By Dawn Lee Wakefield
Virtually any tome that exists to tell the “definitive” story of Joni Mitchell’s life (and there are many) will reveal, young Roberta Joan Anderson was a truly creative child. After developing a series of “alternate tunings” that she could play in order to compensate for limited left-hand mobility (due to childhood polio) to conquer a standard guitar, there were two reasons to view this artist as a wunderkind. First, there was her devil-may-care attitude about life and love that she lived and projected that found her an impressive group of fans. Second, she defied all standard paths to stardom as she built her own following her own way, encouraged and aided by agent Elliot Roberts.
As any social media addict or aficionado can attest, not a day goes by that Joni Mitchell’s name is not invoked—somewhere on the Internet. Some days it’s a Baby Boomer journalist who quotes her eternally popular song, “Big Yellow Taxi”; forever the reference is to the phrase “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Or, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Joni is praised as a poet all day long, whether you hear one note of her music on the radio anymore, much less in rare live performances of her songs.
Then, virtually daily, within every music industry press release introducing any ingénue singer/songwriter with a breakout debut CD, you’ll surely find Joni’s name invoked again as one of the songwriter’s most powerful influences on an individual artist new to the scene. With those two conditions in place, it’s easy to forget that above Joni’s “influence” and skills in songwriting, very few musicians actually perform her full catalog in concert these days. There’s a reason. It’s really hard to do “Joni music.”
Playing her music, whether solo songs or those she’s performed on tour with Pat Metheny’s band, or any other collective group with Joni in the lead could find talented musicians challenged to keep up with whatever was on her mind at the time. Joni’s “Blue” album finds itself on virtually every major artist’s “Favorites” list, but it’s not like it was all over FM radio in its entirety. Instead, it was all over teenage turntables.
When she toured, Joni eventually built an audience, but she was never really a radio star. Her 1972 “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” was her tongue-in-cheek send-up to label executives urging and nagging her to make a song that was commercially radio-viable. She wrote one and gained radio bona fides and then went back to writing whatever she wanted, creating concept albums and painting the covers for them.
Aside from a few selections from “Court and Spark” in 1974, her sixth studio album, which seemed to finally identify Joni as a popular radio artist, it still seemed she attained legendary status more by word of mouth than constant radio play and TV appearances, the path of other contemporary artists.
Even before that, “Joni the brilliant” was “Joni the obscure,” as Judy Collins had phenomenal success with Joni’s “Both Side Now,” before Joni gave herself a chance with it. Her “Woodstock” was a retrospective of a festival she didn’t attend, so it was a fabulous exercise in creativity that ultimately became iconic. If ever there were an artist so beloved, yet so out of sync with her own rising stardom, it is Joni.
Whether it was when she lived in Laurel Canyon, flowing in and out of visibility, or after her recent remarkable comeback from a near death experience, Joni remains more “mystery and mystique” as her brand continues to go up, and up, and up. The only sad element is that it’s rare to hear a wide variety of her catalog performed live, because it’s daunting and difficult to interpret. Unless you develop your own Joni song list, with flowing, creative arrangements, and you perform the repertoire often enough to bring audiences to the doors will you hear her amazing music regularly in the United States, particularly in southern California.
As featured on Joni’s official site, there are frequent one-off tributes to her catalog in a particular city or in another variation, artists who are moved by her “Blue” album will perform it in its entirety. But, when it comes to the intersection of Los Angeles County and Ventura County, there’s only one group who’s accepted the challenge of Joni’s catalog with a stunning repertoire comprising a decade of Joni’s brilliance, it’s Kiki Ebsen’s Joni Mitchell Project.
Ebsen and four premiere musicians—Grant Geissman (guitars/sitar/vocals), Terry Wollman (guitars/vocals), Bernie Dresel (drums), and Steven Lawrence (bass)—are the band for Thursday night’s Joni birthday show.
By her own admission, Kiki has been moved by Joni’s music ever since she heard “Michael from Mountains” on her own turntable. She doesn’t make the mistake of trying to sound “just like Joni.” Instead she is just like Mitchell in bringing her own unique gifts and vocal talents to Joni’s songs and in the greatest compliment to an artist whose music you’re doing, does her own thing and does it beautifully. In 2017, Kiki released her sixth studio CD, “Kiki Ebsen, Cool Songs, vol. 2— The Music of Joni Mitchell,” that includes 10 of Kiki’s favorites.
Legendary guitarist Grant Geissman is just back after an invigorating touring and recording session in Italy with song stylist Steve Tyrell. His in-demand guitar and sitar playing shines on Joni’s most “challenging” songs. A special one to listen for is “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” Geissman’s talents are perfect on breakout solos where he absolutely shines.
Terry Wollman, aka the Master of Alternate Tunings” has a guitar for almost every song it seems, or at least a tuning or two. Wollman’s just seen the release of the hit HBO documentary by Danny Gold, “The Bronx, USA,” where he coproduced (with Charles Fox) an original song written by Charles Fox and Paul Williams.
Drum master Bernie Dresel (currently celebrating five years as head of his band, The BBB) has added new excitement with his interpretations of the material, and he’s celebrating his own Nov. 12th birthday in a concert with his BBB at The Write Off Room in Woodland Hills, so check him out there.
The “Red-Hot Bass,” Steven Lawrence, adds “sure solid” to the repertoire. One of his stand-out songs is “Twisted,” and the way Kiki does it makes this duet a true show-stopper. Steve is a popular church musician and plays regularly with other bands. Steve has recently recorded some of Kiki’s new compositions for a forthcoming album.
This quintet has been performing a dynamic, exciting catalog of Joni’s songs for four years now, with annual appearances at Laguna Beach’s Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters and other festivals to increasingly large and loyal crowds each summer.
Meanwhile, over in Westlake Village, Bogies Bar and Restaurant has been home base for Kiki and her band as they perform crowd favorites of Joni’s songs that span nine albums and a decade of music.
So, before 2019—the 50th anniversary year celebrating Woodstock—reached its end, Bogies booked Kiki’s Joni Mitchell Project in time to honor Joni’s 76th birthday on Thursday, November 7th.
You’ll hear songs from the early years of “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull,” jazzy cuts from “Mingus” and “Wild Things Run Fast.” You’ll also enjoy classics like “Both Sides Now,” “River,” and “Case of You,” and of course, “Woodstock.” Kiki chose many of her favorite deep tracks, like “Blonde in the Bleachers,” “Michael from Mountains,” and “Coyote” and included many sing-along crowd favorites like “Big Yellow Taxi,” Raised on Robbery,” and “Free Man in Paris.” The band’s full set list can be found here.
This band has garnered substantial accolades by all who’ve heard them. Photojournalist Sheryl Aronson said, “Ebsen’s delivery of Mitchell’s songs are genius.” Our own Myrna Daniels calls her concerts “purely terrific.” Laguna Festival of Arts Special Events Director Susan Hartnett Davis says, “Kiki Ebsen is extraordinary.” Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop says “If you’re a Joni Mitchell fan, you will become a Kiki Ebsen fan as she faithfully performs a variety of Joni’s songs in a wonderful show…”
Bogies is located at 32001 Agoura Rd. in Westlake Village (91361), and the Joni birthday concert starts at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20-$35 and are available online here. Joni Mitchell’s 76th birthday celebration is only going to happen once this year, so those who love Joni are encouraged to get their tickets early.