When Brandi Carlile decided to perform Joni Mitchell's 1971 album Blue in its entirety at Disney Hall – the primary home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the site of many classical music premieres — one reason was to remind the audience of the 75-year-old's near-singular status among popular musicians of the past half-century. "We didn't live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven," she said before she began her October 14 performance. "But we live in the time of Joni Mitchell."
This loving hyperbole is not unfamiliar. It's surrounded Mitchell, and been generated by her, for her entire career. Lindsay Zoladz argued in a 2017 essay on Mitchell that the singer-songwriter's casual assertion of her own genius made men uncomfortable in ways that led them to underestimate her, but the evidence suggests a more complicated reality. Mitchell was in fact highly praised in the rock press from the start of her career, though she also occasionally fell prey to its casually sexist irreverence. What was different was that she fought against such off-handed treatment. She demanded something more serious – akin to what visual artists and classical composers received. "I live in a box of paints," she sang in Blue's "A Case of You," identifying with the more "serious" art of painting even as she shouted her love for rock and roll. She addressed Beethoven as a friend in her 1972 song "Judgment of the Moon and Stars" and (like Ken Kesey and the beatnik Lord Buckley before her) casually dropped the name "Willy the Shake" in 1977's "Talk To Me." Very much like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the only two singer-songwriters whom she regularly claimed as kindred spirits, Mitchell made clear that she wasn't in the pop game just for the money or the hot sex. She sought a place in eternity from the beginning. Making that ask, she forced a reconsideration of popular music itself.
The thing about artistic genius is that it's really not an abstract concept. It's a status conferred by cultural institutions in acknowledgment of particular works. In music, that's traditionally happened through the incorporation of work into repertoire: an artist's compositions being played by other people. This is the foundational structure of classical music, and was taken up in a different way in jazz through the idea of standards. Even less formally organized realms like gospel music and the blues followed some kind of repertoire model. After rock and roll became the norm, though, things got messier. Cover songs or even star-studded tribute albums have rarely gained the imprimatur of an often-performed sonata. Before suffering the 2015 aneurism from which she is still recovering, Mitchell was making moves toward establishing her work as repertoire, releasing the orchestral anthology of her own songs, Travelogue, in 2002 and collaborating with the Alberta Ballet on 2009's "The Fiddle and the Drum," which used older songs alongside a couple of new ones. Carlile's gift to her beloved elder with this concert was to continue that work of making Mitchell's music into repertoire, in a manner both serious and beautiful.
Originally, pop became repertoire swaddled in strings and adorned with an "s" that made it "pops": It was the light fare that brought more casual music fans to the symphony hall. Jazz players would also take on their favorite pop tunes in ways that expanded or exploded their confines, and in the ears of many, this made the music more serious. Such reinterpretations, however, inevitably feel like qualifiers. The music has to be improved before it can be considered canonical.
Carlile's reading of Blue established another approach. The album's spare, often solo, original performances tempt interpreters to either simply copy what's there or go wild in the other direction, with expansive and sometimes unreadable translations. Carlile sought a respectful but vivid middle path. She and her musical director, Jon Cowherd, trained their ears on Mitchell's original recording, absorbing key elements, from her touch on the piano keys to her manipulation of vibrato on certain vocal phrases. Carlile's regular bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth did the same, with Phil expanding upon the album's lone bass part, created by Stephen Stills on the song "Carey," and Tim consulting directly with Mitchell about how to approach a key instrument, the dulcimer. The full band and string section that gently expanded the album's scope – which included Russ Kunkel, who'd played drums on three Blue tracks that – brought a similar sense of discipline to the project.
The result, while still grounded in pop expressiveness, came closer to an exquisitely rendered classical or jazz performance than the kinds of sloppy bar-band romps or star-studded, show-offy salvos that typify popular music tributes. Carlile's own deep focus drew attention away from the athletic prowess it takes to sing Mitchell's notoriously tricky melodies and toward the music itself. Blue has long been considered one of Mitchell's masterpieces, but one that had to be experienced in its original form, preferably through the private bond a listener establishes with an album in the intimacy of a bedroom, or through headphones. Carlile and her collaborators gave Blue a different life, one established communally, one that can regenerate if others choose to approach the album as repertoire themselves. By the time she reached her encores, Carlile was ready to make another point: playing "Shine," one of Mitchell's most recent compositions, and her own "Party of One," which was inspired by Blue, she suggested how Mitchell's oeuvre, as she said, doesn't begin or end with Blue.
And so the Beethoven part of the challenge was met; Blue became repertoire, in the classic sense of the word, carefully placed within a legacy of serious music unfettered by high/low divisions. But what of Mitchell's words? Carlile and her wife Catherine Shepherd, working with the filmmaker Kathlyn Horan as editor, came up with an ingenious way to do that Shakesperian rag. They asked a diverse (though definitely starry) group of Mitchell's artists friends to share their favorite lyric by the writer, spoken or sung, with perhaps a word about why those lines spoke to them. Using the camera function on their phones, musicians, actors and others create a collage of her insights, jokes and poignant flourishes, revealing how Mitchell's lyrics, like quotes from the Bard, help people understand their own life changes and become an informal way of communicating depth.
Sheryl Crow sings the first verse of "Amelia," sitting on a hotel room bed. Courtney Barnett, in similar lodgings somewhere else, utters the immortal first line of "All I Want": I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling, traveling, traveling. Trombone Shorty and Tom Morello form a montage celebrating the social commentary of "Big Yellow Taxi." Others go for the more obscure – Rosanne Cash, in a dressing room, paints the evening scene of 1991's "Night Ride Home," while Dave Grohl, holding his camera phone as far away from his face as possible, unearths a piece of juvenilia that proved prescient for both Joni and himself — 1966's rhythm-kissed "Go Tell the Drummer Man." Cameron Crowe chooses lines from "Song For Sharon," reading them from a piece of paper to a painting by Mitchell in the foyer of his home. Emma Thompson sings in her own hallway — also "Taxi," instead of the Mitchell standard she memorably performed in the movie Love, Actually. That song, "Both Sides Now," receives memorable tribute from the legendary record exec Clive Davis, who intones it like a bar mitzvah blessing. Also proffering some grace is Elton John, elegant in a robe, who shares a few lines from "My Best To You." That's a big-band standard Joni recorded in late '90s, and its inclusion reminds us that vocalization can be a form of authorship too.
At Disney Hall, this omnibus of selfies served as the evening's introduction, and evoked squeals from the crowd, who loved the parade of familiar famous faces. But the short film stands as an artwork itself, because of that underlying message: What makes lyrics into repertoire is their resonance in the hearts and minds of people who may never meet or otherwise share reference points. It takes musical adepts like Carlile and her ensemble to share the sounds of Blue within a classic performance; but Mitchell's words, as sounds and as wisdom, echo through the minds of anyone who loves her, and will last because the loud renditions or whispered repetitions that happen when no one else is around: each of us, fervent Joni fans or radio sing-alongers, learning to comprehend love and life from the map left by her pen. This acknowledgment of Mitchell's work as shared language makes the lofty comparisons Carlile reiterates comprehensible. In "For the Roses," written at the turn of the 1970s, Mitchell bemoaned the fate of singer-songwriters who wanted to be poets but had to sit in record company offices and ask "some guy to circulate his soul around." In 2019, her work has found a different way to circulate, thanks to friends like Carlile, and to last.