Born to be Blue: Dina Maccabee plays Berkeley

Dina Maccabee plays Berkeley’s Freight& Salvage on Monday and Tuesday Jan. 21 and 22. Photo: Bill Evans

Violinist/vocalist Dina Maccabee came to Joni Mitchell relatively late, but once she discovered “Blue” the nakedly confessional 1971 album lodged deep in her musical consciousness. She had the rare opportunity to reimagine the album last year as guest curator for UnderCover Presents at Brava Theatre, an event reprised Monday and Tuesday at Freight & Salvage with the same dazzling cast of some 50 artists.

“Joni’s lyrics stand as poetry on the page; the melodies are inspired and the lyrics are inspired, but her singing is so central to her music it can be hard to separate the core melody from her vocal ornamentation,” says Maccabee, an invaluable presence on the Bay Area music scene who plays and sings in the duo Ramon & Jessica and the Real Vocal String Quartet, among other ensembles. “I was interested in whether you can you take a Joni Mitchell song and not sing it the way she does and still have it stand up.”

Stylistically encompassing concerts dedicated to covering a beloved album, UnderCover productions maximize the talent pool by limiting each act to a single song. “Blue” turned out to be a ripe for reinvention. In Suzy Thompson’s hands, “River” morphs from an anguished ballad into a salty blues. Classical Indian vocalist Bharathi Palivela and bassist Daniel Fabricant set “My Old Man” to a ravishing raga. Clarinetist Beth Custer’s ensemble transforms the sprightly “Carey” into a slinky jazz/funk workout. And the vocal ensemble Kitka adds thick but ethereal Balkan harmonies to “Blue,” an interpretation so striking it inspired a standing ovation at Brava. Like all previous UnderCover productions, the price of admission includes a downloadable studio recording of the evening’s artists interpreting the same material.

“I picked my own song first,” says Maccabee, who puts a psychedelic Brazilian spin on “All I Want” with KillBossa. “I tried to elicit from artists what songs they were interested in doing. Beth Custer really knew what she wanted to do, and Adam Theis knew he wanted to put a funk/hip hop spin on ‘This Flight Tonight.’ Amy X Neuberg was pretty clear on her choice [‘California’]. I was left with mix and match. Kitka became a no-brainer for ‘Blue.’ Everybody put a twist on their song.”

For Maccabee, more used to hustling for gigs than being hustled, winnowing the field to cover just 10 songs proved to be a stressful experience. “As an artist I’m suddenly on the other side with people contacting me about a gig,” she says. “It wasn’t political, but I gave myself certain guidelines. I wanted to focus on strong female leads, and I tried to reach out to groups that hadn’t been in previous UnderCovers. It’s really about capturing a moment of live music in San Francisco, and throwing together artists whose paths may otherwise never cross.”

The UnderCover concept was born two years ago when a post-gig epiphany led producer Lyz Luke, Faultline Studios sound engineer Yosh Haraguchi, and Classical Revolution violinist Charith Premawardhana to put out the word they were looking for players to cover “The Velvet Underground and Nico.” Weeks before show time the project had taken on a life of its own, with Liz Phair and Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins sending word that they wanted in on the Velvet action. Staged at Coda in late October 2010, the event became a Bay Area musical watershed.

“Even before we announced the Velvet lineup we were on our way to selling out those shows,” Luke recalls. “So many musicians who play different genres have so much respect for each other and never get to play on the same bill. When you’ve got, say a Balkan clarinetist collaborating with an Afrobeat player, there’s a good chance you’re going to find something you really like.”

Each subsequent UnderCover production has sought to match an album to an appropriate venue, with clarinetist Aaron Novik curating the Pixies’ “Doolittle” at Public Works in February 2011, trumpeter Darren Johnston heading Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” at the Rickshaw Shop last January, and clarinetist Cornelius Boots directing an evening devoted to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” at the Independent last May. The next album is Radiohead’s “Kid A” Feb. 23-24 at the Rickshaw Stop with Kitka’s Elizabeth Setzer serving as guest music director. “Blue” is the first production to get an encore performance.

Recommended gig

The Gonifs

The Gonifs: playing the Starry Plough on Thursday Jan. 17

After 15 years slinging torrid klezmer, the Gonifs celebrate the release of their first album tonight at Starry Plough, an eponymous session on Porto Franco Records. Led by clarinetist Peter Jaques and accordionist Jeanette Lewicki, a dedicated promoter of Yiddish culture, the Gonifs feature some of the region’s most exciting musicians, including percussionist Aaron Kierbel, bassist Daniel Fabricant, trumpeter and composer Darren Johnston, and special guests Veretski Pass, (Cookie Segelstein, Joshua Horowitz and Stu Brotman). The show marks the last performance of the band’s present incarnation, as Jaques is heading to Greece as a 2013 Fulbright scholar, immersing himself further in the Balkan clarinet sound that he’s brought to the bands Brass Menazeri and Stellamara.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • http://twitter.com/mo_husseini mo husseini

    The headline misspells her name. :)

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    No longer! Thanks for spotting that Mo.

  • zekesweeney

    This was an incredible show! Thanks to the Freight and to all the wonderful, LOCAL musicians, and of course, thanks to Joni Mitchell for everything!

    If you missed it, you missed out! They’ve only performed this show 4 times and no immediate plans to continue, that is unless the Freight decides to have them back (2 sold out nights, I don’t see why they wouldn’t) or another venue decides to have them. If they do repeat this, and you are any kind of Joni fan, or a fan of these great musicians, run, don’t walk, to get tickets!