Joni Mitchell sang the blues.
At a Luminato Festival event on Tuesday, the first of a pair of tribute concerts in Mitchell's honour at Massey Hall in Toronto, the long-retired icon performed surprisingly and more willingly than would have been imagined. She was only supposed to recite a new poem, set to music. Which she did – This Rain, This Rain was directly inspired by the writings of painter Emily Carr – but not before hinting that something else would follow. "I wasn't sure if I could sing tonight," she said. "I'm still not sure, but I'm going to try."
On Sunday, during an onstage Luminato interview at the Isabel Bader Theatre, the Saskatchewan-raised warbler-supreme had spoke of a time when her voice was up to octave-related challenges. "I could sing any note I could think," recalled Mitchell, whose musical thoughts were often ambitious. "It was fun," she continued, with no lament. "It was effortless."
Onstage at Massey, where she followed performances of her material by a cast of singers (Glen Hansard, Liam Titcomb, Rufus Wainwright, Lizz Wright, Kathleen Edwards and Cold Specks's Al Spx), Mitchell's range was revealed as greatly reduced. She blames the vocal decline on Morgellons syndrome, not age or chain-smoking. Whatever the cause, there was grace to the way she managed within her lower, limited register, both on 1975's Don't Interrupt the Sorrow (which she introduced as "the closest I ever came to being a feminist") and on Furry Sings the Blues, a character study of the one-legged bluesman Furry Lewis from 1976's Hejira LP.
Furry Sings the Blues is Mitchell at her pop-jazzy poetic best. "Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps in the grey decay" captures the degeneration of Memphis's Beale Street in the 1970s. There are lines about the deteriorating Lewis – "It's mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel, but there was one song he played I could really feel" – and there is a comment on the relationship between younger, privileged audiences with older music and its players: "W.C. Handy, I'm rich and I'm fey, and I'm not familiar with what you played/ but I get such a strong impressions of your heyday."
At Massey, either when Wainwright sang A Case of You or when Mitchell offered three songs herself (including the closer Woodstock, with the guest artists surrounding her), the impressions of Mitchell's halcyon days were striking and unmistakable, as were her cheekbones, humour and luminosity.
Arrangements by jazz drummer Brian Blade and pianist Jon Cowherd were mostly faithful to the originals, which is to say nimble or subdued at turns. Mitchell's canon is unusual in that the songs are both idiosyncratic and eminently coverable. While Wright's rich alto carried Shades of Scarlet Conquering traditionally and elegantly, Spx's version of Black Crow was a spooky reimagination. Whether confessional, character-driven or topical, the material is transferable, thus ensuring the legacy of Mitchell, that Nietzsche-spouting lady with a head full of quandary.
Even though the star attraction does not turn 70 until November, the very end of the concert included the crowd's impromptu offering of Happy Birthday. Holding the shoes she had kicked off earlier, Mitchell took a final bow, saying that it had been "so much fun."
Yes, it had been. Mitchell, who danced atop a paradise paved over and who found comfort in the melancholy, was something above entertainment, though she was (and still is) very entertaining. Fun and blues are not mutually exclusive, Furry and Joni told us so.
Joni: A Portrait in Song occurs again on June 19 (with added guests Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spalding) at Massey Hall. Info at luminatofestival.com.
The Fiddle and the Drum – Lizz Wright
Coyote – Glen Hansard
You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio– Kathleen Edwards
If – Liam Titcomb
Black Crow – Cold Specks
Big Yellow Taxi – Edwards
Shades of Scarlet Conquering – Lizz Wright
The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey – Lizz Wright
All I Want – Rufus Wainwright
A Case Of You – Rufus Wainwright
The Boho Dance – Glen Hansard
Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire – Kathleen Edwards
Slouching Toward Bethlehem – Rufus Wainwright
Carey – Glen Hansard
Jericho – Lizz Wright
Shadows And Light – Glen Hansard
Free Man in Paris – Rufus Wainwright
This Rain, This Rain – Joni Mitchell
Furry Sings the Blues – Joni Mitchell
Don't Interrupt The Sorrow – Joni Mitchell
Woodstock – Joni Mitchell and all singers