Rock musicians are not generally known for sharing Henry David Thoreau’s ideas on thrift, modesty and solitude. If the author of “Walden” was alive today and reading People and Us, he would only have to slightly alter his famous observation — the pages of glossy celebrity-driven mags are filled with lives of unquiet desperation. While Don Henley is hardly Thoreau-like, it hasn’t kept his 12-year-old Walden Woods Project from becoming a respected conservation foundation. Stormy Weather 2002 is the second concert Henley has organized to benefit Walden Woods and like the first, the lineup was built around femme warblers performing standards accompanied by an orchestra. And like the first, it resulted in an evening of warm elegance.
With each performer allotted only two songs (save for the top-lined Joni Mitchell, who delivered three), the evening moved along at a brisk pace, with the singers making distinct impressions.
In a gutsy move, blues singer Susan Tedeschi covered Mitchell’s classic “River,” bringing a sophisticated, vulnerable yearning to the tune. Norah Jones’ powerful yet nuanced voice (sounding more mature than her 22 years) caught the melancholy of Robbie Robertson’s “It Makes No Difference” and found the querulous faith at the center of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Stevie Nicks was in surprisingly strong voice; “Landslide” was more affecting than the recorded version, and her take on Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” pulsed with a fine ache. Paula Cole also showed off more range than usual, imbuing Tom Waits’ “House Where Nobody Lives” with a soulful regret.
The 64-piece El Nino Orchestra, however, did not do the singers justice. Sodden, stiff and ungainly, the band navigated the emotional dynamics of the music with all the grace and precision of an 18-wheeler on a hairpin curve. They nearly drowned out poor Michelle Branch, who gave a credible, if somewhat unsure, reading of Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was played with a grand panoramic sweep. It sounded less a folk song than a soundtrack for a Western, and rubbed uncomfortably against her limber reading that danced against the beat with a jazzy discursiveness, which she also effectively employed on her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You.”
The evening’s other bum notes were provided by Henley, whose introductions had a pugnacious, preening quality that did not suit the evening. The only time he seemed to lighten up was when introducing Mitchell. Commenting on her recent outspoken interviews, he joked that she made him “look like Norman Vincent Peale.”
Concert was preceded by a dinner and auction hosted by comedian Paul Reiser.