Joni Mitchell released Hejira, meaning “journey,” in 1976, a road album about a cross-country trip, and considered a further step in her musical voyage (begun three albums earlier) away from her folk persona toward more complex, jazz influences. Time would show that it was not as big a departure from the drop-dead catchiness of her landmark Court and Spark as many of her later, truly jazzy explorations, and the disc has aged well. North County’s Robin Adler & Mutts of the Planet (Adler, husband/guitarist/producer Dave Blackburn, and a strong supporting cast) have a well-deserved cachet locally for their past Mitchell tribute/ cover efforts, including 2010’s superb Safaris of the Heart: The Songs of Joni Mitchell, and live performances of her albums. Their newest is Hejira Live.
The band includes Jamie Klime (guitars), Kevin Hennessey (bass), Danny Campbell (drums and percussion), and Jeffrey Joe (harmonica) as well as background singers, and they manage to capture the original sound nearly note-perfectly. Considering that this was recorded without overdubs with an established original sound, kudos to Blackburn for the tight, often bass-dominated groove and the yeoman performance by Hennessey (matching the original performances of Jaco Pastorius on several tracks). Oh yeah, Adler pretty much has Mitchell’s phrasing and inflection down to a science as well.
“Coyote” starts with a lively tale of one of Mitchell’s road hookups with a rancher, full of snappy storyline about the thrill of the sexual chase. One of the best of Mitchell’s tracks from the period, Adler and company capture the essence of song’s mid-’70s fun and rock-star morality. The next tune is a universe away; “Amelia” is dedicated to Mitchell’s strong-female archetype Amelia Earhardt, the favorite tune of many and perfectly executed here, it somehow transports the listener to a wide open desert sky with planes soaring overhead. Jeffrey Joe Morin is aboard for the harp sections of another faithful rendering, as “Furry Sings the Blues” chronicles Mitchell’s encounter in Memphis with a cantankerous old bluesman.
On a few tracks the musicians get to stretch out; the version of “Hejira” includes a tasty closing solo by Klime after Adler sings the interesting lyrics about a graveyard visit, “We all come and go unknown/ Each so deep and superficial/ Between the forceps and the stone.” The group also steps out of the box on “Black Crow,” the uptempo jazz piece is taken into fusion territory by Klime with sizzling breaks that recall Allan Holdsworth, pumping voltage into the set. A nice style contrast places acoustic heavily in the mix for “Blue Motel Room.” The closing tune is one of the strongest, “Refuge of the Roads,” summing up the exploits of Mitchell’s journey and probably the closest thing to her Court and Spark in sound and texture, again flawlessly sung and played.
Hejira Live never fails to project the genius of the original artist, while demonstrating the amazing mastery of Robin Adler, Dave Blackburn and the other musicians.