Gig review: Pilgrimer
A Re-imagining of Joni Mitchell's Hejira
This article is from 2016.
'Shine your light on me, Miss Liberty...' [Joni Mitchell, 'Song for Sharon', Hejira]
Here's the thing about Hejira. You can lose, and find, yourself within it.
Joni Mitchell's enlightening, meandering 1976 album is not her best-known treatise – that's probably Blue or Ladies of the Canyon. Nor is it the brilliant Canadian's wildest endeavour (hello, Mingus). But it is, perhaps, the LP most in thrall to her modus operandi of celebrating – and chasing – freedom: be that titular, geographic, sexual, spiritual, political, musical, lyrical, physical, vis-a-vis the shackles of gender, or – well, we could be here all night.
The great American funk goddess Chaka Khan once identified Hejira as the record that changed her life. 'I'd get blasted on the tour bus, put on Hejira, look out the window, and see the very things that Joni would be singing about,' she recalled in an interview. She's not alone. 'I see something of myself in everyone,' Joni sings on the album's reflective title track, and we see something of ourselves right back. Hejira winds its way behind your eyes; across your heart.
What can you do, when you love an album like that? You can listen to it forever, of course – navigate life through its milestones and metaphors, deploy its lyrics as a metric for measuring the scrambled eggs and seasons between forceps and stone. If you're graced with a stage, not to mention a voice, you might perform covers of tracks like 'Hejira', as did Chakha Khan. Try and make those songs your own.
Or, if you're a writer called James Robertson, you can re-imagine the entire, glorious shebang. You can transpose a Caledonian map over Hejira's North American highways, linguistically shift it into the Mither Tongue, repopulate it with mythical natives (Saint Columba, Desperate Dan), enlist two magnificent musical directors (Karine and Steven Polwart), and bring Hejira's legendary guitarist, Larry Carlton, along for a hell of a ride.
You can call it Pilgrimer, premiere it at Celtic Connections, sell out Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, receive a righteous standing ovation – and prompt one loved-up audience member to observe that you were, 'Just like a wee boy up there; the look of surprise and joy in his eyes.'
You can travel in time.
'The future's ghaists were gaitherin', mirages hingin' in the haze...' [James Robertson, 'Sang for Joni', Pilgrimer]
James Robertson was a teenager when fell for Hejira, in the late-70s, while freewheeling across North America. Decades later, back home in Scotland, the Saltire-winning, Booker-nominated author and poet wrote a Scots verse called 'Tod' (Fox), loosely based on Hejira's wayfaring salutation, 'Coyote'. And that was that. So he thought.
But Hejira's songs kept resurfacing, in new forms, in daydreams. So when he bumped into Celtic Connections' Artistic Director, Donald Shaw, last year, and Shaw floated the idea of a potential spoken word shindig, Robertson realised where these itinerant song-poems might be headed.
Mere months since that chance encounter, and two decades since 'Tod' first made its sleekit presence felt, Glasgow welcomed Pilgrimer with open arms. Robertson introduced proceedings with a stirring semi-musical introduction in Scots, setting the tone (and predominant tongue) which felt serious, significant, but never heavy-handed. He returned to the stage for the concert's only other spoken-word performance – a show-stopping recital of 'Sang for Joni' ('Song for Sharon'), which took us from Sheriffmuir across the Atlantic; from Airthrey Woods to paradise (you might argue that they are one and the same).
Pilgrimer's gilded protagonists were many. Karine Polwart was a wonderful host, her voice effortlessly carrying songs like 'Tod', while conveying Hejira's familiar melodic warmth .Her guitarist brother, and co-Musical Director, Steven, helmed arrangements that were as striking and sparse (and deceptively adventurous) as the source material, and Larry Carlton's fabled musicianship played out like punctuation, and quicksilver. The backing band was similarly impressive, and additional vocalists Annie Grace and Rod Paterson struck gold – the latter in no small part thanks to his self-proclaimed 'Dean Martin meets The Dandy' take on Franco-Scots serenade 'Grey in Grez' ('Blue Motel Room').
There were myriad apparitions, too, as creatures shape-shifted on-stage, and back again – from 'Black Crow' to 'Hoolet', from 'Tod' to 'Coyote' – and there were echoes of much-loved, much-missed kindred spirits like Michael Marra. Even Joni Mitchell's 'Blue Boy' made a shadowy cameo, via Robertson's title ('Like a pilgrim she travelled'). And when Annie Grace performed a swoon-inducing, jute-fuelled rendition of 'Furry Sings The Blues', ('Pie Jock's Visit tae the Mune'), you'd swear you could almost catch Neil Young's original harmonica solo on the wind.
Pilgrimer and Hejira's words of freedom, and seeking escape (the latter title is an Arabic word relating to flights from danger and journeys to refuge) felt particularly resonant, and vital – and heartbreaking – in this age of mass migration. And those themes extended into the second half of the concert, which was inspired by Joni Mitchell's songbook.
It saw excellent, divergent voices sing their pick of her inestimable canon, from Rose Cousins' heart-stopping take on 'Blue' ('Let me sail away'), through Olivia Chaney's exquisite 'Case Of You' ('I'm drawn to ones that aren't afraid'), to a haunting rendition of the devastating 'Magdalene Laundries', courtesy of Polwart, Cousins and Grace ('Sentenced into dreamless drudgery'). Kathryn Joseph's 'Rainy Night House' was barren and sublime ('You are a refugee'), Julie Fowlis' rendition of 'Cactus Tree' was exceptional ('She was busy being free'), and the entire cast – all eight voices of Joni – gathered for an encore of 'The Circle Game', whose seasons going round and round refrain was extraordinary. Dizzying. Still, now.
'Syne the warld faws oot o focus / And yir wildest thochts are freed...' [James Robertson, 'Columba', Pilgrimer]
I wish I knew more about quantum mechanics. Parallel universe theories. Physics might help articulate why, and how, Pilgrimer worked so beautifully. How it simultaneously roused so many places, times and memories, that Saturday night, in our finery. Science, or magic, might help me explain (or at least understand) how Hejira's songs of freedom came to hold their ground, while making way for new worlds, auld words, wayward mythologies, and a stunning new Robertson poetry anthology. Two thousand folk found themselves in a reverie. Let your licht shine on, Miss Liberty.
Pilgrimer: A re-imagining of Joni Mitchell's Hejira took place 16 Jan at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
Celtic Connections runs until 31 Jan, various venues across Glasgow.