Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” with Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth as a backdrop. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Joni Mitchell’s 1971 “Blue” album is on my top 10 list of all-time favorite albums, and musician Sara Hallie Richardson will be playing every song from it on Feb. 19 in Portland.

“Blue,” Mitchell’s fourth album, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and was released when the artist was 27.

I’ve been essentially obsessed with the album for decades, and it never ceases to amaze me how it encapsulates such a deep sense of love, longing and place. From the opening “All I Want” to the closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” the journey Mitchell offers is profound, and as a fan of Richardson for nearly a decade, I have unfettered faith that she’ll take the audience on a similar journey, while also putting her own mark on it.

Sara Hallie Richardson. Photo by Matt Cosby

Richardson, a Portland-based singer-songwriter, has released two full-length albums and several singles and has collaborated with Kyle Gervais, Amarantos Quartet, The Fogcutters, Tim Mercer and MicroMasse, among others, through the years. Her sound has never been a traditional acoustic one, as she often turns to an electric guitar and bends toward an adventurous, electronic and experimental sound. But there’s been one constant: her full, bright and far-reaching soprano vocals, which will lend themselves well to the 10 “Blue” tracks.

The show is happening as part of The Lounge at Halo Unplug and Unwind series, and only 24 total tickets are being sold, and only in pairs. You and your companion will get your own socially distanced loveseat and will be asked to wear a mask the entire time. Not only did I buy tickets to this show as a post-Valentine’s Day night out for my spouse Tracy and me, I bought myself a “Blue” album cover mask, which should arrive in time for the show. When it comes to Joni Mitchell, I’m all in and so is Richardson.

Richardson told me that she was raised on Mitchell, as her parents are big fans. In fact, the first song she ever learned on the guitar that her father bought her when she was 19 was “A Case of You” from Blue:

“I am a lonely painter/I live in a box of paints/I’m frightened by the devil/And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid” is but one line from the lyrically perfect song by the Canadian genius.

I’ve long considered Mitchell to be among the greatest songwriters that ever lived, and Richardson agrees and says that Mitchell is one of her biggest inspirations. “She’s the matriarch of all my influences.”

When asked what the music of Mitchell means to her, Richardson said that it represents the freedom to be vulnerable and the power of vulnerability.

Richardson will be accompanied by pianist Emmett Harrity, bassist Rob Gerry and guitarist Evan Haines. The drummer is her husband, Dustin LeVasseur, the band’s musical director who figured out the song’s arrangements. They’ll play the songs in the order they appear on the album and, in two instances, will base their interpretations on alternate versions. Richardson said that the track “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is Mitchell having a conversation with the listener with piano underneath. “There’s no pulse, that’s why we’re doing the version from the ‘Travelogue’ album, which features an orchestra playing along with Mitchell.

Richardson said that because it’s the song that comes right after “A Case of You,” she sometimes didn’t play close attention to it. “It sneaks up on you but it’s actually this incredible masterpiece of a song.” Richardson and her band will base their take on “All I Want” on the version off of Mitchell’s 1974 live album “Miles of Aisles” because there was more to play with in terms of a full band arrangement.

“Blue” will always be my favorite Mitchell album, though Richardson points to “Hejira,” “Night Ride Home” and “Court and Spark” as her top three. However, when Darren Elder from The Halo at Thompson’s Point reached out to Richardson to ask her to perform whatever album she wants, Richardson said that “Blue” was an obvious choice. “I knew I wanted it to be a female artist, and I knew I wanted it to be fairly popular because, if anything was going to get people out in public right now, it was going to be something familiar.”

This will be Richardson’s first live performance since concerts as we knew them shut down almost a year ago. She’s done a small handful of streaming shows but much prefers the in-person experience because she considers it to be a sacred space to share with others. “It’s very healing.”

When I asked Richardson if she was worried about hitting an off note during the show, she zeroed in on the the very heart of live music. “To be human is one of the most important things we can do to remind ourselves that we even exist, so the more human I can be, the better.”

As for the intimate nature of the limited-seating show, Richardson said she wouldn’t trade it for the alternative. “I would rather play to three people in a personal room than play to 3,000 in my living room.”

Joni Mitchell was right when she sang in the title track of “Blue” that songs are like tattoos, and Sara Hallie Richardson understands this well.

Sara Hallie Richardson
Doors at 5:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 19. The Halo at Thompson’s Point, 4 Thompson’s Point Road, Suite 101, Portland, $80 for two-person love seat. Update: Show is sold-out.

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