Paying homage to an artist who’s gone through as many shifts of shape as Joni Mitchell is certainly a challenge — it’s almost impossible to capture all the needed nuances, even in an expansive program — but the producers of this evening’s perf did an admirable job of illuminating as well as entertaining the Carnegie Hall aud.
Those two objectives co-existed amicably over the course of the 2½ hour presentation, which offered a surprisingly generous sprinkling of obscurities from Mitchell’s catalog. Early in the set, Dar Williams wound through an elegant version of “Rainy Night House” (one of the darker cuts off 1970’s “Ladies of the Canyon”), while Tom Rush dug up “Urge for Going,” which he recorded in 1968.
Naturally enough, Mitchell’s most mainstream material formed a goodly portion of the set, with some singers choosing to play their cards close to the vest: Amy Grant did a summer camp styled “Big Yellow Taxi”; Laurie Anderson presented an agreeably chilly rendition of “Both Sides Now”; and Michelle Williams, late of Destiny’s Child, delivered a faithful “Help Me.”
A few participants seemed less concerned with interpreting Mitchell’s work than in piling on the ham. Neil Sedaka, in theory a good fit for the vamping “Raised on Robbery,” pushed the tune into the less savory reaches of cabaret territory, while Richie Havens turned “Woodstock” into a self-serving bit of scenery-chewing.
The vast majority of contributors, however, seemed genuinely interested in tipping their hats to Mitchell, who didn’t attend the show, blaming her absence on an ailing cat. Those who might’ve been expected to be acolytes — like free-agent free spirit Nellie McKay, the vessel for a grippingly wounded “Chelsea Morning” — acquitted themselves well, as did more surprising players like Jimmy Scott.
The latter cheated a bit by taking on “At Last,” one of Mitchell’s better-known covers, but made up for that by wrapping the song in his trademark layers of gossamer. Scott did the best job of representing the delicate yin of Mitchell’s work, while the earthy yang resounded through the performances of Sonya Kitchell and Cowboy Junkies, making for a perfect circle, both sonically and emotionally.