Photo by Bonni Allen.
Sometimes there is nothing better on a Sunday evening than sitting back with a few friends, listening to great music, and swapping stories about your favorite artists. This easy Sunday vibe is exactly the intimate environment Lori Dokken and company achieved with Painting Joni: Celebrating the Music of the Master, a celebration of the music of Joni Mitchell at the Ordway Concert Hall in Saint Paul, with one notable exception: her friends sound much, much better than yours do singing along.
The set list contained many greatest hits and old favorites with new arrangements, interspersed with the performers’ stories about the artist herself and how her music has touched their lives (and a few charming asides, like the drinking game involving every time Joni’s lyrics reference sitting in a café…). Almost immediately, Concert Hall was transformed into an intimate jazz lounge, with people in the balcony as engaged as people on the front row. On piano, vocals, and occasionally a dulcimer, Lori Dokken acted as ringleader, with Rachel Holder Hennig, Judi Vinar, and Jacy (Pelstring) Smith joining as vocalists, alternating exquisite four-part harmonization and virtuosic solo performances for a bluesy, jazzy, folky, poppy mixture in celebration of a songwriter and performer you could tell everyone on stage truly loved.
One truly breathtaking moment, in an evening of stellar renditions, was Jacy (Pelstring) Smith singing “Woodstock,” coming late in the first set and acting as a genuine showstopper. Smith held her own as a true heir to Mitchell’s unique vocal style and skills (also bringing the house down with her rendition of the much-loved “Case of You” earlier on in the set). Judi Vinar brought an impressive range and vocal flexibility, as well as a flair for vivid interpretation (“Coyote” is one of her many highlights). In one of the more subdued sections of the second set, Rachel Holder Hennig brought out the quiet pathos of “Conversation,” tying it to her own history with unrequited love. (Don’t worry, though—Hennig is fine; her husband, Peter Hennig, was on hand all evening to provide percussion.) Jeff Baily on bass and Dan Canton on guitar, along with Doug Haining on “surprise clarinet” for “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” provided steady support throughout and seemed to enjoy every minute.
While each member of the ensemble was able to shine in solo moments, the times they shared the spotlight were equally enjoyable, especially the particularly joyous interpretation of songs like “Chelsea Morning.” The evening began with the group’s rendition of Mitchell’s well-known “Both Sides Now,” showcasing the groups tight harmonies and elegant presentation. At the end of the second set, as an encore, Lori Dokken led the audience in a singalong of the same, with the houselights up and the whole audience joining in. It was the perfect ending for the devoted fans both onstage and off. Painting Joni was the best sort of tribute for a favorite artist—rather than a slavish reproduction of what Joni Mitchell had already created, Lori Dokken and her fellow musicians have paid her the ultimate compliment by showing how her art can inspire great things in others. If you have the chance to catch any of the artists around the Twin Cities in the future, do yourself the favor and make it happen.