When Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell first set out to put her feelings and thoughts into words and melody, perhaps her only intent was to capture her life at the time in a musical diary. She would have had no way of knowing her songs, albums, and art would be so important to innumerable fans spanning now five decades of music. Nor could Joni envision her magnificent songs would inspire Kiki Ebsen to launch a tribute band because of the example of her grace and determination. Said Ebsen, “Joni blazed a path for many of us so I wanted to create the Joni Mitchell Tribute Band and many talented singers and musicians to perform her work.
Devoted Joni Mitchell fans don’t have to look at their vinyl albums or CD collection to tell you which one, two, or ten of her songs mean something special to them. They can answer that question immediately. Not every fan picks the same songs; that’s rare, in fact. Of course there are all the radio hits, but there’s usually a turning point at which music lovers first discovered Joni’s works on her earliest albums and call some of those “her best work ever.” When it comes to Mitchell’s music, it is simply about what resonates or grabs you to say, “Remember this, remember me.”
For singer-songwriter Kiki Ebsen, her awareness of Joni’s music came when she was not yet a preteen. At the debut of her peace.harmony concert series at The Healing Equine Ranch in January, before she began to play her second song, Kiki’s voice became wistful as she introduced “Michael from Mountains.”
“I was about 10 years old when my sister, Bonnie, came rushing into the house, clutching a Joni Mitchell album. After searching for me, she said breathlessly, ‘You absolutely must hear this.’ Bonnie’s favorite, she said, was ‘Michael from Mountains.’ She was going on about how amazing the music was, and that I needed to hear it, insisting. I probably was not very appreciative of the information she was sharing. Actually I was probably entirely focused on wanting to go to Disneyland instead, but in time, I came to understand. Joni became a powerful influence in my path to becoming a musical artist, and it began that day.”
As Kiki dedicated the song to Bonnie that night in concert, it was poignant how a simple act of one sister sharing her love of music made such a strong impression. Kiki has shared with friends that, growing up, “Bonnie was always my hero,” so her endorsement of Joni was premier. Poignant, too, that the debut album produced by David Crosby set forth Joni Mitchell’s legendary career in motion and that the album would simultaneously create secondary ripples that would travel far over time.
Who knows what musician today hearing Trouble Child, the tribute band, perform in concert will decide that Joni’s songs mean something special anew to them. They could ultimately perhaps become a singer-songwriter. Call it serendipity, call it love in action; whatever you call it, it’s inspired.
At the time Gigi Worth was a California high school student, music of The Carpenters was going strong on the radio. Karen Carpenter stood out among the crowd as a beautiful brunette teen who played the drums and sang along with her brother, Richard. She defined “cool” to many young women of the same age, one of whom most definitely was Gigi, who was already playing piano and drums plus singing.
Gigi was more than happy playing the gentle soft rock tunes, with all the oohs and ahhs in the overdubbed backing tracks, but when she first heard the radio cuts “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris” from Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” album, Gigi shared that her life took on a new direction. For one thing she began to study the guitar.
During the peace.harmony concert, Gigi described hearing those two songs as transformational. It was “Goodbye Karen, hello Joni.” She waved her arm in the air demonstratively as the audience laughed. Worth’s effusive enthusiasm for Mitchell’s “voice, tunings and complex lyrics were all swirling inside her at once,” she said. And there was no turning back as she sailed through “Help Me” and “Edith and the Kingpin.” Her performances were hauntingly authentic, and personal.
For the entire concert, the audience was enthralled, and savored each tune as it was delivered seemingly effortlessly, yet note-perfect with a personal flair from inspired piano by Kiki and magnificent guitar work by Gigi, Guy, and Steve.
Also importantly, the dialogue between Gigi and Kiki was some of the most brilliant and engaging form of secondary entertainment that night. Now, Worth and Ebsen definitely have abundant tour stories to share, some especially hilarious. Could have something to do with the fact that they spent many tours together supporting the fabulous music of Grammy-winning artist Christopher Cross. Surely he was among the luckiest artists in America to have both singers on tour simultaneously for a while. When on stage together, you’d only see the pro musician side of both ladies, not their keen senses of humor.
At the peace.harmony concert, the dynamic duo had perfect timing in delivering personal insight about the challenges of the road. As they were keeping each other in laughter, Kiki raised an eyebrow, paused, turned to the audience and said, “Excuse our coffee chat; we’ll be right back with you in a minute.” Laughter.
When there was a faint protest from Gigi’s favorite guitarist, Guy Thomas, Gigi quizzed him, “What did you say?” “Oh nothing,” Guy replied. “We’re used to it. We don’t say a word.” To which Gigi turned back to the audience and said, “Men. My mother had the perfect saying she repeated all the time. ‘Turn ‘em all upside down and they all look alike!’” More laughter. Gigi said, ‘I still don’t know what that means.’ Kiki replied, “I don’t know what that means either.” And then back to the music as Guy and Steve feigned discomfort, right before diving back in. It was all in good fun as Gigi, Guy, and their musical colleague Chaz Thompson have their own band, Blue Motel Room, and this is just par for the course fun banter.
Gigi presented to the audience her go-to bassist, Steven Lawrence; she said, “I must say, this man really wipes me out; he’s just incredible on bass. He’s been a friend of my family for years. In fact, Steve is the one my mother (Canadian singing star Gisele MacKenzie) always introduced to everyone as ‘the talented one.’ I don’t know why she never said that about me,” she pretended to protest. Lawrence came back with, “It’s just because I play the $30 chords.”
It’s true Lawrence is the quietest of the quartet who performed, but he generally lets his “red hot bass” do most of the talking. It was rewarding to hear his note-perfect playing, exactly the way you’d hear the cuts on Joni’s albums. Lawrence may kid about “$30 chords,” but the reality is that the bass can frequently make or break a “Joni song.” In some cases, you’re challenged to recreate the genius of Jaco Pastorius. Up to any challenge, Lawrence was knocking out Joni’s discography with panache.
The exceptionally talented Guy Thomas is a gifted guitarist, singer, and composer. His songs have been recorded by Carly Simon (“Come Back Home” (co-writers Carly Simon, Jacob Brackman, Aaron Zigman, Jason Scheff, Guy Thomas), Smokey Robinson (“Don’t Play Another Love Song,” and “Just a Touch Away,” co-written with Dave DeLuca) and Kenny Rogers, to name a few.
Today, Guy is widely respected as composer of over 5,000 music cues and soundtracks that you’ve heard on countless television shows and national commercial jingles including Toyota and Mattel. To meet him you’d never know that, as he’s most interested in what his musical colleagues need from him. He’s a serious student of music first, as well as a teacher in his “other job” as an adjunct professor of music at UCLA.
The opportunity to observe Kiki, Gigi and Guy working out the harmonies and solos on several of Joni’s songs a few days before the concert provided tremendous insight into the reverence with which the trio approach Joni’s catalog. They treated every line of the songs they worked up with tender, loving care, in proper tribute to Joni. In kind, Kiki and Gigi pursued new ways to begin some of the songs to showcase their splendid harmonies.
One terrific musician was missing in action for the evening—Matt Starr, Kiki’s go-to rock drummer. Kiki and friends were eagerly awaiting Matt’s arrival back from a tour for this event, when she got the news that his plane had been delayed and he wasn’t going to be able to get there in time. Given the morning’s rainstorm-bashing, lightning-striking, tree-branch felling, road-blocking, power-outage beginning, Matt’s plane delay was received with Kiki’s stoic calm.
As Gigi was telling the audience that things had been “a bit challenging” prior to the audience’s arrival. “So, I drove off and forgot my guitar, but I got one (courtesy of W.G. “Snuffy” Walden sending one in time for the concert; of course, the Emmy-winning composer saves the day and lends Gigi one of his guitars). And then, no drummer tonight,” Gigi related. Kiki beamed broadly and said, “That’s okay, Matt; enjoy Terminal 7!!”
Gigi came back with “Trouble Child! We’re a lot of trouble, I guess.” Kiki responded, “Well, she may be, but I’m no trouble at all,” poking her finger into her cheek ala Shirley Temple. The audience kept laughing as Gigi retorted, “I’m the trouble you can see.” Kiki replied, “I’m the trouble you don’t see coming.” Gigi: “Don’t take us on tour….” Kiki: “No, take us on tour!”
Somehow you just got the sense that Christopher Cross had missed his opportunity to capture their vivacious energy in concert, independent of their omnipresent musical contributions. Cross’ opinion is relevant, of course, after years of reminding devoted fans that his songwriting has always been inspired by Joni Mitchell above all others. Speaking of whom, had Joni Mitchell been in attendance that night, she assuredly would have loved every moment. The audience was made to feel welcome, very much at home, and like holders of all-access VIP passes for the peace.harmony concert debut.
Kiki Ebsen’s recording of “Woodstock” from her “Cool Songs, Vol. 1” CD (2009) is the fifth-most popular Joni song covered by artists. In fact, Kiki’s version is one of 293 recordings released for this song, as noted on Ms. Mitchell’s website. The song was also recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Richie Havens, Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, the Syracuse University Marching Band and Stevie Wonder. And, on Nov. 24, 2015, Kiki was featured in Steve Key’s Songwriters at Play concert in Paso Robles, California, which paid tribute to Joni Mitchell on her 72nd birthday.
Standout concert performances from Kiki Ebsen included, “A Case of You,” and “Carey” from “Blue.” “Michael from Mountains” was inspired and gifted. Her version of “Night in the City” from “Song to a Seagull” was transcendent. Kiki’s sharing of stories behind certain songs, including what the songs meant to her with the audience was especially profound because it was in that exact same room (today a concert hall) where Bonnie had shared with Kiki what Joni’s music had meant to her, years earlier.
Gigi Worth visibly moved the audiences to tears with her soulful delivery of “Just Like This Train” from “Court and Spark.” You’d have sworn it was Joni singing on “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris.”
Guy Thomas and Steven Lawrence were essential to the brilliance of so many of the songs, particularly the radio hits, making sure the audience would hear every beat, each essence of the songs they call “soundtracks of their lives.” As the audience reflected on these beautiful renditions, Gigi graciously invited them to sing along: “You know this one, please sing along if you’d like…we’d love to hear you,” an offer that’s only made by generous performers.
The full set list performed that evening included songs from “Song to a Seagull” (March 1968); “Clouds” (May 1969); “Ladies of the Canyon” (April 1970); “Blue” (June 1971); “For the Roses” (November 1972); “Court and Spark” (January 1974); “The Hissing of Summer Lawns (November 1975); “Wild Things Run Fast” (October 1982) and “Hejira” (November 1976).
No one wanted the evening to end, but the encore was perfect: “Circle Game” from “Ladies of the Canyon.” In concert, Joni would introduce it generally saying, “I wrote this song for a friend that was sad because he was too old to hang out with his friends in a teen club, now that he had turned 20. I wanted him to feel better so I wrote a song for him.”
Her “friend” was, in fact, Neil Young, and he’d documented his disappointment turning 20 in his song, “Sugar Mountain.” Thus, the beauty that is “The Circle Game” is in fact, the “answer” to “Sugar Mountain.” Then reflect on Graham Nash’s story about David Crosby throwing him a party in 1969 when he moved to the United States to live. Crosby also invited Joni; that same night, Nash moved into what would become “Our House.”
So, in one encore song, the talented group now dubbed “Trouble Child” inspired reflection on the brilliance born on Lookout Mountain. Consider Joni, Graham, and David sitting in someone’s home in Laurel Canyon, churning out their life, as journal entries in lyrics, melodies, and harmonies. With that in mind, you open your eyes to see Kiki, Gigi, Guy, and Steven interpreting messages from long ago. Profound and inspirational.
Kiki’s final message was poignant: “I created this peace.harmony concert series to give artists and musicians an opportunity to share their talents and compositions, and give what’s in their hearts a place to be heard and seen. We can lament all day and focus on the frustrations of what ‘the music business is today’ and how it’s not like it was. Or, we can do whatever we can to make it better for all artists. We can make certain we each do our part. If art is inside of you, it must come out. And we all need to share what’s in our hearts. My hope is for everyone to be inspired to create their best work.”
At the conclusion of the evening, Ebsen announced Trouble Child (including drummer Matt Starr) would reprise the evening’s concert on June 5 at Bogie’s in Westlake Village. It’s indeed heartwarming to Kiki and Gigi that news of this upcoming concert is already featured and shared on the official Joni Mitchell website. Suffice it to say that if you want to be in the audience, there’s no such thing as getting your tickets too soon. When you hear Trouble Child in person, aka Kiki, Gigi, and friends sing Joni, you’ll feel inclined to join in on at least one of the songs, so just know that going in. They’ll welcome you to do just that.
“…And the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down; we’re captive on the carousel of time.” Get on your painted pony and ride, peace.harmony style, and share the art inside you with others.
This story is the final of a five-part series of stories that shares Kiki Ebsen’s peace.harmony concert debut in tribute to Joni Mitchell. Trouble Child (Kiki, Gigi, & Friends) will reprise their Joni Mitchell Tribute on June 5, at Bogie’s in Westlake Village. Check Kiki’s website for details.