Joni Mitchell makes rare public appearance at Brandi Carlile ‘Blue’ tribute

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RANDY LEWIS | Los Angeles Times exhortation "Let's get this party started!" morphed into "Let's keep the party going!" with singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile's heartfelt homage Monday to Joni Mitchell in the form of a top-to-bottom performance of Mitchell's 1971 album "Blue" at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The idea was sparked nearly a year ago when Carlile took part in a pair of tribute concerts saluting Mitchell's music in conjunction with the Canadian singer, songwriter and painter's 75th birthday, held just a few doors down at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"That night I told my manager 'I want to do the whole "Blue" album live,'" Carlile, 38, told a star-studded capacity crowd at Disney Hall that included Elton John and husband David Furnish, lyricist Bernie Taupin and wife Heather, guitarist-singer Bonnie Raitt, actor-singer Taron Egerton, actress Rita Wilson, singer Yola and actor Kevin Bacon.

All the stars, however, quickly transformed into fanboys and -girls as they stood with the rest of the audience in appreciation and deference to the evening's honoree when she entered the hall just before Carlile and her band took the stage for the program she titled "Songs Are Like Tattoos," a line from the album's title track.

Mitchell's mobility may be limited _ she used a cane and relied on assistance from companions making her way to and from her seat, one spot away from Elton's _ but she looked resplendent under a broad-brimmed black gaucho hat and a dramatically flowing red floor-length overcoat, her blond-brown hair tied in braids hanging below her shoulders.

By the end of the evening, she also looked thoroughly delighted, especially after Carlile came offstage and presented her with a large floral bouquet. Mitchell smiled and even waved back at fans who were cheering her after Carlile had completed her journey through Mitchell's "Blue" period.

Unapologetically, Carlile explained, "I'm not putting my spin on anything _ I've just worked my ass off learning how to sing this stuff like Joni sang it."

She was accompanied by about a dozen musicians and two singers _ the duo Lucius, aka Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig _ all hewing closely to the original arrangements from Mitchell's alternately joyful and melancholy work exploring loss, sacrifice, identity and freedom.

Mitchell's presence made the songs feel all the more personal and aided Carlile in her mission to keep the focus on the songs and their composer. "This isn't about me, there's no ego tonight," Carlile said.

Mitchell's public appearances have been rare in the last decade, fewer and farther between since she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, for which she was hospitalized after being found unconscious at her home. But she has ventured into public spaces a little more frequently in the last year.

It's been even longer _ nearly two decades _ since Mitchell performed full public concerts, last touring significantly in 2000. Two years earlier she co-headlined a seven-date West Coast tour leg with two other of the most acclaimed singers and songwriters of the rock era, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. That rare outing was her first tour since 1983.

In the new millennium, she's performed very rarely, beyond the small handful of songs she sang during a pair of shows in 2013 at Massey Hall in Toronto.

Carlile told The Times recently that her relationship with Mitchell has deepened over the year since the birthday tribute show, in large part because of the passion and appreciation for Mitchell's music sparked by Carlile's wife, music industry veteran Catherine Shepherd.

"My wife introduced me to Joni's music, and she is the biggest fan that you've ever met in your life," Carlile said.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, Mitchell was lauded by the institution as "a brilliant musician and creative nomad, letting her muse take her where it will." That muse took her from folk-inspired music of the early and mid-1960s to an ever-expanding vision of pop music that grew more jazz-influenced and unbounded by pop conventions in the '80s and '90s, when her attention turned increasingly to her painting.

"She doesn't really seem bound by the laws of songwriting in general," Carlile said. "Like, I don't think she ever sat down and wondered whether a song was longer than 3 { minutes. If I knew how to unlearn that [stuff], I'd be writing a song right now. But for some reason, she just never subscribed."

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