Robin Adler & Mutts of the Planet just might be the finest repertory band in the contiguous United States, and I seriously doubt that Hawaii or Alaska has anyone that can touch them either.
Adler and crew (captained by her husband, Dave Blackburn, a remarkable guitarist, engineer and transcriptionist) are devoted to keeping the music of Joni Mitchell alive, and they do this by reproducing entire albums with a slavish devotion bordering on the obsessive.
Mitchell’s masterpiece “Hejira” is therefore rendered faithfully on their latest recording, “Hejira Live,” captured in stunning fidelity at the acoustically pristine Carlsbad Village Theatre on June 1.
First off, if I didn’t know this was a live album, I wouldn’t believe it, because the mix is incredible. Blackburn begins “Coyote” with those trademark Joni open-string voicings, and Adler’s voice is unbelievably clear, while bassist Kevin Hennessy reprises the Jaco Pastorius bass-line in all of its harmonic-heavy glory.
Next up is a true-to-the-letter reading of Mitchell’s difficult, quirky “Amelia,” a tune that gave many of Mitchell’s own bands fits to interpret. Guitarist Jamie Kime hovers above with volume-pedal swells and eerie counterpoint, while guest Jeffrey Joe contributes haunting harmonica work on “Furry Sings the Blues.”
Blackburn, Hennessy and the sparse congas of Danny Campbell weave a contextual tapestry for Adler to deliver the world-weary melancholic treatise “Hejira” with both emotive empathy and precise articulation, and Kime sneaks in a bravura solo at the end, full of tasteful distortion and pleading vibrato.
Those singular clouds of lush harmony are religiously reproduced on the alternately mocking/despondent “Song for Sharon,” which also features the soaring, angelic background vocals of Lisa Hightower, Sheryl Goodman and Mo Mullins. It’s an amazing achievement.
Hennessy’s electric bass is the secret engine that powers “Black Crow” with percolating acuity, and the band could not be any tighter. Adler even includes a short, startling scat chorus to take the tune out. Only a singer of the highest distinction would even try to tackle this material, and Adler shines with flawless intonation, drop-dead clarity and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to reveal the emotional story behind the music.
Since Mitchell’s singing days are over, Robin Adler & Mutts of the Planet are the next best thing to the fantasy of hearing Joni do this material live. “Hejira Live” is a must-have for fans of Mitchell’s enduring music.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.