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Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile Does Joni Mitchell’s Blue

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It was a religious experience. The only song I clapped for was “California,” otherwise I sat there transfixed, driven deep into my own soul.

How often do you go to a show and know every word, literally?

Joni Mitchell was a known quantity because of “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game.” Actually, Joni’s songs were more famous than she was, until “Court and Spark.”

The David Crosby produced “Song To A Seagull” was an insider affair. As in music biz insiders were aware of Joni’s greatness, and this record made inroads into the public, but was not well-known, was not a hit, it’s something most people only bought in retrospect, after they were hooked by a later album and needed to be completists. But you should listen to it, because it’s so personal, it’s an excursion into someone else’s brain with the lights turned out, it’s just the two of you, it’s not made for the radio but your bedroom/living room. Listen to “Nathan LaFreneer,” about the drive to the airport. You know the experience, at least pre-smartphone, you’d be sitting in the backseat, reading the taxi driver’s info on the visor, your mind drifting, really neither here nor there, like so many situations in real life, you’re existing, but you’re alone in your own mind.

“Clouds” had a more professional producer in Paul Rothchild, and it began Joni’s long relationship with engineer Henry Lewy. The album had a cleaner, more immediate sound, and it too began with a quiet number, as opposed to the hit you’re supposed to lead with today. And “Clouds” included “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now,” but the essence of the LP was tracks like “I Don’t Know Where I Stand.”

“Picked up a pencil and wrote ‘I love you’ in my finest hand Wanted to send it, but I don’t know where I stand”

That’s part of being human, wondering whether the other person feels like you do. You’re moving through life but they’re always on your mind. I was hung up on a woman for about a year, there were signs, connections, I wanted to just call her up and ask her if she felt the way I did.

I didn’t.

Then came “Ladies Of The Canyon.” The outside producers were gone, for the first time it was a fully Joni statement, and you felt it. This was the album with her recording of the well-known “The Circle Game,” but it also included “Big Yellow Taxi” with its lyric that superseded the song, as in…”they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.

The funny thing about “Ladies Of The Canyon” is the truth it contains in retrospect, I got it when I was young, I really get it now.

Like “Conversation.”

“Tomorrow he will come to me
And he’ll speak his sorrow endlessly
and ask me why Why can’t I leave her?”

You’re their best friend, their confidante, you’re in love with them, but they cannot extract themselves from their relationship, they’re weak, they can’t handle the change, and if they do, they don’t want you. Yup, there’s that married woman who called me up and always wanted to hang, I’d go places her husband would not, I tried to push her away and when she finally left him, she didn’t want me. She called me from a cellphone in the nineties, she was in the hills, the connection was breaking up and in a moment of static…I told her I loved her.

And then the line dropped.

About a month later I ran into her at the all-night electronics store, she was with her new boyfriend, I felt about an inch tall.

“The Arrangement” was about throwing your life away, settling instead of reaching for the brass ring.

“You could have been more
Than a name on the door
On the thirty-third floor in the air
More than a credit card
Swimming pool in the backyard”

“Rainy Night House”… Spending the evening with someone you’re not sure where you stand with and the falling droplets leave you in a cocoon, with only your thoughts.

And, of course, there’s “The Priest.” Just the sound of Joni’s guitar sets the scene.

But the song I always remember from “Ladies Of The Canyon” is “For Free,” I first heard it performed by James Taylor, when he was dating Joni, before “Ladies Of The Canyon” was released.

“And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me”

Ask a musician, they always feel like they’re being ripped-off, everybody’s getting paid, everybody’s getting rich but them. They want to play, but they won’t unless you pay them. But if you’re a friend, they’ll play all night, for free, just like me.

Then came “Blue.”

There were no hits, it was not legendary at that time, more of an underground thing, for acolytes only.

“For The Roses” was her first album on Asylum, it showed her bare-assed in the gatefold, when that was a big risk for a serious artist.

“For The Roses” actually had something resembling a hit, “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio,” but the track was light, not as serious as what Joni’s fans were enamored of.

But the two tracks following the “hit” were more serious, they cut to the bone. Joni knew the stars, in “Blonde In The Bleachers” they were all following their dicks.

And at this point, the Joni Mitchell song I play most is “Woman Of Heart And Mind,” where she lays it all out honestly.

“I’m looking for affection and respect
A little passion
And you want stimulation, nothing more”

He’s on TMZ, she’s nowhere to be found in the tabloids.

Then came “Court And Spark.” Suddenly “Help Me” and “Free Man In Paris” were all over the radio, suddenly Joni was the hero of every girl in the dorm, “Twisted” had the quality of a Bette Midler song, the illusion was that Joni Mitchell had come down from the mountaintop and was hanging with the hoi polloi. “Court And Spark” was the only LP that evidenced this quality. Joni then took a left turn, went further and further out, she did what she wanted to, not what we wanted her to.

Tonight’s concert began with a film, celebrities testifying as to Joni Mitchell’s excellence. At points it was excruciating. Who cares what Tom Hanks and his wife have to say about Joni Mitchell? And why was Marilyn Manson included, as a joke? But the highlight for me was Sheryl Crow sitting on her bed singing “Amelia.” “Hejira” contains Joni Mitchell’s deepest lyrics, but by this time the mainstream audience was gone, only the hard core remained, but “Song For Sharon” contains more wisdom than anything on the hit parade, possibly forever.

“A woman I knew just drowned herself
The well was deep and muddy
She was just shaking off futility
Or punishing somebody
My friends were calling up all day yesterday
All emotions and abstractions
It seems we all live so close to that line
And so far from satisfaction”

Have you ever contemplated suicide? I certainly have. It’s these records that have kept me alive, stuff like “Song For Sharon” and “Blue.”

My college roommate Lyndon bought “Blue” over the summer. I always had a record on, we even went to sleep to a record, I had a timer to turn the stereo off, but I rarely played “Blue,” it was his, not mine, and if you don’t own it…you don’t own it.

But when I did…

After the movie came an execrable organ solo. It appeared the production just wanted to use the pipe organ…

But the assembled multitude clapped riotously nonetheless.

Then Brandi took the stage.

The audience made me wince. They were busy celebrating Joni Mitchell, giving her a standing ovation when she entered Disney Hall, it was creepy, almost like a living wake, it’s like the crowd was there to say they were, kinda like Desert Trip.

But this was no dash for cash, this was a musical event, down to the core.

Yes, the show was an event. It was downtown in a city that plays in the suburbs. There were no kids. And Disney Hall has gravitas. It’s an underplay, and it’s not a barn. The axiom in music is that fans will show up for their favorite acts anywhere, and this is true, but certain venues add to the performance, are an artistic element unto themselves, like Frank Gehry’s legendary creation.

And Brandi was wearing a blue suit. And she was upbeat, she was not solemn, she was treating the audience like her friend, but when she began to sing…

Now what we usually get is people covering others’ songs badly. You know, those terrible cover/tribute albums.

And then there are the “artists” who insist on remaking, rearranging the number, making it their own and making the song lose its essence.

Brandi was faithful. Same arrangements. She was singing Joni Mitchell. But first and foremost Brandi Carlile can SING! Early in the show she wowed us with her vocal workings and there was spontaneous applause in the middle of a number. This was not someone saying lyrics cover a mediocre voice, this was not a melisma-master proving to us that they can sing louder and higher than anybody else, this was an artist, doing her work, someone who had a skill and developed it.

I can’t sing that way.

But I did sing along with “California.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I played “All I Want” after my first date with Felice. I was home in my house with the stereo turned up loud, dancing. I was finally belonging to the living, after sixteen years in the wilderness after my ex left.

And during “My Old Man” I heard the lyrics I’ve quoted my entire life:

“We don’t need no piece of paper
From the city hall
Keeping us tied and true”

This has been my mantra since I heard this song. I quoted it to my ex, who insisted on getting married, to my detriment, and to Felice, whom I’m still not married to fifteen plus years later. She’s got more money than I have, neither of us have kids, we’re already too old, why do we need a piece of paper? Furthermore, divorce was so painful, I don’t want to go through it again.

And then come “Little Green,” “Carey” and “Blue.”

Now it’s clear, I’m on a trip, I can see where I once was and where I now am. I’m back in college, disaffected and disconnected. I’m in Disney Hall right now. I’m fully alive, everything outside the building no longer matters. All those bozos spewing fake facts…Joni Mitchell’s truth supersedes them. Then again, she triumphed in a different era, when being a musician was enough, and you weren’t a brand, when you didn’t sell your soul, when the adulation of your fans was enough when you got it right.

Then came “California.”

I sat still, like I said above, I didn’t even clap, I couldn’t. For me, this is how it used to be, I went to the show not to shoot selfies, not to pat myself on my back, but to be alone, engaging with the music. When done right, the music spoke my life and kept me going. Nothing does this better than “Blue.”

When “California” came out I was still living on the east coast.

But I wanted to move to the Golden State since I was in single digits, I used to beg my mother. It’s better out here, always has been, you’re free, where you went to college, who your parents are, that’s all b.s., society is level, everybody’s got a story, oftentimes untrue, and after a while we see who is real and makes it.

California will take you as you are, that’s why everybody hates the state except for its residents. Outsiders want you to kowtow to their system, they don’t want you to be free, but out here you are.

I know you disagree, I don’t care, you don’t live here.

But I do. And hearing “California” tonight summed up my life. My dreams, now fulfilled, how great is that? I had to stand and applaud vociferously, even though no one else got up.

And artists are never in step with the straight and narrow, in “California” Joni wants to kiss a Sunset pig. You know what that is? THE POLICE! Today everything’s flipped over, yet this music, this truth remains.

“Oh, I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil

I’m comfortable in front of the computer screen, put me in front of people…

I was one of the few invited to the backstage party, I wanted to finally meet Brandi in the flesh. I know Elton, I’ve even hung, however briefly, with Joni Mitchell a number of times, but what am I gonna say back there, who am I gonna be? I’m really the guy in these songs, lonely, kept alive by these records, I want to be inside but I’m outside, I know, it’s a conundrum, but talk to artists and you’ll find…

Most feel the same way.

“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68 And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe”

The hit parade is niche. Yup, the Spotify Top Fifty, the songs in the “Billboard” charts mean less than ever, today it’s about being a musician, that’s one of the reasons why tonight’s show was so great, it was all about the playing, there was no live transmission, you can’t even make any money at Disney Hall, it was for the music and only the music, and those who grew up with “Blue” in their hip pocket know this.

But it’s not 1971 anymore. There’s war, but most people are not against it. You can have sex, but you might die from it. You can follow your dream, but you can’t even pay for a roof over your head and you’ll find yourself years behind if you ever want to get on the escalator.

Joni made it, deservedly so. But many more did not. They starved, lived off the kindness of friends and strangers, died from the lack of good health care, but we know their songs even if most people do not.

After the Beatles, the goal was to become rich and famous.

Now, even if you make it, you’re not that rich, as for being famous…most people have no idea who you are, or if they do, you’re only a face, a name, they don’t know your work, and it used to be all about the work.

I could tell you who was in the band. Russ Kunkel was behind the kit. I think Brandi said one of the string players was Scarlet Rivera.

But that’s not the kind of evening it was. We were all in thrall to the almighty sound, these songs.

Too often in life, I’ve been alone, blue. I’ll tell you the truth, it gets better as you get older, but then you get to a point where it all becomes meaningless, you realize everyone’s gonna die and almost no one will be remembered, so what exactly are you living for, what exactly are you trying to achieve.

It’s like I tell my shrink, I was heading for the target but then they blew up the target. I wanted to reach everybody, an antidote to the b.s., but now no one can reach everybody, and as a result of cacophony, it’s hard to reach anybody, you’re lucky if you have an audience at all.

But it used to be different. Like tonight. We had to stick our smartphones in Yondr cases. No one could interrupt the show with their phones because they were locked up.

But this made you bored. Before the show, I read nearly every word in the L.A. Phil’s program, even though I was not interested in most of it. Then again, the more I read, the more I got perspective, Disney Hall is spectacular, maybe it would be cool to come to some of these classical shows and set my mind free.

And word was they were going to start promptly at eight. So I was in my seat about ten minutes before. But the show didn’t begin until 8:15, what was I gonna do with the time?

And when the show began there were no distractions, only the sound and yourself, that’s all. And with everybody there, I became more isolated, I guess it’s my personality, I’ve never been a member of the group.

But I do feel the power of the music. And that’s why people resonate with my writing, when I get it right. Most people will tell you what happened, but they won’t tell you how it FELT!

How did it feel?

Like I was listening to one of the greatest albums of all time by someone who could do a faithful rendition, a loving rendition, when the original will never ever do this again, this was my only chance.

And the thing about “Blue,” despite its title, is it’s not all downbeat, it’s all over the emotional map, like real life, like me. How is it you can be down in the dumps and feel like king of the universe a second later? I wish I could tell you, but I haven’t got any answers, other than to tell you that life is worth living for.

But the truth is in this narcissistic world, if you’re lucky you can count on one or two people.

And the records. Set in amber. That’s why you shouldn’t remix them. They’re cultural artifacts, as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls. You wouldn’t clean up those documents, saying the writers would have wanted them better, if only they had the time and new technology…huh?

But “Blue” is perfect, it does not need to be redone. All we have is the record, we can sing the songs, but the essence is on that vinyl, the way it was originally cut, we’re lucky we’ve still got it, that “Blue” wasn’t on Universal and burned up by executives who believe they’re bigger than the artists and the music is just made for consumption and then is worthless, used up, and might as well be discarded.

I knew Joni Mitchell penetrated when Prince covered “A Case Of You.” A great song is a great song, and the truth is they’re damn hard to write, almost impossible. Very few have the skill. They worked hard to achieve it and then they reach the pinnacle and then…

Then what?

I could have told you who I saw, make you feel envious of my insider status, but the truth is I don’t feel like an insider and I’m no better than you.

But I was privileged to be there for Brandi Carlile’s knockout performance tonight, nailing one of the most meaningful albums of all time.

That was the flight tonight. The winds were in from Santa Ana. We were drinking the sweet champagne of music, we had the headphones up high, we numbed out the world, we got it out of our mind, all we had left was “Blue.”

And that’s enough.

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