Concert Review: Belle-Skinner, Hold on Honeys, Girl Blue and Zan & the Winter Folk pay tribute to Joni @ Cohoes Music Hall, 03/11/2023

COHOES — Four local female-led bands paid tribute to Joni Mitchell on Saturday night to a sold-out house at Cohoes Music Hall. Belle-Skinner, Hold on Honeys, Girl Blue and Zan & the Winter Folk each chose to perform four of Joni Mitchell’s songs, and each reflected not only their individuality in those choices but also their bravery. Mitchell’s music is both challenging technically and artistically, bringing forth emotion that appears easy but is demanding of the performers.

All four sets were phenomenal in their own right, somehow offering a dizzying variety of music from legendary Mitchell peppered with facts about the performer’s life.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

But first, the women circled the microphone to sing “The Circle Game” while Belle-Skinner played her guitar. Opening with Zan, whose voice was shockingly similar to Mitchell’s, the women took turns with the famed song singing Mitchell’s lyrics about the seasons of life.

Belle-Skinner’s set of four songs was up first, and I must admit I was quite taken aback by Skinner’s vulnerability. Playing with only her guitar, her clear and delicious soprano reminded me of a bird song in a cathedral. My jaw dropped as she launched into “Little Green,” but first Skinner explained that the song – and apparently many of her songs – were written to a daughter she had given up for adoption due to her own poverty prohibiting her parenting.

As Skinner shared story after story about Mitchell, I felt quite small about my earlier words focusing on Mitchell’s relationships with men in our Nippertown preview. Quite clearly I had fallen into the trap (and I say trap because the media feeds it) of seeing Mitchell through the lens of the male gaze rather than recognizing Mitchell’s songwriting as the authentic and courageous narrative of her own life.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Belle-Skinner’s anecdotes about Mitchell clarified for me how difficult her early life had been, as did the other stories that were shared by the musicians through the night. Her song “Cactus Tree,” performed with perfect breath control by Skinner, was about protecting privacy while also giving so freely of herself in her writing.

Belle Skinner’s voice can’t be praised enough. Her riffs in “A Case of You” popped with an ease that only a well-practiced vocalist could quietly move through with such accuracy. Skinner’s version of “Woodstock” almost felt original, although quite clearly was holding to Mitchell’s composition, in that her pacing felt like she was finding the words for the first time. That isn’t to say she wasn’t on task; it is to say she felt so in the moment that the words felt organically new.

Belle Skinner is performing her songs, including an album of Mitchell songs she recorded earlier, at Lark Hall on April 6th. She left the stage promising to return, and the audience whooped their appreciation.

The Hold On Honeys joined the party next. Featuring Emily Curro, Raya Malcolm, and Shannon Rafferty, the three-part harmony trio is based in Troy, and the local crowd was enchanted as they sang their version of Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio.” Their high-energy vocals were joined by Michael Gregg on guitar, Matt Malone on bass, and Connor Armbruster on fiddle.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

The Honey’s version of “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” ironically showed that these relatively younger singers absolutely knew where they stood in the music field. Their ability to shift from minimalism to a fuller folk sound without losing the integrity of the original pieces shone through as they shifted through an a cappella piece and back again to “Night In the City.”

It was fun to watch the members of the Hold on Honeys support each other, touching each other’s backs gently and later dancing together while making eye contact. These women are a trio to watch, as they are clearly coming into their own in the folk scene.

After a brief intermission, Girl Blue took the stage with Arielle O’Keefe at the piano reminding us (lest we forget) that Joni Mitchell was and is a blues singer. With the song “Court and Spark,” Girl Blue highlighted O’Keefe’s bluesy vocals while also sharing her willingness to take risks. The band launched into a technically challenging “Hejira,” a song O’Keefe encouraged the audience to experience as a mindful meditation. With Daniel Lawson on bass, the song pushed the limits of listeners and blew minds. It appeared the audience was going to burst from their seats at the close of the song with applause.

Girl Blue is drawn to the jazz in Mitchell’s music, which translated to possibly the hardest set of the night. With “Borderline,” I held my breath as they curated the sound to reflect Mitchell as much as Girl Blue’s identity.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

“Joni’s songs hold the whole world inside of them,” O’Keefe mused as she pushed the limits and boundaries of the night. She ended with “Down to You,” highlighting Jonathan Greene on clarinet, Josh Morris on drums, Josh Marre and also Jimi W on guitar, and of course the previously mentioned Lawson on bass. Not only was the message of Mitchell’s words uplifting, but Girl Blue’s songs also reminded listeners to think for themselves and lean into the challenges of complex music.

Girl Blue’s vocals deserve a moment of contemplation, as she brings her velvety voice out song after song with what appears to be effortless energy. O’Keefe’s vocals are unique to her, even when singing covers, as she makes decisions to breathe differently, pausing thoughtfully, in her phrasing. She is a master at her art and a local treasure. It is no wonder her song “Lolita” was recently picked up for NPR’s “51 percent.” Like Mitchell, O’Keefe bares her soul by connecting to the commonalities of the human experience. If you haven’t seen her, this should be a priority for you in the coming months.

The final set of the night was Zan and the Winter Folk, and frankly, I was rapt with excitement to see how this Americana band would approach Mitchell. There isn’t exactly a banjo in most Mitchell songs, so I sat forward waiting to hear what was coming.

I love Zan’s vocals, and as I noted earlier, she sounds like she could be Mitchell’s kin in her similar tone. But she is also clearly her own person, starting on a dulcimer for the first song of the set “California.” Strumfield owned that she learned the instrument just for this show, and owed a debt to local musician Deb Cavanaugh for loaning her the higher quality instrument (and teaching her to tune it!).

By the second song “Carey,” I had my answer as to how the band would work their folk sound into Mitchell’s: they’d do it with joyful rhythm. Zan’s smile couldn’t keep the secret that she was super pleased by their rendition as she danced along to the music put out by Will Brown on guitar, Michael Gregg on banjo, Sean Fortune on bass, Brendan Tompkins on drums, and eventually Sam Torres on sax.

Zan sang the most awaited song of the night, “Both Sides Now,” accompanied only by Brown’s guitar. While pleasing in sound, the guitar playing felt like it pushed the tempo of the melancholy tune a bit, and I wanted to hear it again but with Zan savoring each syllable more with her sexy voice.

The band closed their set with a joyful “Free Man in Paris,” including the Honeys for vocals, before inviting all the musicians on stage for an exuberant “Big Yellow Taxi.” The crowd sang along with the chorus, grooving in their seats.

The tribute was a satisfying night of music, and not just because of their gorgeous voices and spirited renditions of favorite tunes. The concert offered an opportunity for female artists to demonstrate collaboration, genuine enjoyment of one another, and celebration of each other’s talents. So often, women are represented across all professions as competitive rather than supportive of each other. Seeing these tremendous vocalists together, gazing with pride in each other’s work, was inspiring and a fitting concert for the month that hosts International Women’s Day.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

On the drive home, I mused a bit about how Mitchell would feel about each vocalist’s interpretation of her messages and music. Mitchell herself produced over 19 albums, shifting throughout her career to reflect her differing circumstances and interests. I think she’d love Belle Skinner’s vulnerability, the Honeys’ fierce harmonies, Girl Blue’s tenacity, and Zan’s blissed-out vocals.

But I suspect what Mitchell would love most is that they all took her music to new places on Saturday night, holding true to the messages of peace and community while also being authentically talented women in their own right.

Photo Gallery by Jim Gilbert

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