Being the Change, Firefly Dreams, California's Fallen Soldiers, Vista Strawberry Festival, Poe Ballantine
2:30 p.m., May 23
Last night's Joni Mitchell tribute concert by vocalist Robin Adler and her talent-rich ensemble, Mutts Of The Planet, performed, as it were, on the eve of Mitchell's birthday, was a triumph in every meaningful sense.
Adler and crew worked for several months to get their considerable chops around the ambitious idea of performing two seminal Mitchell albums, Blue and Court & Spark, in their entirety.
Dizzy's was packed for this one.
After some technical difficulties, Adler and her husband Dave Blackburn began with "Little Green", and right away, you could tell that the vocalist had done her homework. Mitchell's range is huge and her crystalline melodies often feature wide intervallic leaps--so it's no easy feat to do those songs justice.
Adler hit all the high notes dead-center, her pitch is flawless, and perhaps even more impressive, she was able to articulate the words to all of the pieces with clarity.
She carried on with pianist Barnaby Finch as a duet on "My Old Man." Finch has got a great approach to accompanying Adler, he made the grand piano sound luxuriant in support and his brief asides were informed by the same melodic sense of ornamentation that I've always associated with long-time Pat Menthey associate, Lyle Mays.
Adler tackled "Blue" like a pro, emoting the lyrics with the wisdom of experience and nailing the melody with laser precision.
Over the tick-tock chatter of Danny Cambell's rim-shots, the full band emerged --Blackburn's crisp acoustic guitar guided by the rock solid basslines of Max Bennett, and dual keyboard comping of Finch and Dave Curtis to bring "California", one of Mitchell's most joyous songs to life. That melody requires an absolute songbird, and Adler qualifies.
After a brief intermission, the band gathered to perform Court & Spark, an even more difficult assignment.
They jumped right into it, though, with a sublime run through the album's mega-hit, "Help Me." Every thing fell into place for this one. Mitchell originally doubled and tripled her own voice for background vocals, at Dizzy's, Adler relied on the sure-pitched artistry of Peggy Watson and Barry Cahill, and they made the tune sound as deep and rich as the studio version .
Special kudos go out to Cahill, who not only sang like an angel, he assumed the instrumental duties of LA Express leader Tom Scott, on tenor, soprano saxophones and flute--the cat earned some sort of multitasking trophy for that one.
In truth, though, it's hard to single any one person out for praise, because each member of Mutts Of The Planet played their asses off.
Court & Spark was one of those ultra rare moments where art and commerce merged. It was Mitchell's most financially rewarding effort, yet it also works as a purely creative statement. Each vocal and instrumental layer is divinely crafted, so for a group of musicians to interpret those arrangements live, is a real achievement.
Blackburn has absorbed the intent of Mitchell's acoustic guitar work and extrapolated it into deeper harmonic implications, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, he was able to recreate Larry Carlton's sumptuous lead work from the album. He played all night with a self-assured restraint that served the music perfectly.
After a rousing, bluesy rendition of the tune "Twisted", Mutts Of The Planet earned, and received their first standing ovation, which went on until they returned to the stage, (Blackburn, Adler and Finch) for an absolutely stunning arrangement Blackburn wrote of Mitchell's most famous piece, "Both Sides Now."
Over rolling guitar arpeggios and haunting synthesizer string pads, Adler reflected the joy, sorrow, and weary knowledge of the theme with nuance and insight. A perfect ending to a damn-near perfect evening.
Photo by Dennis Anderson