Joni Mitchell (centre) performs Woodstock with a group of tribute singers.
JONI: A PORTRAIT IN SONG - A BIRTHDAY HAPPENING LIVE at Massey Hall, Tuesday (June 18). Rating: NNNN
Joni: A Portrait In Song felt like two shows. The bulk of it was a so-so schmaltzy tribute to the Canadian icon featuring buzzy Canadian and international artists including Rufus Wainwright, Glen Hansard, Kathleen Edwards and Cold Specks.
Hansard confessed that it took him a month to learn one of Mitchell's songs, because she doesn't think in the same time signatures as the rest of us; and Wainwright sheepishly mangled a number of lyrics. But it just went to show how friggin' hard Mitchell's songs are to sing. The only performer who seemed to pull it off with consistent ease was jazz singer Lizz Wright.
The mood changed instantly when Mitchell - who will be 70 in November - came onstage, doffed her strappy shoes and began her performance. As promised, she recited her new Emily Carr-inspired poem about the rain, beat-style, backed by the evening's fantastic band (led by drummer Brian Blade and pianist Jon Cowherd). But then she surprised a packed Massey Hall by singing not one, but three songs, including Furry Sings The Blues and Woodstock. She wasn't supposed to be singing, but it must have been premeditated, as she was joined onstage for the latter by the tribute singers.
Mitchell has been sick in recent years, but she seemed to forget that - and so did the crowd, who stood up and sat down enough times to confirm that this was truly the church of Joni.
The early birthday show happens again tonight, this time with the additions of Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spalding.