A few weeks ago Lindsay, Dante Bucci, and Bill McConney were playing a tiny living-room style show in a just-off-South coffee shop called Cafe Grindstone that had an entire vegan menu and a shelf of random used textbooks to peruse.
I picked up the flyer and scanned it. A Monday night show at Tritone on South Street – not a twenty minute walk from my house – with one of the best songwriters in Philadelphia. Doesn’t take much convincing.
Then I continued to read. She would be splitting a bill with a band whose name I didn’t recognize, who would play the entirety of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
Improbably, I currently name as Blue my second favorite album of all time. That puts it above albums that I played on repeat for entire days of my youth. Albums that taught me what music was.
How, then, can that one LP – that I didn’t hear a single song from until college – come to eclipse all else in my collection?
It’s the color of it. Blue is rooted in a palette of different blues, explicit and implied: midnight sky outside of a plane window on “This Flight Tonight;” the melancholy emotional blues on “All I Want” and “My Old Man;” the twinkling blue tinge of frost on “River;” and the blue tv screen light in “A Case of You.” It is music that makes me see color, every single time I hear it.
It’s also the sureness of it – the way threads of blueness and yearning to get back to California are woven through the album. The sureness of Joni’s indelible performance, and the perfection of the tracking. In my opinion it is nearly the ultimate in a singer-songwriter album, and if you are assembling an album you ought to spend some serious time listening to Blue to understand how to make its formula your own.
I mentioned the upcoming show to as many people as would listen, but I have other promotional duties as well, and I couldn’t seem to hook anyone with the play-through of the Joni album. I wound up tired and alone Monday night, installed in the back corner of the Tritone wrapped in a jacket and scarf, sipping cranberry juice.
Alexandra came by my table, her usual whirlwind of energy and vinyl pants, but she immediately caught on that I was at an unavoidable ebb.
“This is a good bar to just sit in,” she advised. “I’ve come here many times just to sit in the corner. And, you’re really going to like the band.”
The band, I learned, was Ellipsis – a local jazz trio. They assemble the second Monday of each month with as many additional players as necessary to make it through the entirety of an album. In the past two months I had missed a swing through Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” and Neil Young’s “Harvest.” And, Alexandra said the word in the room was that next month’s artist would be Bjork.
My excitement was paired with skepticism that any band could replicate the magic of Blue, especially a jazz band who I discovered in short order did not have a guitarist: piano, upright bass, drum kit, and hand percussion, plus a young jazz vocalist. Joni Mitchell’s best album without a guitar?, I mused. Is there any point?
The band set up a projector beside the stage that shone a series of images – the cover of the album, long dusty fields, empty starless nights – across their bodies and onto the wall to their right. Without much preface, they began “All I Really Want,” possibly my favorite Joni song.
My skepticism continued for a verse – the arrangement on this one was measured mimicry, and the vocalist was treading delicately around Joni’s words. Then we reached my favorite point of the song, exuberant in new love even as it plumbs its unsure depths:
All I really really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you
I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you
I want to renew you again and again
Applause, applause – life is our cause
When I think of your kisses
My mind see-saws
Do you see – do you see – do you see
How you hurt me baby
So I hurt you too
Then we both get so blue
I hadn’t noticed, but as the verse continued I leaned farther and farther from my seat, as if I thought the song could just reach out and envelop me. By the time Samantha Rise reached that melancholy pinnacle, “we both get so blue,” my ass was barely in the chair. I was in love and wrapped in the color of her voice.
The show that followed is one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. A silkier, surer version of “My Old Man” that sent a chill through my body. The quiet menace of the quickly descending fifth in the b-section of the otherwise pretty “Little Green.” A raucous, celebratory turn through “Carey,” stripped down to it’s upright bass and percussion and then built again (here I exchanged a glance of incredulous amazement with Alex and she just laughed and turned back to watch the show). A perfect, absolutely verbatim rendition of “Blue.” A saucy, jazzy version of “California” that transformed directly into a racing, free-form take on “This Flight Tonight” complete with scatting. “River,” bare of it’s jingle bells and with a frostier pulse. A subtle, measured read on the oft-covered “Case of You,” possibly the best lost-love song ever written. And, the sometimes superfluous “Last Time I Saw Richard” transformed into a incandescent elegy for the entire album, although in its narrative it perhaps comes first – her old man gone and married to some chick who skated around on the iced over river.
At the end I was breathless and teary. I witnessed something unique and transformative, unusual and terrific. I saw all of the colors that Joni painted into the album, and so many more.
It was a show that should have played to a packed club, or even on the main stage of the Kimmel Center, and I was watching it from the back corner of what is effectively a living room with a bar and a stage along with twenty, maybe thirty fans.
I’m inexplicably nervous to talk to other musicians, a condition that’s becoming increasingly paradoxical as I play more frequently. I am one, so shouldn’t I understand how to approach one?
Samantha – delicate and composed on the stage – was twinkling and approachable off it it. I think I heard her boasting to another fan that she could defeat him at any Mario-based game. Eventually I noticed her by herself at the bar and plunged in.
“That was so good. Blue is one of my favorite records, ever. You really did it justice.”
“Wow, thank you. It’s one of mine too!”
And so we just talked, just for a minute or two – the easy chatter of two people who love music. She shook my hand and jotted down her information on the pad I had been sketching out my next Trios on, and parted with a nod and a smile, settling in to enjoy Alexandra’s equally amazing set.
Three days later and I still can’t get her and Ellipsis out of my head. In that last post I wondered if I still saw colors in the world, but Samantha answered that question neatly. Sometimes you just need someone to show you where to look.