Hey Blue, here is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in
— Joni Mitchell, “Blue”
A Joni Mitchell song gets under your skin in the most comforting way.
When singer-guitarist Kimberly Ford was a teenager, Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue etched its way into her mind and heart.
“I learned it cover to cover,” Ford said. “She was so different — the sound of her voice, and the poetry of her writing, which was much deeper than the folk music people tie her to. She gave language to my emotions.”
Ford is now the lead singer and guitarist for A Celebration of Joni Mitchell, which performs Friday, Jan. 18, at Namba Performing Arts Space in Ventura.
Featuring Ford and a six-piece band, the ensemble formed five years ago and has played around the country, often to sell-out crowds. The group doesn’t like to call itself a “tribute” band.
“We try to honor the original compositions, but never think of ourselves as a tribute,” Ford said. “Her work stands alone; it’s enough to just learn the music and do it justice. We could never duplicate her. I listen and learn, but try to step away with my own spin.”
Ford chose a powerful poetic songstress as her muse.
In a career lasting more than 40 years (and not done yet, although she performs less often), Canadian-born Mitchell, who turned 75 in November, has received nine Grammy Awards as well as the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2017, Blue was No. 1 on National Public Radio’s list of 150 Greatest Albums by Women.
Mitchell started out as more of a confessional folk singer, although she drew from pop and rock as well, then moved into more complex jazz stylings. The shift didn’t pan out for her commercially, but has endeared her to musicians and critics who praise her determination to evolve and explore new sonic territory.
Like Mitchell, Ford said she followed a similar path from folk to jazz music.
Ford, who lives in Santa Barbara, grew up in Central California, and played folk and bluegrass music in her 20s before switching to jazz.
Now, Ford offers private lessons and group workshops, mostly in jazz voice. She also teaches in schools as part of the Santa Barbara Vocal Jazz Foundation, and hosts the Monday Night Jazz Jam at SOhO. A Celebration of Joni Mitchell began when bass player Tom Etchart asked drummer Charles Levin if he could sub at a private gig with Ford. A few weeks later, Levin, who lives in Ventura, saw a YouTube video of Ford singing “Woodstock.”
“She clearly had the range to hit all those crazy high notes Joni sang in her career,” Levin said. “I had been sitting on the idea of a Joni band, and thought she’d be a great fit.”
A Celebration of Joni Mitchell mines the depths of the singer’s catalog, performing hits like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Both Sides Now,” “Help Me” and “Blue,” along with lesser-known tunes including “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “Hejira” and “Moon at the Window.”
Citing an example of a should-be-better-known Mitchell song, Ford mentions “The Fiddle and the Drum,” which Mitchell sang a cappella on The Dick Cavett Show in 1969:
Oh, America my friend
And so once again
You are fighting us all
And when we ask you why
You raise your sticks and cry and we fall
“It’s very descriptive of our position in the world as a country, and it’s amazing how relevant it is,” Ford said.
Fans who love Mitchell’s rich sound but can’t pinpoint why might not be aware of her prowess for using nonstandard guitar tunings. To create the complex sounds she heard in her head, Mitchell wrote songs with more than 50 guitar tunings.
“This is one of my favorite parts of what she does,” Ford said. “She would change the pitch of notes until it created a sound bed for her ideas, her feelings, her poetry. Her music is really hard to play, because with every tuning, your hand positions have to change. Every song is its own invention. But when people hear those chords, it really touches them. The music takes you to almost a vibrational place.”
And fills the empty spaces.
A Celebration of Joni Mitchell performs on Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. at Namba Performing Arts Space, 47 S. Oak St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 805-628-9250 or visit nambaarts.com.