Brandi Carlile’s ‘Songs are like Tattoos’- A performance of Joni Mitchell’s Blue Album
LOS ANGELES, CA- Every year when the LA Phil releases their upcoming Disney Hall concert schedule, I scan the calendar looking for those concerts that can’t be missed. As soon as I saw that Brandi Carlile would be performing Joni Mitchell’s Blue Album, I knew it was going to be special and that I had to go, but I had no idea just how special it was going to be.
When I arrived at Disney Hall, there was a line snaking around the corner, something I had never seen before at that venue. It turns out that this show was a no phone zone. All shows at Disney Hall have a no photography policy, as anyone who has tried to sneak a photo and has been scolded knows, but this one was going one step further. As we entered the Hall, we each had to drop our silenced phone into a yonder bag, effectively rendering it useless until the end of the show. And just like that, this performance became a true ‘one night only’ event.’ No insta or snap chat stories broadcasting tidbits live, no slightly out-of-focus videos to find on youtube later, this night was only for the 2265 people to be lucky enough to get a ticket to this sold-out event.
The energy in the room was palpable as the sold-out crowd of Joni Mitchell devotees took their seats, and it only increased when the legend herself took her seat in the fourth row, flanked by her good friend Sir Elton John. As if tackling one of the greatest albums ever written, by one of the most iconic singers of her generation, wasn’t ambitious enough, Brandi Carlile now had to do it with not one … but two… of her idols sitting front and center.
Although the audience was with her from the first notes of “All I Want”, after she finished the opening number, Carlile felt the need to address the elephant in the room. Why would she take on such a mammoth task as this? For Carlile, if not for the audience, the answer was obvious. As she said, this night was not about ego, or trying to prove anything, or putting her own spin on any of the songs. This night was about the music and simply put, how the music is meant to be heard live. People needed to be able to hear Blue live.
Likening Mitchell to a modern-day musical Shakespeare, Carlile believes we need to appreciate her contributions to modern music while she is alive and ensure that her legacy lives on for generations like the bard himself. A bold statement, but not wrong. There is something to be said about acknowledging the works of one of the greatest songwriters while they are still alive, and though resolute in her decision now, she was not shy to admit she immediately regretted her decision after signing on.
Flanked by two teleprompters that she barely used, and dressed head to toe in a blue suit, Carlile’s performance opened up more and more with each song. Just like ‘Blue’ showed Mitchell’s emotional evolution as a singer and a woman, Carlile wove in stories of her own journey as a Joni Mitchell fan to show just how much of an impact Mitchell had on her life, both as a woman and a musician.
Carlile started as a non-believer, a modern feminist whose definition of strength bumped against Mitchell’s femininity, a stance even T Bone Burnett could not change. It took her girlfriend, now wife, threatening to break up with her forever unless she reconsidered her stance on Mitchell by playing “Little Green” and asking Carlile how she could deny the strength in that song. And just like that, in a jeep in Michigan, Carlile started to believe.
It was at this point in the concert that Carlile opened up as well. The concert jitters behind her, she loosened up and even acknowledged the teleprompters she had been ignoring all night. She wasn’t going to have them since she knew every word, but one dinner with Elton John where he called her a crazy bitch to even think about taking them off the stage, made her reconsider their presence beside her.
Her candid stories continued as she introduced “River” and admitted that she once tried to sing it at Mitchell’s house after one too many glasses of white wine and it didn’t go too well, so she was glad she got a do-over in front of her tonight. And later when she confessed that James Taylor was disappointed he couldn’t join her onstage tonight, but he instead painstakingly recorded all of his guitar parts for her to learn, only for her to realize that she was not good enough to play them.
By the time she got to “The Last Time I saw Richard”, no one, not the least Carlile, was ready for the night to end, and Carlile promised it wasn’t quite over yet. With Blue behind us, Carlile told the audience she had two more songs left. The first was one last Mitchell classic, “Shine”, a gift to Mitchell that proves that nothing began or ended with Blue for Mitchell and that her entire catalog is a gift, and the final song was one of Carlile’s own, “Party of One”.
Still feeling the need to explain her every move for an audience she had won over hours before, Carlile used Mitchell’s own words to explain why she wanted to play one of her own songs. Mitchell has always said that if a listener only heard her in a song then she failed; a song is about what it brings out in the listener. A song is not a finished piece, but more of a jumping-off point full of bread crumbs to be expanded upon by future artists. For Carlile, “Party of One” was not just born out of a fight that she had with the same woman who forced her to Listen to “Little Green” so many years ago, but it is also an extension of the bread crumbs that Mitchell had left for her in her music. “Party of One” was her gift to Mitchell, one that showed that she listened, she heard, and she was passing the message forward.
And just like that, the journey was over. Carlile had taken us on an emotional ride and had brought us back full circle. She left us with the same words that she opened. People may not have realized or appreciated that they lived at the same time as Shakespeare or Rembrandt, but we are different. We KNOW we are living at the same time as Joni Mitchell and she should appreciate how lucky we are. As she took her final bow, I definitely felt lucky. Not just because I live in the time of Mitchell, but because I was fortunate enough to have one of the 2265 seats to experience this once in a lifetime night.