John Kelly grew up in New Jersey listening to his sisters’ Joni Mitchell records. He now performs those songs in concert with an uncommon reverence. “I respect them as art songs,” he says. “Why, when people sing popular music, do they feel compelled to change notes? Even bad music is possible to respect—and maybe even improve—by singing cleanly. And by cleanly, I mean honestly—finding a relationship to the material and being clear about it.”
In Paved Paradise: Redux, an evening of Mitchell’s oeuvre at the Triple Door, Kelly establishes the kind of relationship to his material that wins other performers Oscars. He plays guitar, strums the dulcimer, affectionately mimics Mitchell’s Hey, like, wow man stage patter (culled from live recordings and radio interviews) and re-creates the entire history of her singing voice—from the bell-like soprano of her youth to her current smoky contralto (“Or baritone,” he jokes, “depending on how you look at it.”) Kelly sounds so much like her that at first you don’t know whether to laugh or cry; you soon find yourself doing both.
That he also dresses as Mitchell further complicates the affair. Though Kelly first became Joni in 1984 for New York’s Wigstock dragfest, his generous performance can’t be labeled merely an accomplished bit of female impersonation. Calling it camp doesn’t stick, either, even if his 2003 Seattle gig featured a male keyboardist dolled up as the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. He’s backed himself this time with local musicians and removed much of the playful theatrics. “It’s not about eliminating any ‘camp’ element, but it is about me wanting to focus on the music,” he explains. Expect a song from Mitchell’s early years (“Just Like Me”) that’s available only on pirated recordings. And be assured that Kelly hasn’t lost his imagination: “I don’t want to tell you what I do, but there is some other kind of transformation [in the show]. But when it happens it’s once again about focusing back on the music—and messing with the audience’s expectations.”
He’s already dealt with the ultimate audience’s expectations: Mitchell herself requested a command performance several years back. She cried, yelled “Bravo!” and hugged her doppelganger backstage after the show. “It was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done in my life,” says Kelly. “But I seem to thrive on extremes.”