent model merely lacks the magic.

I put Mitchell on a brief checklist of essentially the most notable pop music artists of the 60s and early 70s. Longevity of excellence is not the purpose right here, simply most incandescence. My checklist of luminaries consists of Dylan, Hendrix, possibly Lennon and Sly Stone. For pure number of sonic brilliance, Laura Nyro all the time involves thoughts. Mitchell resides close to the highest of this checklist. The Badly Recorded Album Sequence of 1968 Songs to a Seagull to 1976 Hegira can solely be in comparison with Dylan’s astonishing frenzy from 1962 (Freewheel) to 1967 (John Wesley Harding).

On the Kennedy Middle present, solely “Intercourse Kills” and “Be Cool” post-1976. Robert Glasper, the pianist/producer, touts Mitchell’s wonderful adjustments over time, transformations in voice, gender and musical intuition. “Early Joni Mitchell and later Joni Mitchell sound like two completely totally different folks,” he stated, his voice expressing his astonishment. “They’re two geniuses.” But additionally it is true that had it not been for Mitchell’s first eight years as a recording artist, the remaining wouldn’t have been extensively recognized. Of the Kennedy Middle present’s eight songs, just one, “Intercourse Kills,” may very well be referred to as edgy. Hathaway and Midón correspond to the excessive dramatic omen of the orchestra.

As Hathaway and the orchestra conclude this system with “Each Sides Now” and Hathaway sings the ironic and uplifting phrases, “Do not betray your self”, it’s superbly evident that the orchestra has gave themselves to the journey. They’ve turn into true guardians of the Joni flame.


For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and movie for the Boston Herald, amongst different periodicals. Extra lately, he has printed private essays, taught memoir writing and took part within the native storytelling scene. Within the Nineteen Seventies, at Boston College, he was finest recognized for his impersonation of Elvis Presley.