Joni Mitchell was already three albums deep into her jazz-folk career — and had a handful of radio hits and a Grammy to her name — when she issued her landmark Blue in the summer of 1971 and reintroduced herself as a singer-songwriter of such magnitude and grace that only Bob Dylan was her equal.
Emotionally raw, brutally honest and exquisitely devastating, Blue was Mitchell mining both the personal (her romantic bust-up with longtime beau Graham Nash; a baby she’d given up for adoption years earlier) and the political (the implosion of hippie idealism as the free-love ’60s gave way to the Nixonian ’70s) for a trailblazing type of heartbreak. Its 10 sophisticatedly arranged tracks had a poignancy made even more acute by Mitchell’s strangely playful melodies and bright voice — which accomplished the neat trick of being simultaneously acrobatic and demure — trying to spark hope within all the lyrical gloom.
Blue set the bar pretty damn high for the legion of confessional singer-songwriters, female and male, who would sprout up in its wake. And you could probably found a small city with the multitude of artists — from arena headliners to coffee-shop folkies — who’ve been inspired by Mitchell’s masterwork over the past four decades.
You can count Chicks With Dip among Blue’s grateful descendants. The Chicks are a dozen-strong collective of lady singer-songwriters — all of them based in New York City except for Cheryl Prashker, a songwriter and classically trained percussionist who lives in Mount Airy — who 10 years ago started getting together regularly at each other’s homes to jam on some songs, gab about the open-mic scene, knock back some wine and chow down (the name comes from their addiction to chips and dip, not Skoal).
In January, the Chicks performed Blue in its entirety, each woman tackling one song, for a show to benefit Manhattan’s Christopher Street Coffeehouse, where it was held. The gig was so well received that other venues started calling to book it. The Chicks recorded studio versions of their covers for the recently issued Joni Mitchell’s Blue: A 40th Anniversary Celebration, which has been in regular rotation on WXPN. Now they’re taking their salute up and down the East Coast, with a stop at World Café Live on Saturday.
“If it wasn’t for Joni Mitchell, I don’t think any of us would exist,” says Prashker, who’ll back each guitar-toting Chick on drums as she tackles her song, sometimes accompanied by a bassist or pianist, too.
“[Blue] was one of the first albums where a woman could bare her emotions — it was huge,” Prashker continues. “It must have been very scary for her, but I think it was the first time that male singer-songwriters took a woman really seriously as a peer, as someone who could take the lead.”
To keep things out of the realm of karaoke and make Mitchell’s songs their own, the Chicks are taking some liberties with arrangements and vocal delivery. Honor Finnegan, who’ll open the show with Blue’s lead track “All I Want,” says she’s “stretched out some of the bounce” in Mitchell’s inimitable voice and slowed down the groove, which she thinks makes the tune more melancholy.
“[Mitchell’s] one of a kind and I’ve got to do it my own way, because it’s so much harder to connect with an audience if you don’t connect with a song exactly the way you want to,” says Finnegan.
And as with their previous performances, the Chicks will follow their rendering of Blue by each performing one of their own songs “made possible by Blue.”
“The whole thing is basically a big thank you to Joni for having the courage to be the first,” says Prashker, “and for helping make us who we are as artists and people.”
Joni Mitchell’s Blue: A 40th Anniversary Celebration, Sat., Sept. 1, 8 p.m., $20, World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, worldcafelive.com.