The summer after I graduated from high school, I spent a week with my friend Kora Radella — now a dance professor at Kenyon College and co-founder/choreographer of Boomerang Dance — at her mom’s home in Urbana, Illinois. That was where I first listened to a Joni Mitchell album in its entirety. When I hear any of the songs from Clouds, I’m immediately transported to that memorable week in Urbana — the week that started my long relationship with Mitchell’s beautiful and demanding art.
I don’t listen to Joni Mitchell as much as I once did, and I pull different things from the music as I get older, but she’s an artist that I’ll carry with me to the end. (By the way, lots of readers of this site don’t know that it’s named for Joni Mitchell’s album The Hissing of Summer Lawns.)
As a devoted Joni Mitchell follower, I was both excited and worried when I heard that Jenny Woodruff would be performing a Joni tribute as part of the Lucas Theatre’s wildly successful summer cabaret series. I’ve known Jenny since she took over as education director of the Savannah Music Festival, where she has done some impressive work, but I had never heard her sing. And it’s not like covering Mitchell is easy or commonplace …
Still, I reserved a high top table and invited three close friends to join me for Jenny’s show, titled simply “Both Sides Now”.
First up was “Coyote” off the 1976 album Hejira, a song with some especially demanding phrasings, and I knew right away that we were going to have a great night. Woodruff has a beautiful voice, but I was most impressed by the way she made that song her own. She didn’t succeed by twisting it into something else or by simply mimicking Mitchell — the changes were smart and subtle. For the duration of the show, the small choices impressed me as much as the big ones.
Joe Vilardi’s arrangements followed the same model — they stayed close enough to Mitchell’s recordings to satisfy the purist but they brought a fresh life to the classic songs. Vilardi, an alum of the SMF’s Acoustic Music Seminar, played guitar and was joined by Connor Parks on drums and Michael Beckett on bass and piano.
Rebecca Flaherty joined Woodruff for a couple of songs — “The Gallery” from Clouds and “Cactus Tree” from Song to a Seagull. Flaherty and Woodruff’s voices were lovely together, and the pairing suggested some of the vocal richness of Mitchell’s complex studio recordings.
I don’t know how closely Woodruff stuck to a script, but she talked just enough about Mitchell and about herself to give the work immediacy and resonance.
Woodruff’s other selections included “Free Man in Paris” and “Help Me” from Court and Spark; “All I Want”, “A Case of You”, and “Little Green” from Blue; “Black Crow” from Hejira; “Silky Veils of Ardor” and “Jericho” from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; “Both Sides, Now” from Clouds; and “Woodstock” from Ladies of the Canyon.
She also chose to do three songs by related artists: “I Was an Eagle” by Laura Marling, “Hyper-Ballad” by Bjork, and “Love and Anger” by Kate Bush. Those songs resonated in different ways, but I think the evening would have been stronger without them. If Woodruff ever reprises the show — let’s hope she does — I’d suggest cutting those three and adding three more by Mitchell, perhaps “The Last Time I Saw Richard” from Blue, “Amelia” from Hejira, and the title track from The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
But what about Mitchell’s newer work, from the 80s or later? Eh. I love some of the songs from Mitchell’s later albums, but her choices weren’t as daring or as effective as the songs from the 70s.
Woodruff also chose to leave out any discussion about Joni Mitchell today, which was probably just as well. Mitchell, who has made some odd public statements in recent years, suffered an aneurysm in early 2015. She did make a public appearance a few nights ago at a Chick Corea performance, but she obviously still faces many challenges. It’s hard to imagine that she’ll ever perform publicly again.
I brought along my small Fuji x100t, but I needed something with a zoom to get better photos. But that’s fine. I decided in advance that I wanted to relish the music without simultaneously trying to get good photos. A good decision.