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By Sue McNamara
The night of January 26, 1995 turns out to be a nostalgic one for Joni Mitchell, who performs a rare concert to promote her new album "Turbulent Indigo." The performance is also broadcast live on radio nationwide. As Joni would explain in lively conversations with her audience, her love of the singing cowboys reflects an early influence in her music. Recently I heard a recording of a 1971 concert with James Taylor where she explained that the song "Happy Trails to You" was the inspiration for her altruistic waltz, "For Free" from the Ladies of the Canyon album. Another example is her duet with Willie Nelson on "Cool Water" from Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. Performing in the Gene Autry Museum is special for Joni, but she apologizes to Gene because her hero was always Roy Rogers. Joni says, "here is evidence of the worship," as she points to the life-size cut out of Roy Rogers adorning the stage. Other adornments on the stage include Joni's own paintings, and a tasseled floor lamp, and a pair of guitars creating the ambiance of a quiet evening of music with friends.
Joni opens with a beautifully accurate version of Refuge of the Roads from Hejira, except for a slight change in lyric to "a drunk with sage's eyes" which left me wondering where the womanizer had gone!
Joni tells a number of wonderful stories in this performance. Her reflections on her childhood in Saskatchewan are comical, especially her early adventures competing with the boys. She tells the tale of the time after Christmas when she walks proudly into the midst of the boys' cowboy games to announce that she wants to be Roy Rogers today. Joni mimicking the low tones of the cowpokes says, "But you can't be Roy Rogers 'cause you're a girl!"
"But my hat says Roy Rogers, and my shirt says Roy Rogers!"
"That doesn't mean you're Roy Rogers, that means you're Dale Evans."
"Well, what does she do?"
"She stays home and cooks. C'mon, men!!"
Joni continues, "So, I can cook pretty good, but that's a secret between me and you because I'd rather be part of the posse!"
Joni's next duo of tunes are Sex Kills from Turbulent Indigo, and a masterful version of Moon at the Window, missing the first verse and showing the skeleton of beautiful chord changes and harmonics hidden on the Wild Things Run Fast version.
While starting Night Ride Home, Joni giggles to a stop while realizing she is playing it wrong. By apology she explains that by working in over 50 different tunings it becomes like using a typewriter where someone keeps moving around the keys. She then continues this happy love song, "these fireworks ... this fourth of July, Night Ride Home ..."
Joni introduces two collaborations--a new song written with her new home town beau, Donald Freed called "Love's Cries," which she calls a love song for people who live in apartment buildings. Next she plays a haunting version of a song co-written with David Crosby, "Yvette in English." In my mind I can see Joni in her signature black beret and cigarette strolling along the Seine ... "Avez-vous une allumette?" (French for "gotta light?")
Her childhood memory turned masterpiece, "Cherokee Louise" also provides more insight into the environment of Joni's childhood Saskatchawan, as she says, "five years after the cowboy period," and then back to the present with "Sunny Sunday" from Turbulent Indigo.
Hearing Joni play Hejira is always an other worldly experience. I close my eyes and see white on white from "snow gathers like bolts of lace waltzing on a bridal girl ... " to "strains of Miles Davis coming through the snowy trees ..." to "white flags of winter chimneys waving truce against the moon." This to me, is the best song lyrically and musically I've ever heard.
As the show comes up to the hour mark Joni is alerted by someone that she needs to speed things up. This naturally causes yet another string to be finicky while Joni exasperates, "Oh, man, we don't have time for this ... this is like Las Vegas, man!" After tuning the guitar to her "Irish ear" as she calls it, she breaks into the familiar introduction to "Just Like this Train" amid applause. Afterwards she breathes a sigh of relief and says, "Well, now that the pressures off ..." but someone cues her that they are still on the air. Joni jokes, "It's a good thing I didn't wax Lenny Bruce!"
Joni ends the concert with two songs; one new, one classic. The new song, "Happiness is the Best Facelift" and "Song for Sharon." The beauty and power of this performance is evidenced by the fact that it is just Joni, her unique guitar style and the genius of her lyrics.
"And the powers of reason
And the flowers of deep feeling
Seem to serve me
Only to deceive me ..."
Hopefully a reproduction of this event could be produced as her version of "Unplugged" and the originators of that marketing ploy could see the folly of overlooking this master at the peak of her powers.
Refuge of the Roads
Moon at the Window
Night Ride Home
Yvette in English
Just Like This Train
Happiness is the Best Facelift
Song for Sharon
Joni had a Cyber-Talk! on AOL directly after her live radio concert broadcast.