in performance: “the joni mitchell tribute: both sides now”

Joni MItchell attending a tribute concert on Wednesday in Los Angeles, one of several worldwide concerts this week honoring her 75th birthday. Photo by Vivian Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Cente.

On paper, staging a Lexington-based tribute performance to the music of Joni Mitchell would seem a logical second act for the artists and organizers that presented immensely popular and well organized programs of Leonard Cohen songs last year and last spring. Both artists have musical legacies that extend back to the 1960s, both have had their works interpreted by countless disciples representing myriad genres and both have evoked a sense of lyrical and poetic adoration from successive generations. Mitchell even trumps Cohen for timeliness (this year, at least), as Friday’s “The Joni Mitchell Tribute: Both Sides Now” at First Presbyterian Church came in tandem with a wave of international celebrations honoring the songstress’ 75th birthday earlier this week.

But stylistically, Mitchell has proven a greater thrillseeker than Cohen. To that degree, such variance was showcased at Friday’s showcase to an effect that was sometimes thrilling, sometimes lopsided, sometimes both.

Those taken with songs fashioned from Mitchell’s earliest recordings as a folk princess of Laurel Canyon had plenty to luxuriate in, beginning with a crystalline reading of “Cactus Tree” (from Mitchell’s 1968 debut album “Song to a Seagull”) by Louisville folk stylist Julia Purcell, whose expressive soprano best approximated Mitchell’s multi-octave singing. Several other artists, though, nicely shifted the vocal temperament to their own range, be it through two stirring solo piano accompaniments by Beth Scherfee (“For Free”) and Melissa Snow-Groves (a more classically inclined “Blue”) or the beautiful mother/daughter harmonies of Diane Timmons and Claire Rose during The Partisans’ take on the 1969 “Clouds” obscurity “Songs to Aging Children Come.”

The program’s attempts to follow Mitchell’s music as it morphed into more progressive shades of fusion, world beat and jazz were impressive in their daring but more problematic in execution. Kevin Holm-Hudson and Jim Gleason get bonus points for the evening’s biggest gambles, even if the resulting sound and mix buried their vocals. Holm-Hudson assembled a team of 14 percussionists (including local innovators Tripp Bratton and Dave Farris) to recreate the Drummers of Burundi’s incantatory beat on “The Jungle Line,” while Gleason delved into the “Mingus” era swing of “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” There were also some audacious interpretive choices, including Doc Feldman’s transformations of the spacious “Refuge of the Roads” and “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” into denser, Grateful Dead-style excursions.

But the biggest delight came near the program’s end with chamber-like transformations by Nevi’im of “Amelia” and Mitchell’s brilliant 1982 mash-up of the original “Chinese Café” with the pop classic “Unchained Melody.” Aided by pianist Raleigh Dailey, cellist Benjamin Karp and violinist Margie Karp, the vocals of Marilyn Robie and Kim D’Amato played out with patient, poetic grace in a setting that was distinctive yet profoundly respectful of Mitchell’s stylistic and lyrical genius.

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