“Back to the Garden” Celebrates the Music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

In the 1960s and ’70s, the popular music scene saw the rise of the first wave of prominent female singer/songwriters including such legendary figures as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro. On Friday, Sept. 23, 2016, Back to the Garden, a King/Mitchell/Nyro tribute concert, celebrated these musical pioneers at Lakewood, NJ’s historic Strand Theater.

Carole King started her songwriting career working in a cubicle at NYC’s 1650 Broadway building, writing for producer Don Kirshner. With her husband, Gerry Goffin, she created her first chart-topping smash for The Shirelles, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Following up with tunes for other artists including “The Locomotion” for Little Eva, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for The Monkees, and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin, King moved to California where she wrote and recorded a number of solo albums including Writer, Music, Wrap Around Joy, and Rhymes and Reasons. There, she also recorded one of the best-selling albums in music history, Tapestry, which included such memorable hits as “I Feel the Earth Move” and “It’s Too Late.”

At the same time King was recording Tapestry in LA, in a studio just down the hall, Joni Mitchell was working on her seminal album, Blue. Originally a visual artist from Saskatchewan, Canada, Mitchell crossed over into folk music, eventually going on to have one of her compositions, “Both Sides Now,” become a Top Ten hit for Judy Collins. She followed this up with a lengthy career as a singer/songwriter and produced a large number of commercially successful yet critically-acclaimed recordings including Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, For the Roses, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, in addition to her sterling trilogy consisting of Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira.

Like King, Laura Nyro was a native New Yorker. Growing up listening to street corner harmony groups, at a young age, Nyro drafted incredible hits for other artists from “Stoned Soul Picnic” for The Fifth Dimension to “Stoney End” for Barbara Streisand. She also endeared herself to fans with the release of her debut album, More Than a New Discovery, and continued to produce a series of soulful classics including Eli’s Comin’, New York Tendeberry, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, Gonna Take a Miracle, Smile, and Walk the Dog, Light the Light.

“Laura Nyro was the purest artist I’ve ever known,” says Felix Cavaliere, founder and lead singer of The Rascals. Cavaliere not only produced Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, but he also grew to be a close friend of Nyro’s.

Another close friend of Laura’s, composer Toni Wine, co-writer of The Mindbender’s #1 hit,“Groovy Kind of Love,” says about Nyro, “Laura was the epitome of quality music all the way around — her pitch, her presence, her musicianship. As girls, we would play each other our songs before anyone else heard them and, in fact, I did all of the harmonies with her on her first album.”

Sadly, following Laura’s premature death at the age of 49 in 1997 from ovarian cancer, Wine was the person responsible for organizing the city of Nashville’s memorial concert to Nyro.

Melissa Hammans, a current resident of Nashville, is the creator of Back to the Garden. Hammans decided to develop this show because, as she reveals, “Without Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, it wouldn’t even occur to me — as a woman — to stand on stage and sing! They were — absolutely — pioneers for women in the music industry and they created their own opportunities to share their music and inspired a lot of women — myself included — to take a leap of faith and put ourselves ‘out there.’”

Explaining how she became exposed to the music of these three legendary artists, Hammans explains, “When I started singing, I learned how to sing Carole King’s music, and when I was in high school, I remember performing the Three Dog Night version of Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Comin’” with my show choir and I thought ‘This is so good!’ And then, in college, I remember listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, so it’s really spanned my entire life — I guess I can’t think of a time when I have not listened to this music.”

Going on to elaborate on her personal connection with these women, Hammans discloses, “I saw Carole King perform at Madison Square Garden with James Taylor… it was one of the most incredible experiences, musically, I’ve ever witnessed — such friendship and collaboration. I don’t know what I would do if I ever met Joni Mitchell. She’s been somewhat of a recluse and has had some serious health issues over the years. And with Laura Nyro, we lost her far too soon. But I have had the great privilege of befriending members of her family — her late father, Lou, and her brother, Jan, and his family — and they have been really supportive of the show. Jan came on stage and performed with us a handful of times and that was a dream come true. And Lou came to see Back to the Garden less than a year before he died, and it was truly one of the markers of my life.”

Appropriately, the opening act for Back to the Garden at The Strand Theater is one of the Jersey Shore’s most beloved female singer/songwriters, Emily Grove, who recently performed a sold-out tribute to Joni Mitchell at McLoone’s on the Boardwalk in Asbury Park.

Accompanied by guitarist James McCaffrey, Grove reprises several of the songs from that performance, opening her set with an energetic version of Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.” As the sound of McCaffrey’s acoustic guitar rings throughout the grand auditorium, Grove’s gorgeous voice resonates clear and bell-like despite an admission of laryngitis. As expected, Grove — always the consummate performer — sings her heart out, her voice naturally doing exactly what it’s been trained to do.

Moving on to Joni’s “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” one can see audience members’ heads bobbing along to the music as Grove’s voice twists and turns to the groove of Mitchell’s bouncy rock ‘n roll melody.

Despite being an East Coast girl, Grove goes on to perform a second song about France with Mitchell’s well-known ode to “California,” Emily’s light falsetto voice dancing like Joni’s as the folky melody skips up and down to the staccato strum of McCaffrey’s guitar.

After putting her spin on two lesser-performed Mitchell compositions, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” and “Edith and the Kingpin,” Grove and McCaffrey conclude Emily’s set with a touching duet performance of James Taylor’s classic “You Can Close Your Eyes,” a song Taylor is said to have written about Joni Mitchell.

And just as they did at Emily’s concert in Asbury Park, the audience members at the Strand react strongly with rousing applause filled with hoots and hollers for both Grove and McCaffrey.

Following a short intermission, Back to the Garden’s trio of female lead vocalists — Melissa Hammans, Shaleah Adkisson, and Maddy Wyatt — takes the stage backed up by a talented all-female band which includes leader Sue Terwilliger on guitar, Karen Dryer on piano, Barbara Merjan on drums, and Mary Ann McSweeney on bass.

Soft lighting illuminates the women, bringing intimacy to the proceedings as Hammans’, Adkisson’s, and Wyatt’s acapella voices trade off on the Shirelles’ “I Met Him On a Sunday,” a song Laura Nyro famously covered. Then, the women segue into a radiant up-tempo version of Carole King’s “One Fine Day” followed by a delightfully rhythmic romp on Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want.”

Not a typical tribute concert where the performers merely try to imitate the artists they love, Back to the Garden is a multi-leveled celebration of the music and life of the women it honors, filled with stories and quotes in addition to dynamic versions of its honorees’ most salient works. Thus, as Hammans, Adkisson, and Wyatt perform, they weave stories of the lives of King, Mitchell, and Nyro into their presentation through dialogue which is interspersed among the songs.

In addition, they feature quotes from these three esteemed singer/songwriters on the output of their musical expression. For instance, one Carole King quote included in the show is a statement made by King who once disclosed, “It’s all about the connections — you know, I want people to think, ‘Yes, that’s how I feel!’ — and if I can do that, it’s quite an accomplishment.” Another revealing statement comes from Joni Mitchell, who once said, “There has to be a sense of passion. There has to be something there for the heart. There has to be something for the intellect. You can write a song about some emotional problem you’re having, but it will not be a good song until it has gone through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity.”

After a lively rendition of Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” the trio performs Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and follows that up with a folky version of Joni Mitchell’s “Carey,” featuring Maddy Wyatt on acoustic guitar and vocals.

Next, the women perform a playful rendition of Nyro’s “Sweet Blindness” followed by a haunting interpretation of Joni’s “Little Green,” a thought-provoking confession in the form of a ballad written about Mitchell’s experience giving up her newborn daughter for adoption.

Beautiful three-part harmony rings throughout The Strand’s auditorium as the group performs another Nyro-covered tune, “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” and then the entire ensemble rocks the house with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” featuring a fierce instrumental arrangement, not to mention a wailing electric guitar solo by band leader Sue Terwilliger.

A major highlight of Back to the Garden is Hammans’, Adkisson’s, and Wyatt’s chill-inducing version of an early Laura Nyro masterpiece, “Stoned Soul Picnic.” As the band cooks, the women’s voices soulfully ebb and flow to the ever-shifting rhythm, bringing “from the sky… the Lord and the lightning” to an audience appreciative of this opportunity to hear Nyro’s music and lyrics performed so passionately and intensely.

Taking a moment to feature a member of their instrumental ensemble, the trio yields the stage to the band’s skilled pianist, Karen Dryer, who performs a gutsy vocal version of Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move,” a performance which brings many in the audience to their feet.

After a swingin’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” the trio once again takes the spotlight as they perform a dynamic rendition of King and Goffin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” featuring a stunning vocal by singer Shaleah Adkisson.

And not to be outdone, Melissa Hammans and Maddy Wyatt follow that up with a sensitive duet portrayal of a classic from Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, “A Case of You.”

The entire trio gets everyone moving again with a stirring version of Nyro’s soulful “Stoney End.” As “the fury and the broken thunders” match their “raging soul,” Hammans, Adkisson, and Wyatt stretch out vocally — the interplay between their alternating lead and backup lines boiling down on the well-known chorus to an equal synthesis of contrapuntal voices — enabling the threesome to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that, when it comes to the genius of Laura Nyro, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Following another gem from Carole King’s Tapestry, “It’s Too Late,” the trio performs a lovely version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” On this number, each of the singers takes a verse while the entire group sings harmony on the refrain, thus creating a tender musical moment for all present to savor and enjoy.

Hammans, Adkisson, and Wyatt conclude the Back to the Garden celebration with an engaging medley of hits including Nyro’s “And When I Die,” Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” and King’s “Up on the Roof,” instantly bringing the entire audience to its feet.

And for an encore, Melissa, Shaleah, and Maddy invite Emily Grove back to the stage, and, together with the band, they perform a knock-your-socks-off reprise of “Woodstock” in addition to a wild version of Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” leaving the entire audience at The Strand wanting even more.

Following the show, we take a few moments to catch up with Emily Grove who tells us a little more about the musical hero of hers whose lyrics and melodies she helped bring to life this evening — Joni Mitchell.

“Joni was such a ‘bad ass’ person,” declares Grove. “She wrote such brilliant lyrics — every lyric hits me in a different way — and her melodies make me feel like I’m doing vocal acrobatics all night long.”

And just how, then, does Grove prepare for such singing?

“I always make sure I do my operatic warm-ups from my classical training,” reveals Emily, adding, “Joni was classically trained in voice, also.”

Grove further goes on to mention Mitchell’s unusual guitar tunings and chord positions when she goes on to note, “Joni also had polio at age nine, which is why her guitar playing is so weird!”

Melissa Hammans, the creator of Back to the Garden, also takes a moment to share with us some of her thoughts about bringing this show from her home in Nashville, Tennessee here to the Garden State.

“This area — New York and New Jersey,” states Melissa, “is my first love. I’m originally from Indiana, but I lived in New York,” to which she gratefully adds, “and we were so lucky to have a band here tonight which features such top Broadway pit musicians.”

With respect to the three legendary women Back to the Garden honors — King, Mitchell, and Nyro — Melissa explains that there are definitely differences among the three in that, for her, “Carole is the ‘hitmaker.’ Joni is the ‘artist turned folksinger.’ And Laura is the ‘raven-haired, long-skirted, velvety girl who’s sort of sitting in the corner with all the intrigue.’”

That said, she suggests that, as she sees it, the main commonality among these women is that they are “three artists who weren’t afraid to talk about things that just weren’t talked about at the time they created their music.”

As such, the unified catalog of songs of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro remains a veritable treasure trove of gems from which those unfamiliar with their music can explore and from which long-time enthusiasts can also listen to again and again simply by going…. Back to the Garden.

For more on future performances of Back to the Garden, in addition to other musical productions by Melissa Hammans — including August 1969: A Tribute to the Women of Woodstock and Mind the Gap featuring the music of Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Amy Winehouse, and Adele — please go to soulpicnicproductions.com. For upcoming performances at The Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ — notably Vanilla Fudge on November 26 and The Village People with Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes on December 17 — please check out strand.org.

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