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The Hippo

Great interview article by Michael Witthaus

Joni’s spark

Tribute show recalls landmark album

There’s a line in Joni Mitchell’s song “For the Roses” about a moment when “the lights go down and it’s just you up there, getting them to feel like that.” That’s the challenge for anyone bold enough to launch a tribute act to her. It’s better to try and convey the singular singer-songwriter’s essence. Replication is a fool’s errand; there’s only one Joni.

Further, she’s a moving target. From the spare acoustic era of “Both Sides Now” and “Circle Game” to the ethereal jazz in Hejira and Mingus, Joni Mitchell was and is always moving forward. Yet Big Yellow Taxi, a six-piece group led by singer Teresa Lorenço as Mitchell, accomplishes the not-small miracle of capturing her.

For a show in Dover on May 10, they’ll perform Mitchell’s breakthrough Court and Spark from start to finish. The 1973 album has many moods but contains a common thread, Lorenço said by phone recently: “There’s real, profound honesty and vulnerability to whatever she’s doing …. Hooking into that is what helped me make the whole thing cohesive.”

Lorenço never planned on dedicating herself to performing Mitchell’s music; she arrived by acclimation.

“I’d been singing a little bit of her songs in a duo that I was in, and people kept saying, wow, you can really do her,” she recalled. “I thought, OK, then let’s do it.”

The first iteration of Big Yellow Taxi formed in late 2019 but dissipated as the pandemic took hold. When it got safer to book shows again, she sought out new musicians and hit the jackpot. The current band convincingly channels Tom Scott & the LA Express, who Mitchell worked with on Miles of Aisles, considered by many her best live album, as well as her ethereal late ’70s band featuring Pat Metheny on guitar and bassist Jaco Pastorius.

Guitarist John Cabán has played with many musicians, from Bo Diddley to Gloria Gaynor; Robert Sherwood’s keyboard credits include beloved mid-2000s band Ware River Club. On drums is Joe Fitzpatrick, a veteran of many stage musicals, and backing singer Annie Patterson conveys the multi-tracked vocals on Mitchell’s studio albums. Finally, there’s electric bass player Rich Cahillane, who also accompanies Lorenço on acoustic songs.

Cahillane, who was also at the interview, noted a split between audience members who lean toward early Mitchell albums like Ladies of the Canyon and Blue (a favorite of Lorenço’s) versus later songs.

“Folky fans want to hear Teresa and I play acoustic guitar or dulcimer,” he said. “Then we get those wanting to hear Jaco and the jazz…. It’s hard to satisfy all her fans.”

However, accomplishing that “definitely is our goal,” Lorenço interjected. “We want to have this ability to showcase any of her stuff from any time that she was writing. We don’t really want to focus on one style or the other. It keeps it fresh for us even, because we’re consistently looking at new things.”

One of the most difficult numbers from Court and Spark is “Down To You,” she continued. “We had to make up our own way to do this fully orchestrated part in the middle, and we definitely thought of some new swear words during that time,” she said, adding with a laugh, “If Joni ever calls and needs a backup band, we want to be prepared. Only about a hundred songs more to go.”

Taking on the catalog of an icon, Lorenço understands her primary task.

“Everyone really gets the emotionality of the music, and I think that’s the most important piece, that is what I focus on,” she said. “I’m no trained musician compared to these incredible people that bless me by working with me. They talk about music theory, and I sit there with static in my mind. All I know for sure is the way she’s expressing her emotions in song. That’s what I get; that’s what I feel in me.

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