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Farm Aid; September 22, 1985
Amnesty International "Conspiracy of Hope" Concert; June 15, 1986
This document contains reviews of two concerts written by two different writers. They each felt that the two shows are linked and should be discussed in the same review, so that's what they did...
Farm Aid and Amnesty International -- Innocence and Brutality
by James Leahy
Even when Joni Mitchell fails, its interesting to analyze the reasons for the failure.
Joni has always done benefit concerts throughout her career, most notably in the mid-80s, when her audience had dwindled and her live concert gigs were increasingly rare. Her appearance at Farm Aid, 1985, could be described as World War III (her own words). She comes on stage chewing gum, talking in a southern accent, and wearing a designer dress of black-grey-white stripes and her trademark black beret perched on top of her eighties-style perm hairdo. A white acoustic guitar hangs over her shoulders. She launches into "The Three Great Stimulants of the Exhausted Ones" before a rowdy, drunken crowd of country/rock fans who wouldn't shut up during what turns out to be a rather lengthy sermon. Joni looks surly (where was she stashing her gum all this time?) but she uses her frustration to fuel the anger of the song. Her voice is low and mean (you'd never dream this was the same woman who sang about "peridots and periwinkle blue medallions") and her singing ballsier than ever before. But finally, in mid-song, she blurts out: "How can you hear when you talk?" Now she's using the anger of the song and directing it back against the crowd. On her second song, Dog Eat Dog, she invites the audience to sing along but they just keep talking. This time, another indirect jab at the audience with an ironic reading of the line "land of short attention spans." One could talk about performance etiquette: What do you do when the audience you're trying to reach doesn't want to listen? Do you just keep going along like nothing happened, do you walk offstage, or, like Joni, do you use your feelings about the audience to inspire your singing? I think the last choice is maybe the most honest, and the most interesting to watch.
A similar dynamic happened a year later at the Amnesty International concert in New Jersey, where the crowd was bigger, noisier, and throwing things. Once again, Joni starts out with Three Great Stimulants -- her delivery is dangerously sluggish and the song seems to take forever to go absolutely nowhere. The crowd's edgy energy (they're waiting for U2 and The Police) is almost overwhelming and Joni looks very very worried. Then the famed waterworks episode -- a beautiful burst of water explodes within inches of her face on the TV frame. On the lyrics "I keep the hours and the company that I please," she reminds the audience: "not you." Years earlier she had broken down crying at the Isle of Wight festival as she pleaded with the audience to give her the respect she felt she deserved. Now she's ready to fight back. After the song, she tells the audience: "Save the bombs for later -- I'm not that bad, ya dig? Quit pitchin' shit up here."
The next song fares better -- Number One, with Larry Klein on bass, Manu Katche on drums, and Dolette MacDonald, vocals. Joni seems relieved to have backup (protection?). What is basically an uninteresting song becomes liberating for Joni as she sings about her own perceived persecution and laughs to herself on the apropos lines "Shall they shower you with flowers or will they shun you when your race is done?" An irony, unfortunately, that only Joni could appreciate at the time.
With the song Hejira, Joni comes alive. She's singing the archetypal 1970s Joni Mitchell song -- an introspective, melancholy poem about her own loneliness -- yet she's singing with more intensity and passion than on the other two -- she's actually SELLING melancholy! She's got a halo behind her frizzy curls, but she's nasty at the same time -- on the line "so deep and so superficial" she intones "that's right" -- another private joke to make anyone in the audience who's actually listening feel some kind of shame. She's also using the song to deal with the emotions of how the crowd has affected her. You can almost hear the hurt in her voice when she sings "your petty wars that shellshock love away" -- the lyrics now conveying a sadness at all the brutality in the world that's now incarnate in this big unruly mob. With the last chords of the song dwindling away, she turns to look at someone backstage, and the look on her face is saying "It's brutal man, it's brutal out here."
I'll take this embarrassingly revealing spontaneity over slick, detached professionalism any day.
Postscript: Joni kept singing "The Three Great Stimulants" at various one-off shows -- in 1989 at the Our Common Future benefit at Lincoln Centre with a full band, we only got the second half of the song (she later claimed that she was "censored"); in 1995 she sang it at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, in memory of the Oklahoma City bombing incident; also in 1995 she sang it on a public radio interview show. In the latter two, the circumstances (relaxed venue, no "benefit" ideology to convey) made all the difference -- the song had finally found its context.
During the mid-80s, while she was not touring regularly, Joni occasionally took the opportunity to appear at what she considered worthwhile benefits. These included "Farm Aid" (FA) (9/22/85) and "Amnesty International" (AI) (6/15/86). Even though she actually exceled at these events, they unfortunately left her with the opposite impression - that her music was no longer valued. They thus served to validate her decision not to tour.
Both events were protests against prevailing conditions in one way or another - the sorry state of farmers in the United States, who overexpanded during good times and were now being evicted by the banks, and the equally sorry state of human rights among the less fortunate people of conscience throughout the world. She must therefore have felt that her choice of songs was appropriate - "The Three Great Stimulants", sung at both events, along with "Dog Eat Dog" at FA, and "Number One" and "Hejira" at AI. However, the massive audiences were there primarily to hear the music, which was generally either well-known or hard and driving. "The Three Great Stimulants", sung first in both cases, was neither, and although it perfectly expressed the real reason both events were being held, nobody thought to listen to the words. The audience continued to talk, almost as if she wasn't there - and at AI, the hi-jinks included throwing a water bomb onto the stage.
Actually, this was just the sort of behavior "The Three Great Stimulants" discusses, so in a sense it was the perfect response, but Joni did not focus on the symbolism - she got angry. She scolded the audience in between lines of the song, with comments like "How can you hear if you're not listening" and added "Oh these brutal times" to the refrain. She interpreted the lack of respect as a reflection of her value - after the first song at AI she said "Save the bombs for later - I'm not that bad".
In reality, the opposite was true - she was truly excellent, and in wonderful voice. Her anger appeared to galvanize her performance with a gritty intensity which, ultimately, actually won over the audience. "Dog Eat Dog", with Joni biting off the words, was never sung more appropriately; the inherent bitterness of "Number One" came to the fore, and even "Hejira" was transformed from a wistful journey of search to a steely battle of endurance, as the definition of Life. While the audience in general probably never fully 'got it', the intensity of the performances and her vocal range was impressive, and she left to loud cheers. However for her the first impression was likely the lasting one - I doubt she even really heard the audiences' ultimate response.
If Joni ever does a video compilation, she should include these appearances, especially "Dog Eat Dog" from FA, and any of the songs from AI. Her power and command were never more apparent, and she sang (and looked) wonderfully. There was backing for several of the songs at AI, with Larry Klein doing a great impression of Jaco Pastorius on "Hejira". While these were undoubtedly upsetting experiences for Joni, we are lucky to have them.