LOS ANGELES -- In a million years no one could have guessed the
contemporary female singer with whom songwriting legend Joni Mitchell would
choose to share the stage for her return to live performing after a much-too-
long break of 15 years.
But there she was in all her barefoot glory. Eccentric Icelandic pixie
Bjork's duet with the original lady singer/songwriter was, without a question,
the highlight of Thursday night's gloriously classy Walden Woods benefit --
"Stormy Weather '98."
In the elegantly old-fashioned downtown Wiltern Theater, these music
heroes of two generations tackled the Cole Porter standard "What Is This
Love?" as if they'd been performing together for years, alternating verses and
dance moves. Shoobedooing and bebopping as if it never went out of style, the
two totally contrasting performers (the bouncy, unpredictable Bjork and the
regal Mitchell) had the seats shaking and heads bobbing for a good
view. And what a view, with Bjork dressed -- stockings and all -- in white
and Mitchell dazzling in green.
In introducing Mitchell, Bjork stammered: "These people who organized this are
spoiling me. I have the great pleasure of introducing the most 'gorgeousest'
Event organizer Don Henley was probably beaming backstage. The ex-Eagle
organized the event for the upkeep of the once-threatened land where 20th
century author Henry David Thoreau spent much of his time writing in Concord,
Mass. Through his benefit concerts, Henley's been supporting the conservation
of Walden Woods since 1990, raising tens of thousands of dollars for the
cause. But never has he landed such a coup -- 10 major female contemporary
musical artists willing to eschew their usual backing musicians in favor of
the 66-piece El Nino Orchestra.
The saying goes "If you build it, they will come."
And they came -- 500 strong, including musicians James Taylor, Sting and wife
Trudie Styler, ex-Eagles Glenn Frey, Timothy B. Schmidt and Don Felder,
Fleetwood Mac founder/drummer Mick Fleetwood and Bush singer Gavin Rossdale,
there to see his sweetheart, No Doubt-singer Gwen Stefani, join the other
performing jazz and pop standards of the '30s, '40s and '50s.
"I thought Bjork was brilliant," Rossdale said. "And, of course, Gwen ... and
oh, yes, Stevie [Nicks]," he continued effusively. "I loved Joni, I never saw
her in person before."
He was not alone.
With a tiny bow perched atop her head, Bjork had already wowed the crowd by
taking a less traditional turn on the tunes she picked than her more famous
co-stars for the evening, who included such big names as Nicks, Sheryl Crow
and Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin. The ex-Sugarcube lead singer Bjork
squealed her way through Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday," while
prancing around the stage like a schoolgirl in a class musical. She squeezed
and released her left hand frantically throughout the number, which she
followed with "The Love That Went Out of Style," accompanied only by a
harpist. Only actress/singer Sandra Bernhard, visibly pregnant but typically
irreverent, set such a bizarre scene, when she infused the lyrics to "Is That
All There Is?" with an exaggerated high pitch vocal and comic anecdotes.
The theatrics of Bernhard and Bjork contrasted with more conventional spots by
"Best New Artist" Grammy-winner Paula Cole, country singer Trisha Yearwood and
the bluesy rocker Crow, who, though comparatively immobile, showed that she
had real chops by ripping into "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" as she
shimmied in a revealing, low-cut black gown.
Soul crooner Natalie Cole, after her rendition of "They Can't Take That Away
From Me," expressed the wonder that many were feeling about such a collection
of talent when she said "This is nice, isn't it? It's really cool to see
Sheryl Crow sing 'Good Morning Heartache.' " Cole, who has built a career on
such romantic ballads, moved effortlessly through George Gershwin's "Our
Here To Stay."
Most fans might not have recognized the night's first singer, Stefani, who has
sold millions of records with ska-rockers No Doubt, as she lit into the Andrew
Sisters' "I Can Dream, Can't I?" and the torch song "Almost Blue" dressed in a
green satin, sequined gown and a bobbed, little-girl hairdo. The normally
aggressive performer, however, maintained an edginess as she crafted the
standard around her guttural vocal style and tough-girl swagger.
Fleetwood Mac chanteuse Nicks, the lady in red (not black for once), drew
screams of approval from the suit-and-tie audience before she even opened her
mouth. And she didn't disappoint, earning the night's only standing ovation.
She soothed with "When Sunny Gets Blue" and belted "At Last" -- at points
flirting with a blues-rock feel -- as her cascading blond hair fell over her
face. "Stevie did great," bandmate Fleetwood boasted after the show.
Nine-months pregnant, Colvin mocked the traditional lounge performance with a
faux drink and an ashtray at her side. She became a saloon singer as she
leaned into a stool singing "One For The Road." Her smoky vocals and long,
white gloves suited the classic perfectly.
And then there was Mitchell.
In closing the night, the icon, her normally straight blond hair set in curls,
didn't have to stray far from some of the jazz stylings she used on classic
'70s albums such as The Hissing of Summer Lawns. When she covered the
old Lena Horne favorite "Stormy Weather," it was easy to
forget that Mitchell made her name as a hippie folk-singer.
Henley and musical director Larry Klein (L.A. session player and Mitchell's
ex-husband) made sure the night was full of such contradictions. Their effort
was not lost on their peers.
"It was great. It was absolutely brilliant," said sensitive singer/songwriter
Taylor, as he left the theater with Sting. "It was so good, it's hard to say
who was the best, really."
Maybe it was tough to pick the best performance, but seeing and hearing
and Bjork onstage together was hard to beat.