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Review by Doug Stapleton
Your adventurous reporter here- bringing you the latest on all things JONI.
I went with no expectations. My hope was to hang around back behind the theater for some sound seepage through the windows.
When I arrived, there were already 6-7 "fans" waiting on the sidewalk by the gates to the back entrance/courtyard of the Old Town School of Folk Music (OTSFM). The gates were open, and many of the attendees were milling about smoking and talking to us on the other side of the fence. All was congenial. First I ask if any of the sidewalk crew might be from the discussion list, to which I got "the what?" A man and a woman convinced one of the ticketholders to take an album cover and a guitar in for Joan to sign. Off this poor woman went, shlepping these goods into the concert hall. Not two minutes later she returned, quite apologetic, saying that she was told that Joni would not be signing anything and to please return the items to their owners. The sidewalk crew mumbled and moaned their discontent- the "who-does-she-think-she-is-too-good-to-sign-for-fans-now" kind of whine.
I moved up the courtyard to the back entrance, lit a cigarette. I could hear muffled voices and applause from the adjacent theater. No free concert for me- the building is virtually soundproof when they want it to be. A man came out from the theater and lit a cigarette. "Speeches" he said. We talked. Later, during Peter Yarrow's set, more attendees and some of the OTSFM people joined us for fresh air and cigarettes. Introductions followed. I said that I was an unofficial reporter for JoniMitchell.com and several people asked me if I was Wally Breese!!!! (Wally, your name travels fast and far, my man!) By that point, the ranks of OTSFM had swelled to eight, which meant something was about to happen. And yes it did- a slick white stretch limo pulled up- the sidewalk crew rushed the car- the OTSFM staff fended them off and escorted Joan, all introductions and pleasantries, into the building, right past us- all earnest radiance!
Intermission- Peter Yarrow exits the stage and more attendees flow out into the courtyard. More cigarettes, more plugs for the Website. I talked to two very drunk electrical contractors, they did most of the work on the new building, and they encouraged me to sneak in, and told me the best way to do it. We talked more, the gates were closed to the sidewalk; I was partially in. I took a deep breath and walked through the doors towards the lobby.
Not two feet ahead of me was a friend of mine. Boy, was he surprised to see me. I told him my plot and he said- "I've got an extra ticket, sit with me." He was a campaign manager for a local politician who had been instrumental in pulling the strings for this new building. The politician was sick and couldn't make it. The ticket was mine- too easy!!!
Sitting in the balcony of Old Town School- upper left, second row- looking down on the stage not 35 feet away. The theater is very intimate. There's a gorgeous worn Sarouk rug on the floor of the stage, 3 amps, 1 microphone, a VG-8 guitar and box thing and a stool with water.
Terri Hemmert from WXRT-FM does the introductions. The Techies fiddle with the equipment and then- Joni.
What was Joni wearing?
Elegant simplicity. A slate green-gray tunic top, sleeves pushed up to the elbows, with matching skirt. The lines are clean with most of the emphasis placed on the soft hanging folds along the hem of the tunic and skirt. The tunic top was hip length and the skirt down to mid calf. Simple gold earrings, a beaded necklace, brown platform sandals with matching toenail polish. Hair straight, parted in the middle, behind the ears, shoulder length. What more can I say?- gorgeous.
What did she play?
Set List: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Sex Kills, Turbulent Indigo, Harry's House, Sunny Sunday, Hejira, Love Puts on a New Face, Crazy Cries of Love, Happiness is the Best Facelift, Big Yellow Taxi, Just Like This Train, Black Crow.
How did she sound/What did she say?
I had overheard that she was having some problems with her voice- something to do with allergies or a bug of some sort. I think it might be true- her voice was a bit hoarse and raspier than usual. She didn't say much throughout her set- but when she did- it was great. Here's my reconstructed song by song report...
She came out, put on her guitar, looked up and shielded her eyes from the lights and scanned the crowd for quite awhile. Then she looked down at her set list and said- "This is an odd set" and laughed to herself. "I hope you like it. It's my reaction to the MTV music awards which I watched the other night."
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: This song captures so much of it's power from the moody dark undercurrent of sound that builds and swells on the Night Ride Home album. It's one of her truly eerie songs. Tonight it was a sung poem- the beauty of the words are given precedent by the very sparse guitar arrangement. Good start.
Sex Kills: She punched this one out with great finesse. No big drama- just a hint of a studied weariness mixed with anger during the part "and the gas leaks, and the oil spills. and sex sells everything. sex kills." Joni growled this one out!
No Apologies: She was struggling a bit with this one. Maybe it's still too new to her repertoire. It's the first time that I've heard this song and it's a lovely number- the logical successor to "Sex Kills."
By this point she hadn't said anything between songs. What I found interesting is her choice of opening songs- the first apocryphal, the second two hyper-critical social & political commentary. "Lawyers & loan sharks are laying America to waste" (from "No Apologies") The audience that night was primarily BIG business execs, lawyers and politicians. I think it might be our Joan's way of saying- okay, people- this is where I stand now!
Turbulent Indigo: She started, stopped and said "Wait, I need to start over", paused and told the story of the song. The gist was about being invited to speak at a conference on arts and education in Canada. She hadn't prepared at all, crazy from trying to quit smoking and unable to focus, and just a bit cranky. When she arrived at the conference, she saw the program listing all the presentations throughout the four days and was greatly offended by two of them. One- something like "We can make Van Goghs"- which was about this arts program targeting immigrants, Eskimos and women, teaching them to make "art" or, as Joni said, "wheat dolls and ornaments." The second session in question was a discussion about whether one needs to be an artist in order to teach art in schools. She said she'd received a lot of criticism for her comments- "we don't need any expatriate rock star telling us what art is!."
Turbulent Indigo: This is a difficult song to sing- try it sometimes. It plays with and against the rhythm at the same time. Tonight- the melody had it's own shifting rhythm pattern. Her singing, tiptoes across rocks in a rushing stream, oddly syncopated and balanced jumps from note to note- "oh what do you know about living in turbulent indigo?" were expertly poised against the bright and jumpy guitar work.
Harry's House: The song is great, but doesn't move me as a piece for voice and guitar alone. Harry's House to me is a bit of theater, which breathes to life through the excellent production of Hissing- the mantric litany of daily toils and distractions that numb and placate the character's sorrow. "Centerpiece" is the flood gates of memory cracking, the illusion and longing of the past coming through and falling apart. I wish Joni would include it in her live versions. I think it would take it from a good story song to one with more psychological punch.
After Harry's, she looked down at her set list, laughed and shook her head, saying something about the disaster theme running through her set. Then she said, "Meanwhile, he's on the road, and she's going crazy..."
Sunny Sunday: Joan was having some trouble with staying on key and with her chords. It showed on her face and the song lost some steam. She pulled it back together with "the dogs bark as the gun hits the floor"- each note a tiny burst and push upwards to the wistful "the streetlights still burning, she always misses," and onward through the sad resignation at the end of the song. "Sunny Sunday" is one of the most concise character studies ever written!
Hejira: HEAVEN. At the end of the song, Joni gave a yawn and said- "Beethoven had a movement for the sleeping husbands too." Maybe she's getting tired of singing that song, or maybe she thought it put the suits in the front row asleep, but I have to disagree with her sleepy movement comment. "Hejira" could be discussed for hours! I think it's one of the most poignant and relevant pieces about the position of the soul in the web of existence, and one of the most hypnotically beautiful pieces of music. Tonight, Joni punched the rhythm of the song through with an urgency that I've never heard in it before- yet still the vocal hung, crystalline and delicate, in the air, it's own plaint plea for hope and hopelessness. Oh, by the way, for those keeping track, it was "Miles Davis blowing through the snow and the pinewood trees."
She fiddled with the dials on the VG-8 and said "I have families of tunings and this one is in the dreaded 7A (sorry- not sure if that's really want she said) family. If this tuning were a typewriter, the "A" key would be on the return bar." Then she said "After all this gripeing, I get sucked back into love- and the poor guy's now got this problem.."
Love Puts on a New Face: A lovely song- but like "No Apologies" not quite as confident live. But Joni does put the right emotion into the song- that melancholic matter of fact delivery. "Why can't you be happy, You make me feel helpless when you get this way" or "I wish you were with me here. The leaves are electric. They burn on the river bank. Countless heatless flames" and "I miss your touch and your lips so much, I long for our next embrace." Clean prose, spoke/whispered/sung with tempered emotion that made me feel like a trusted confidante, or like one of those angels in Wender's "Wings of Desire," who hear the innermost whispered thoughts and dreams of humans.
Now Joni started talking more and getting a bit more relaxed. She said, "When I turned 50, I fell in love with a homeboy," and then told the story of meeting Donald Freed. This is when I wish I had a tape recorder! Here's what I can reconstruct from my hasty notes and memory- She said that her mother was bugging her to meet this guy, until finally Joan said "What's so great about him?" Her mom's reply, in that funny old-lady voice that Joni does, "Well, he's kind of sexy." Joni said "Sexy" was never a word her mother used in a positive sense, and she would pay money to see what her mother considered sexy. They met, Joni and her Mom sitting together and Donald on the other side of the room. Joni said, "Mom, he's staring at me." To which Donald replied something about it was like meeting a cartoon character, to which Joni replied, in her best Bugs Bunny, "Ah, what's up doc?" They all laughed, including her Mom. Joni said that was great, because the only way to get her Mom on her side was to make her laugh- something about her being a Gemini. Anyway- Joni wrapped up the story by saying that she and Donald fell in love, much to her Mother's great displeasure, and how she and her Mother have fought over this, sending Joni into one of her "famous depressions" and nearly tearing their family apart. It was a pretty intense story- mixed with jokes and lots of poignant stuff. Then she sang- "Happiness is the Best Facelift!"
I think this is my favorite song on the new album, and certainly one of the most personal songs she's written in years. But again- it's the precision of the language and images, that measured quality of emotion that allows such easy entry into the song. From the soft whisper of "I went so numb on Christmas day, I couldn't feel my hands or feet," to the sarcastic "Same old sacred cow" to the exasperated "Why is this joy not allowed" to the frustrated "Snap out of it" to the tenderness and promise of the refrain "you know, happiness is the best facelift"- this song soared tonight! The crowd loved it too- great response!
Big Yellow Taxi: A breezy rocking number, and the Dylan verse, well, close your eyes and think of Bob...
Just like this Train: A big hoop and holler from the crowd for this one. Joni was delightful and ironic during this song, but the best part- ooooohhhh- "thinking of the pleasure I'm going to have (sung with such anticipation followed by a long pause and then the attack) watching your hairline recede, my vain darling!"
Black Crow: I've not heard this song played like this before. Explosive and driving! From the first note, "There's a black crow..." to the end, she soared, playing with dissonance and balance in her voice and with the guitar.
Then she left the stage just as quickly as she'd come on!
So, over all, what impressed me about how she handled many of the songs was that the singing dictated the rhythm and pacing, especially in "Black Crow," "Just Like This Train," "Turbulent Indigo" and "Sex Kills." Also, I'm not convinced that the VG-8 is the best instrument. I know it's handy because it holds all the tunings, but I wanted to hear some different voicings in the instrumentation. I think that the VG-8 can get monotonous and I miss the acoustic boings and rings and slaps of her earlier playing. So I thought about the sound, and what quality it has that would draw her to it, and I thought of the bass. That guitar is a lead guitar and bass all in one- especially on "Hejira," "Black Crow" and "Big Yellow Taxi"- where she really established a bass-like rhythm throughout the song.
I filed out with my friend, said goodbye and then went around back to get my bike. The sidewalk crew had tripled, waiting for Joni to be wisked away in the stretch limo. I spotted the other two guys who'd snuck in for the show and we talked awhile, gloating I'm afraid, to the fans outside. But I was tired and I wanted to get home and be with my thoughts. I couldn't sleep well- drifting back into my memories of the evening, replaying the songs in my head- trying to freeze her image & conjure it up again.
Karen: I have a good friend who lives in Chicago and she was there, she is not a huge Joni fan but her partner is. Anyway. It was of course, a thrill, that Joni was going to be performing, so everyone was very excited.
Towards the end of what was, I gather, a short-ish set, Joni noticed that a man in the front row yawned. (!!!) She got up, put down her guitar or whatever it was she was playing, and said "Get some sleep, Chicago," and walked off stage, (or maybe it was "Wake Up, Chicago,"), not sure, and she did NOT come back out. She was supposed to do a whole other set as an encore or something, had planned on it.
Now, I was not there, I am hearing this through a friend who was, so take it for what it's worth. Evidently, there is some kind of green room, still there, where all the artists sign their names on the walls ...
Somewhere in there, Joni signed whatever it was she said on stage, like "Wake up Chicago," joni.
Would you be so mortified if it was you who had yawned ? ! ?
Incredible that she is still that sensitive after all these years, after all her incredible success. Whoa. She's intense.
Love her.. : )