Doing Joni Proud

Last night's Robin Adler & Mutts of the Planet concert celebrating the music of Joni Mitchell was huge success on every conceivable level--and like a classical music performance--much of the credit is due both to the performers and the composer.

Playing music culled from Mitchell's "jazz-period," Adler's band was tight, precise and well-oiled. Adler's husband, guitarist Dave Blackburn transcribed Mitchell's notoriously intricate music with arrangements that were mostly true to the original recordings with important expansions ( like the fabulous inclusion of pedal-steel master Rick Schmidt), and the occasional bold re-casting of said material.

Blackburn is also a recording engineer who has developed a sure ear for making things blend, and aside from the pristine clarity with which Adler channeled her inner Joni--the blend of Blackburn's guitars, Schmidt's pedal-steel and the remarkable piano of Barnaby Finch made for some mesmerizing listening over the course of two superbly paced sets.

Dan DiPietro's percolating bass drove the opening "In France They Kiss On Main Street," with an infectious forward-motion, locked in tight with Danny Campbell's drums and elevated by the background vocals of Finch and Blackburn.

I felt myself levitating two bars into "Edith & The Kingpin," Mitchell's tale of a doomed affair between a local beauty and a drug-dealer. The combination of Blackburn's raked arpeggios, Schmidt's spooky harmonics and Finch's keyboard washes established the star-crossed mood perfectly--while Adler's sure pitch and absolute articulation allowed every lyric nuance to shine.

This Schmidt guy is something else. It was positively surreal to hear him approximate a jazz piano intro to "Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat," on the pedal-steel as if it were a casual accomplishment. Although this music was not about solos--he and Finch consistently knocked them out of the park when the opportunities presented themselves.

A total recasting of "The Jungle Line," was completely driven by Campbell's wickedly intricate ride-cymbal articulations--he was channeling Jack DeJohnette on this one all the way. Special mention must be given to Adler's off-the-hook memorizing capability--Mitchell's lyrics are impossibly wordy--yet the singer delivered flawless recitations on the equivalent of 15 Shakespearian sonnets without a misstep. To do this and nail the elaborate contours of the melodies was an awesome accomplishment.

There were so many highlights: "Shades of Scarlett Conquering," sent a series of chills up my spine--especially when Schmidt's harmonically rich steel substituted for the orchestral score of the original. The creative funk of "Dreamland," benefited greatly from Finch's gospel trills and quotes from "Blue Monk," while Schmidt fused Jimmy Nolen with Hawaiian "slack-key" master Joseph Kekuku.

"Amelia," and "Harry's House," were perfectly framed by Blackburn's open-tunings, (based on Mitchell's ingenious inventions), and Adler's crystal-clear delivery of the emotionally insightful text of the former, along with the deeply sarcastic social critique of the latter.

DiPietro had the unenviable task of reproducing the late Jaco Pastorious' bass-lines on several tunes--something he really took to the limit on a rocking version of "Coyote," another paean to miss-matched lovers, remarkably absent any trace of self-pity.

"Hejira," was another spine-tingler, and the band closed it out with a spirited romp through the rhythmically intense "Black Crow," featuring a driving organ solo by Finch, another jaw-drop steel essay from Schmidt, and Blackburn's insertion of a quote from "Smoke On The Water," which somehow reminded me of Weather Report, circa, Black Market.

The two standing ovations from the sold-out crowd at 98 Bottles book-ended Adler and Blackburn's emotionally charged encore of "A Case Of You." This one will resonate for awhile.

Photos by Bonnie Wright

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