Gig review – Hejira: a Joni Mitchell Tribute at The Y Theatre, Thursday 18th April 2024

Hejira. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Reviewed by Adam Piotrowski

Organised by the  Leicester Jazz House

Journeys through Jazz soundscapes paint a portrait of a distinct period in Joni Mitchell’s career

What comes to mind when you think of Joni Mitchell? Perhaps a young Canadian folkie strumming an acoustic guitar and singing ‘pave paradise and put up a parking lot,’ from her 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi. While this may be a vaguely representative snapshot of her early career, it certainly was not the type of show the audience were going to get tonight. Yes, there was acoustic guitar – even if only on a few songs, but this performance brought to us by the Leicester Jazz House focused on a much more dynamic and slightly less celebrated period of her career.

In 1973, having earned commercial and critical acclaim with her own style of idealistic folk augmented with open-tuned guitar and raw confessional lyrics on albums like Ladies of the Canyon and Blue, ever the restless spirit, Mitchell wanted to expand her sound to compliment her increasingly complex emotional landscapes. Stunted by the restraints of the folk rock players, a friend suggested playing with jazz musicians who could treat her arrangements with the sophistication they required.

Hejira. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

What came next was a trio of albums as memorable and fresh as anyone at the time, starting with 1974’s Court and Spark, followed the next year by The Hissing of Summer Lawns and culminating in 1976’s Hejira, the namesake of this evening’s performance. In 1979, at the peak of her late 70’s power, she gathered the crème de la crème of contemporary jazz musicians including guitarist Pat Metheny and Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorious, among others, to take her show on the road, and it is the live album that encapsulated this tour, Shadows and Light that was the core inspiration of the Hejira show, that we were to enjoy this evening.

The performance started with the opening track of the Hejira album, Coyote, the driving rhythm set by a steady snare shuffle and bouncy bass line showcasing a relentless fury of words. Written on the Bob Dylan’s 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue tour on which Joni joined a rag tag collection of folk musicians, friends and poet Allen Ginsberg, the lyrics paint images of the road: roadhouses with local bands, the white lines of the freeway, farmhouses burning in a field and an ever preying coyote.

Images of journey continued in the next song, Just Like This Train, which saw the musicians thrive on the solid grooves and nuanced changes of the original. The group masterfully navigated the mood changes and subtle dynamic shifts throughout, with melodic flourishes provided by keyboard and the woodwind player. They also nailed the strange kind of musical passages which are heard so frequently on the album this song originally appeared on, Court and Spark, in this case the intro horn / acoustic guitar melody which pops up a few times throughout the song.

Hejira. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Hattie Whitehead fronted the group, replicating Mitchell’s wide vocal range, mannerisms and unique approach to guitar with great skill and sensitivity, no mean feat considering the artist’s less than straightforward phrasing in both mediums. Pete Oxley, the band leader, provided excellent lead guitar, gently finger-picking and providing sweet melodic sounds. In a rather surprising turn of events, Hattie left the stage for an instrumental song Phase Dance, originally written and performed by Mitchell’s guitarist on the Shadows and Light tour, Pat Metheny. The song was light, bright and fast, the focus moving from one instrument to the next as the band traded solos, a joy to watch.

The 8 minute plus Song for Sharon was played gracefully, the lyrics pontificating on the life that the artist has chosen, separating herself from a desire for a long white dress of love and later longing for ceremonies of bell and lace, ‘mama’s nylon under my cowgirl jeans.’ The first set culminated in the vibrantly groovier, more succinct and upbeat Free Man in Paris, the band back to full, percussion punctuating the changes in the song.

The song on the other end of the intermission, Help Me, also from Court and Spark largely delivered, but if I had one criticism of the evening, it would be the absence of backing vocals, which on the album provide such rich melodic layers. Solid effort from the swooning woodwinds and tasteful guitar, which ultimately could not quite deliver on this particular score.

We returned to the road and the Hejira album for the next song, Amelia which meanders and ruminates in a way that contributes to the album’s dark mystique. The lyrics intertwined the mysterious disappearance of pilot Amelia Earhart with Mitchell’s own travel, something she seems to do as a form of therapy, or to find meaning in life. Here, the rhythm guitar was spot on, the odd circular chord structure which tends to move here and there, avoiding landing anywhere for too long.

Hejira. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

This song was the first of three which formed a suite replicating the Shadows and Light Live Album, which, once introduced, is not interrupted until completed. The second is Pat’s Song, a dancing harmonic exploration, backed by humming ghostly keyboards, fading nicely into the song Hejira. Contemplation and wanderlust continued, as lyrics recounted feeling glad to be alone, conga drums tapped soulfully, the fretless Jaco bassline bouncing along melodically.

At times the songs are so skillfully played, you don’t even realize that a particular musician is playing. For example, the drummer lightly tapped and sizzled away on cymbals, no solid beat per se, but certainly adding to the ambience of the song. The skill of the 7 piece band was often understated, allowing the central figure to shine and there was a real commitment to delivering the songs how they ought to, musicians standing down when their playing was not fundamental to the song. The band again took centre stage, for an original instrumental entitled Surging Waves, which, although it sounds counterintuitive for a tribute act, was very enjoyable indeed. The song fit in well with the 70’s jazz fusion feel and kicked it up a notch – pounding drums lead the way with furious precision, followed by soaring saxaphone and culminating in a drum break where kit and percussion banged on relentlessly into a crescendo. Later Black Crow effortlessly grooved, dropping down and coming back in full with great effect.

Hejira. Photo (c) Kevin Gaughan

Although no one in the crowd would dare complain at the lack of hits, for the sheer quality of performance, the show did close with the encore of one of Joni’s most well loved songs, A Case of You, a slightly fuller and jazzier treatment than the original Blue recording. The vocalist’s bravery paid off as she eloquently moved up and down the pitch register, the guitarist hitting all the right notes and the bassist treating us to a sweet and tasteful solo; as technically impressive as the musicianship was, it was the powerfully emotional soundscapes of the performance which lingered on, long after the final chords rang out.

Snippet of Hejira performing A Case of You:


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