If you love Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album and want to hear every song from it performed live in a new, imaginative way by a very cool band from Providence, I’ve got the show for you.
I can’t remember the exact moment “Blue” came into my life, but I suspect it was during the early college years. It’s still a sacred, favorite album, not just for me but for countless other fans of Mitchell’s because her voice and her songwriting are both so stunning and timeless. The sounds of her Appalachian dulcimer all over the album only add to the glory of it. Stephen Stills plays bass and guitar on “Carey” and James Taylor plays guitar on three tracks. Celebrated sessions players Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Russ Kunkel are on a few songs as well, but really, the album is pure Mitchell on guitar, piano and dulcimer and, of course, with the kind of vocals that could make a statue weep and even the wildest storm dissipate.
Her songwriting takes center stage on “Blue.” It’s so many things at once — poetic, heartfelt and sincere. In some cases, the songs are snapshots of moments in time, like with “Carey,” which tells of Mitchell’s stint in the village of Matala on the Greek island of Crete. The song was written for Cary Raditz who was a waiter at a taverna in Crete when the two met and became friends. “Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe and I will buy you a bottle of wine/And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down,” sings Mitchell.
Then there’s “River.” It’s one of those Christmas songs that isn’t a Christmas song but kind of is because it mentions Christmas and borrows some melodies from “Jingle Bells.” Either way, “River” is one of those songs that I can’t listen to “casually.” It’s an “all in” kind of song and when I’m listening to it, that’s all I want to be doing. I don’t want to be paying the electricity bill or putting laundry away, I just want to sit with the song because those opening piano notes make my eyes well up every time I hear them, and if that’s not the hallmark of a perfect song, I don’t know what is. “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace/Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” I interpret “River” as a song of huge regret and heartache from someone who pushed their lover away and is unlikely to get them back. And yet it’s not depressing, it’s exquisite, which is a segue into the last song I’ll talk about before getting into why you should to One Longfellow Square on Saturday night and see Arc Iris.
These are the four words that every Joni Mitchell fan I know holds in reverence: “A Case of You.” Mitchell’s dulcimer starts the song, and four minutes and 23 seconds later, I’m destroyed. But I keep coming back for more because Mitchell’s voice is at its zenith of emotional gravity, and lyrically, she documents love in a way that few others have or likely ever will. “Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so sweet/Oh I could drink a case of you, darling, still I’d be on my feet, I could still be on my feet.”
Honestly, I could shine a light on all 10 songs from “Blue” because each one holds a special meaning, and if I ever wind up in one of those dessert island situations, I sure hope there’s a turntable and a copy of “Blue” kicking around somewhere.
Here’s where Arc Iris comes in. They will be playing every song from “Blue” at One Longfellow Square, and the show is one part tribute, one part experiment and one part wildly reimagined interpretation of “Blue’s” songs.
“Joni Mitchell has had a huge influence on Arc Iris as a band, and in an effort to both share her beautiful songwriting and create something new and exciting, we learned and reimagined all of her seminal album, ‘Blue,’ ” keys player and backing vocalist Zach Tenorio Miller told me in an email. He also offered up this description of the show: “Whereas acoustic guitars and minimal arrangements are some of the hallmarks on Mitchell’s original recording, Arc Iris’ interpretation of the music is bold and modern. The band mixes the sounds of symphonic analogue synths, heavy drum beats and sampling, while the iconic songs themselves are never swallowed up by the tide of these inventive arrangements.”
Singer Jocie Adams told me that “Blue” is the album she puts on when she needs to relax and get perspective. She also said “A Case of You” was the first song she ever learned to play and sing while in college.
Thanks to some not-so-sneaky concert-goers, I was able to view several of Arc Iris’s versions of “Blue” tunes on YouTube, and the footage did not disappoint. Adams voice is an astral, soprano paintbrush; Tenorio Miller’s keys are whirling dervishes, and Ray Belli’s drums are sometimes unpredictable tantrums and other times steady scaffolding. Together they make quite a trio of quirky music-makers worth your time. They released their debut in 2014. The song “Whiskey Man” is one of my favorites of that year, and the title track of last year’s “Moon Saloon” is a dreamy, six-minute aural treasure.
Here’ s Arc Iris performing Joni Mitchell’s “River”
I tip my hat to Arc Iris for setting aside exceptional originals for this show where they’ll infuse the songs from Mitchell’s “Blue” album with their own set of DNA, while also keeping the integrity of the 1971 recordings within arms’ length. “Blue, here is a shell for you/Inside you’ll hear a sigh, a foggy lullaby/There is your song from me.” Hear it for yourself on Saturday night.
8 p.m. Saturday. One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland, $10 in advance, $12 at the door. onelongfellowsquare.com