Both Sides Now:
Julia Deans Sings Joni Mitchell

ARTS, Music, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_juliadeansAuckland International Cabaret Season
Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall | June 4 & 8

I discovered the song ‘River’ when I was a precocious-but-not-that-precocious 12-year-old watching Alias. It played at the end of an episode, a bizarre choice for a show that was essentially a spy soap opera, but something about that song clicked with me. I did some errant Googling and eventually came up Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. The rest is history.

Everybody, or everybody who is a Joni Mitchell fan, has their own story of how they came to her. Less of them probably feature a Jennifer Garner TV show, but growing to love Joni Mitchell and her universal yet immensely personal songs is an experience that is unique to every person who comes to her.

It’s why Julia Deans has a very high bar to clear. Not only does she have to sing the songs well, obviously; she has to communicate the experience of these songs, the delicate stories that Mitchell outlines with seemingly effortless phrasing, and do it without simply playing Mitchell.

It is a bar she clears with apparent ease. From the moment she walks onstage she appears to be channelling Joni Mitchell through her own cool, loose, and sexy persona. She moves around the stage and around these songs with ease. Her higher register is a dead ringer for Mitchell’s own songbird tones, but the rest of her voice is classic Julia Deans, the same voice that stunned in Brel only a year and a half ago.

Her band, including Robin Kelly on piano, Paul McLaney on guitar, Tom Broome on drums, and Sean Donnelly on bass, also handle these songs with apparent ease. While their essence is communicated with minimal rearrangement from what I can tell, they feel bigger. It might be the feeling of hearing these songs for the first time not in the privacy of my own home or headphones, but in the massive Concert Chamber with full light and smoke, which lends them a gravitas I haven’t experienced with Mitchell before.

It seems bullish and expected to list particular highlights of the show. Part of the fun is seeing what songs Deans and director Shane Bosher have picked out of Mitchell’s impressive canon, but the songs they have curated could not be better selected. There are a few omissions of Mitchell’s more famous or commercial songs—if there is such a thing as a commercial Joni Mitchell song—the absence of which was initially surprising, but upon reflection make sense, as these songs would’ve been tonally jarring. It’s a singular experience to see deep cuts like ‘Amelia’ and ‘Rainy Night House’ performed onstage, and with as much care and effort as more well-known tunes like ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ and ‘Blue’.

Listening to a Joni Mitchell song is an emotional experience at any time, but seeing them performed with both love and care only amplified what these songs are, and what they meant to me, as well as the people sitting around me. It seems damning with faint praise to say that Deans channels Mitchell, but she does more than that; she fuses her own voice and artistry to Mitchell’s own to create a unique experience. We see the stories of a young woman from the ’70s filtered through a young woman today, and while the specifics are different, the stories and emotions are as relevant as they were then.

Both Sides Now is a show I expect will grow. With only two shows in this year’s Cabaret Season, the second of which will undoubtedly fill up immediately, and with the rapturous ovation it received last year, it seems poised to be a hit and a long-lasting one at that. It showcases two artists at the height of their power; Mitchell in the ’70s and Deans now, and the audience eats out of the palm of their hand.

The last song transported me back to a 12-year-old sitting at home watching Alias on a barely functional 13” TV. ‘River’ is always an emotional experience for me, but listening to Deans take hold of that song and wring the life and soul of it was a transformative experience, which is the highest praise I can give.

There’s nothing else I can say.