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Review: Joni Mitchell just turned 75. This tribute concert was not a worthy gift

Review: Joni Mitchell just turned 75. This tribute concert was not a worthy gift
Brandi Carlile and Kris Kristofferson perform during Tuesday's "Joni 75" tribute concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Timothy Norris / The Music Center)

Maybe they just should have gotten her a cake.

On Tuesday night, hours before her 75th birthday, Joni Mitchell was celebrated by an all-star cast of admiring musicians at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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Which certainly sounds like a good idea.

Mitchell is one of pop music’s most widely adored talents; Los Angeles is the town she’s called home for something like half a century.

What’s more, the show — with acts including James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Norah Jones, Rufus Wainwright and Kris Kristofferson — was designed with philanthropy in mind.

On Wednesday, “Joni 75,” as it’s called, is due to play again, followed by a $2,500-a-plate dinner to raise money for the Music Center’s educational initiatives. (“Bohemian chic” is the recommended attire.)

But if all that made you walk in prepared to love this thing, the shallow and under-rehearsed production felt like an exercise in disillusionment.

I’ve looked at “Joni 75” from both sides now, and I’m here to tell you it was no gift.

Pop fans know that most tributes are terrible, of course. I still shudder at the memory of a painfully dull salute to Fleetwood Mac before this year’s Grammy Awards.

But Mitchell is special.

Her songs, with their dreamy but piercing lyrics and their idiosyncratic melodies, inspire the kind of personal connection that can lead artists to go beyond mere imitation (as when Prince remade “A Case of You” as a churchy soul ballad on a 2002 album).

Chaka Khan performs.
Chaka Khan performs. (Timothy Norris / The Music Center)

And her creative commitment — the doggedness with which she pursued her vision before she more or less retired a few years ago — has been a lesson to generations of musicians.

Those virtues deserved to be honored here.

Instead, Tuesday’s concert was somehow both stiff and sloppy, with no discernible arc or structure to what little it had to say about Mitchell’s work.

People simply got up and sang — some well, some less so — then shuffled off to make room for somebody else; plenty of them, including Seal and Emmylou Harris, made such obvious use of a prompter at the lip of the stage that you wondered how much they cared about this music in the first place.

Indeed, some of the decisions regarding who sang what were downright baffling.

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When you have a voice as pure as Brandi Carlile’s, which “Joni 75” did, why on earth would you pair her with the grizzled Kristofferson for “A Case of You”?

To be clear, I love Kris Kristofferson! I’d have been happy to see him mumble his way through that tune by himself at his own unique pace.

But the two of them together made zero sense; each was holding the other back from realizing a vivid interpretation.

Other misfires included Jones’ dreary “Court and Spark,” Seal’s comically dramatic “Both Sides Now” and Wainwright’s take on the airy “All I Want,” which he belted as though he were trying out for the Rock’s part in a sequel to “Moana.”

The show ended with an all-hands rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi."
The show ended with an all-hands rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi." (Timothy Norris / The Music Center)

With portraits flashing on a large video screen and occasional audio excerpts from old interviews, the whole night had a weird postmortem vibe too, as though we’d gathered to eulogize Mitchell — an especially unwelcome feeling given the serious health troubles she’s experienced lately.

High points? Sure, there were a handful.

The house band, led by Mitchell’s frequent collaborator Brian Blade on drums, was consistently terrific: nimble but muscular, earthy yet precise.

To hear the interplay between trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and Greg Leisz on pedal steel in “The Magdalene Laundries” was to find the true value in a performance ostensibly built around Harris’ mannered vocals.

Khan brought some much-needed energy to “Help Me,” while Diana Krall in “Amelia” sounded like one of the few acts who’d done some deep thinking about Mitchell and her music. Her rendition was haunting and private, as was Taylor’s take on “River,” for which he’d radically reworked the melody.

And I suppose you had to smile at Graham Nash sitting down behind a piano and plinking out “Our House,” his decades-old sketch of the domestic bliss he and Mitchell briefly shared.

But those stray moments of intelligence or tenderness were outweighed by slapdash performances like the show’s all-hands finale on “Big Yellow Taxi,” which played like nobody had been told it was happening until it did.

Gathered haphazardly under that screen — now showing images of Mitchell in a bikini for some reason — the evening’s admirers jostled for space as they sang familiar words about putting trees in a tree museum.

That Mitchell, she was wise long before she was old.

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