Hamer Hall on St Kilda Rd in Melbourne is an impressive building which encourages fashionable dress and a hushed atmosphere. There was quite a crowd in the foyer about twenty minutes before opening, consisting of mostly middle aged people, the range somewhere between, say, thirty and sixty- sixty five. I looked around to see if I could see someone I knew (I was by myself). My first thought was to be mildly impressed- to see all these people who were interested in Joni, who like me liked her enough to pay $100 to her a tribute. Then suddenly I felt this powerful sense of being alone. Here I was surrounded by so many like-minded people, yet I didn’t know anyone and didn’t feel I could walk up to strangers and say ‘hey, is ‘Hejira’ your favourite album too?’ I think the reason for this weird alienating feeling was that I know very few people who have listened to Joni beyond ‘Both Sides, Now’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, and absolutely nobody who likes her as much as me and can recite all the words to ‘Borderline’ and ‘Two Grey Rooms.’ So here I was confronted at last by hundreds of people I could theoretically have a gorgeous conversation with on topics I love for the first time, and yet they all seemed self-contained, introspective and unattainable. Once I entered the Hall, and saw that I was so close to the stage, this feeling quickly dissipated.
Seven women teamed up to pay Joni tribute- some a bit obscure, a few quite well known in these parts. They rotated the songs very well. They either sang solo with simple accompaniment- as in ‘Blue’ and ‘River’, for example, or did backing vocals for each other on more complex arrangements as in ‘Raised On Robbery’, ‘A Free Man In Paris’, ‘Come In From The Cold’, etc. They sang spectacularly well in unison on a couple of occasions. The unexpected opener- ‘Shadows And Light’- was powerful, as was the chorus of ‘The Circle Game.’
The first set was enjoyable, but a little predictable. I didn’t purchase a programme, so I didn’t know which song would be next. However, besides the opener, almost every song came from either ‘Court & Spark’ or ‘Blue’: two great albums, but many great Joni records ignored.
I found the final set more interesting simply because the singers borrowed from a greater range of Joni’s material. This time there was an eclectic mix of songs, some of them my favourites, from ‘For Free’ and ‘Edith and the Kingpin’ and ‘Chinese Café/ Unchained Melody’ to ‘Coyote’ and ‘Cherokee Louise.’
The singers were clearly very involved in what they were performing. These are songs they would have sung countless times either by themselves or in small company. This was evidenced by one song more than any others- the sublime ‘Hejira’ sung by Virna Sanzone, like it was the last song she would ever sing, every line producing a face filled with tortured emotion. The audience warmed up too and more well known songs like ‘Woodstock’ and ‘You Turn Me On (I’m A Radio) received rapturous applause. To the singers’ credit, more obscure numbers like ‘Snakes & Ladders’ and ‘Be Cool’ from the 80’s were also warmly received.
I had an irritating woman behind me who was a self-appointed Joni Mitchell expert amongst her friends. She had evidently sung on stage at Hamer Hall before and knew in some capacity one of the singers. When asked by her friends what made Joni so endurable with her audience, she answered ‘Joni has always had a good manager.’
The singers were: Katie Noonan, Wendy Matthews, Virna Sanzone, Kristen Berardi, Louise Perryman, Rachel Goudry, and Tania Bowra.
The music was beautiful, the songs were sung with deep emotion and appreciation, and the backing band was subtle, right down to the bass player’s impersonations of Jaco Pastorious. A lovely night, but alas, no ‘Amelia’- tut, tut.