Joni's Miles of Aisles Breathes New Life Into Her Legend

by Viola James
December 1974

"Joni, you have more flash than Mick Jagger, Richard Nixon, or Gomer Pyle-combined!" an enthusiastic fan shouted at the hypnotic Ms. Mitchell between numbers, and the entire SRO audience at Los Angeles' Universal Ampitheater cracked up, along with their favorite female performer. Nodding a smile of acknowledgment, the blonde balladeer strummed the opening guitar chords to one of her most insightful and personal self-pennings: "I am a woman of heart and mind, " Joni's sweet soprano affirmed, "lookin' for respect . . . and a little passion."

Poetry, passion, poise, and a warm, spontaneous relationship with her listeners are a few of the elements contributing to Joni Mitchell's well-deserved success, which in the past two years has seen her sizable cult swell into mass adoration. Universally acclaimed as the First Lady of rock, Mitchell seemed uncomfortable under the X-ray glare of spotlit stardom at the beginning of the seventies. But a change of heart not long ago led her to undertake her most demanding concert schedule to date, comprising 54 dates in less than a year. To celebrate her return to music-making on the road, Joni decided to tape her four Hollywood performances in order to reassure her worldwide following that her legend was as lively as ever.

That first live album, the recently released double set Miles of Aisles (on Asylum Records), had advance orders totaling over $1,000,000 before it even hit the retail racks. Featured on the LP are eighteen perfectly performed Mitchell classics culled from her six previous studio albums and superbly rearranged with the sensitive assistance of Tom Scott's L.A. Express. Reflecting Joni's personable style at the peak of her most extensive period of touring ever, Miles of Aisles is a turning point for a talent who has sometimes regarded public adulation and publicity as an intolerable invasion of privacy. With communication as her principle goal, Joni has finally managed to balance her thirst for solitude with a rekindled desire to reach as many people as possible.

Hated performing: Despite the steady growth of her commercial appeal, by 1970 Joni had become loath to expose herself to both interviews and audiences. "When I retired I felt I never really wanted to play in front of people again-ever," she confessed to a reporter in a rare interview in 1972. "Like I gained a strange perspective on performing. I had a bad attitude about it, you know. I felt like what I was writing was too personal to be applauded for, I even thought that maybe the thing to do was to present the songs some different way-like a play or a classical performance where you play everything and then run off stage and let them do whatever they want, applaud or walk out."

The more intense became her fans' devotion, the harder it became for Joni Mitchell to express her innermost feelings without inhibition. "After a while when people come up and say they love a song it begins to sound hollow and you meet so many people that misunderstood what you said," she explained to an English journalist, "It is appreciated when someone says it and genuinely means it, and you can see it's moved them maybe changed them a little. Like I've been really moved by some performances and I've been unable to tell them from my side of it, because I know what it's like to receive praise. It's a very difficult thing to give sincerely and communicate that sincerity."

Her popularity only seemed to accentuate the problem of performing for audiences sincerely. "I had difficulty at one point accepting my affluence, and my success and even the expression of it seemed to me distasteful at one time, like to be suddenly driving a fancy car. I had a lot of soul-searching to do as I felt somehow or other that living in elegance and luxury canceled creativity. I still had that stereotyped idea that success would deter creativity, would stop the gift, luxury would make you too comfortable and complacent and that the gift would suffer from it.

Life-style extremes: "But I found the only way that I could reconcile myself with my art was to say, 'this is what I'm going through now, my life is changing and I am too.' I'm an extremist as far as life-style goes. I need to live simply and primitively sometimes, at least for short periods of the year, in order to keep in touch with something more basic. But I have come to be able to finally enjoy my success and to use it as a form of self-expression."

"I was too close to my own work. Now I've gained a perspective, a distance on most of my songs," Joni was glad to be able to say. "So that now I can feel them when I perform them, but I do have a certain detachment from the reality of the story." Confronting her public-private split personality even more directly. Joni recently remarked, "I like to retire a lot, take a bit of a sabbatical to keep my life alive and to keep my writing alive. If I tour regularly and constantly, I'm afraid that my experience would be too limited, so I like to lay back for periods of time and come back to it when I have new material to play."

Since she came out of a self-imposed semi-retirement two years ago, all three of her Asylum albums have become certified gold best-sellers in short order. And some of Joni's more accessible numbers have also become hit singles in a radio wasteland generally dominated by bland impersonality. No fewer than three such singles-"Help Me," "Raised On Robbery," and "Free Man In Paris"-were released from Court and Spark, making it Mitchell's first "platinum" album, with sales of over 1,000,000 units.

Express-ly musical: She has expanded her musical approach to include woodwinds and a solid rhythm section in support of her own distinctive piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment. Her decision to present her music in ensemble form has only rendered it more sensual and sophisticated: the L.A. Express serves as a kind of musical sauce that helps to make even the most poignant and personal realizations more palatable. As long ago as two years before her current concert line-up was assembled. Joni had dreamed of achieving sympathetic backing from other musicians. "I'm going to start looking for people who are untried," she had decided, "who have a different kind of enthusiasm that comes from wanting to support the artist. Like Miles Davis always has a band that are really great, but are cushions for him, you know. I've got a voice I haven't used yet and haven't developed, which is very deep and strong and could carry over a loud band. And I'm very tempted to go in that direction experimentally."

With her Court and Spark album, the best-selling of her career, Joni's tentative plans became a reality. "Raised On Robbery" proved to be one of her most popular, hardest rocking cuts ever. "Help Me" borrowed a bit from Stevie Wonder, to come up with an electric keyboard sound fully in keeping with the smooth r&b style of the seventies. By the time Joni and Tom Scott teamed up for her impressive 1974 tours, she seemed to have found the band capable of making her music less of a myth and more of a joyous communal experience.

Tasty new arrangements: This magic is evident from the very first track of Miles of Aisles. Her first entry into the Top Forty singles chart, "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" (from 1972's For the Roses LP) is an uptempo bopper brought off in admirably snappy fashion by Joni and the L.A. Express. Robben Ford's electric lead guitar lends the new arrangement the sweetness of a steel guitar, while Joni's blue yodel on the tune's finale shows off her extraordinary and expressive vocal range. John Guerin on drums and Max Bennett on bass provide a tight but aptly unobtrusive rhythm section that brings out the natural flow of Joni's material.

The cleverly satirical "Big Yellow Taxi" follows and in this live version reaffirms its status as a Mitchell standard. Larry Nash's electric piano adds a nice r&b flavor to one of the album's most cooking numbers, highlighted by a fine Scott sax solo during the break. Warning against the dangers of parking lots and pollution, Joni sings, "Don't it always seem to go/You don't know what you got til it's gone?"

Flirts with funk: "Rainy Night House" has an evocative jazzy feel and allows the fine band a little room to demonstrate some quite subtle interplay. The story of a love affair seemingly doomed at its inception, it is a very personal song and yet one which almost everyone who has ever tried to find security in love can relate to. Scott puts in some tasty flute, as Guerin's percussion echoes Nash's cascading piano.

"Woodstock" closes Side One and, transformed into a funky bit of tight knit-rock, it becomes a showcase for Joni's new vocal assertiveness. More determined than sentimental, this revamped "Woodstock" reveals a Joni Mitchell perfectly at home with rock 'n roll. As the band shifts into an r&b intermission riff at the tune's close, Joni announces the end of the concert's first portion.

Sides Two and Three are mainly acoustic, and excepting the occasional sax lick, feature Joni at her completely solo best. There are the philosophical favorites "Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now," social vignettes such as "People's Parties" and "Real Good For Free, " and confessions of love like "A Case Of You" and "Blue." The sense of intimacy that Joni achieves with just her voice and one or two accompanying instruments is breath taking.

Hard-core Mitchell fans will want Miles of Aisles simply because it offers two new songs not available on any other album. "Jericho" is one of the most optimistic love songs Joni has ever written. The music is as eloquent as the lyrics, and a testimony to how well Joni and her band have learned to work with each other. With striking simplicity, Joni promises, "I'll try to keep myself open up to you/ and approve your self-expression/ I need that from you too."

Tinsel Town blues: "Love or Money" like the earlier "For the Roses" and "For Free," seems to ask whether love is possible when show business success beckons. "The firmament of Tinsel Town/ is strung with forty watt successes," Joni sings cynically. though "Love or Money" seems hopelessly pessimistic, Joni knows whereof she sings. "Love has to encompass all of the things that a person is." she has said. "Love is a very hard feeling to keep alive. It's a very fragile plant."

With her recent tours, crowned by Miles of Aisles, Joni Mitchell seems to have discovered a new source of inspiration in performing for audiences who cherish each new song as though it were a map to personal happiness or a balm for disappointment. "I really don't feel I've scratched the surface of my music," she told a Canadian colleague between breaks in last year's concert schedule. "I feel that my music will continue to grow-I'm almost a pianist now, and the same thing with the guitar. And I also continue to draw, and that is also in a stage of growth, it hasn't stagnated yet. And I hope to bring all these things together. Another thing I'd like to do is make a film. there's a lot of things I'd like to do, so I still feel young as an artist. I don't feel like my best work is behind me. I feel as if it's still in front."

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