Joni Mitchell, with a stylish beret, might as well have been sitting in the corner booth at the Dakota Tuesday night. Because every time Graham Nash mentioned Joni, sang a song inspired by Joni (Joan, as he called her) or performed a tune written by Joni, something came over him.
A new intensity, a profound emotionalism, a heartfelt something — be it a loving warmth or an unrequited ache — surfaced in his singing.
It happened when Nash explained how after they broke up, he wrote "I Used to Be a King"; it happened when he told the tale about going to breakfast with her on a cold California day and buying an antique vase and writing "Our House," and it happened when he poured himself into her "A Case of You."
A sold-out Dakota crowd had to be thankful that Joni was in the house and in Nash's life. And thankful, too, for his other famous collaborators, namely David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. When Nash told a story about one of them, he similarly seemed more invested in his singing.
It happened as a recorded version of Crosby's "Critical Mass" led into Nash's own "Wind on the Water," it happened on a spirited reading of Stills' "Love the One You're With" and on Young's heart-aching "Only Love Can Break Your Heart."
In his first of three nights at the Dakota (Thursday and Friday are sold out), the "and Nash" guy was performing in a trio once again. Fontayne, Caldwell and Nash doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? But it's not really a true trio with three lead singers à la Crosby, Stills & Nash. Rather, it's Nash's show with a little help from his friends, Shane Fontayne on guitar and Todd Caldwell on keyboards, with both contributing harmony vocals.
In the hourlong first set, the vocal blend between Nash's and Fontayne's voices was not exactly as sweet as that of Crosby and Nash. Neither CSN's "Marrakesh Express" nor "Bus Stop" by the Hollies (Nash's first group back in England) harmonized as scheduled.
But Nash was in good spirits. He spoke about Crosby, who died in January, saying he'd remember only the good times with Croz instead of the "insane" things.
Nash, a Brit who has lived in the States since 1968, spoke out against the war in Ukraine, before singing a medley of "Find the Cost of Freedom" a cappella and "Military Madness" in which he inserted a lyric about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Throughout the night, Fontayne's various guitars added essential seasoning — a lacerating edge on "Military Madness," a country melancholy on "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and a gentle twang on "Teach Your Children."
In the 50-minute second set, the trio's vocal blend and balance sounded just right. And Nash continued his chattiness, sharing a long-winded story about taking a day off between CSNY shows in London and renting a 1928 Rolls-Royce, dropping acid and visiting Stonehenge. The trip inspired "Cathedral," an epic suite with several movements that was one of the night's high points.
Hearing the stories and the heart behind the songs is what made for a special night with an 81-year-old two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. Even if you've heard the stories before. Even if you only imagined Joni Mitchell in the corner booth.