It was a long, long way from '60s folk at the Pacific Coliseum Sunday night when singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and band debuted what I best described as Mitchell Music.
But despite the unfamiliar territory, it is a tribute to the Canadian-born performer that the audience stuck with her every step of the way for what turned out to be one of the most rewarding concerts ever staged in the big hall.
Variously, Mitchell's singing echoed jazz, rock, gospel, blues, folk, African chants, and '50s doo-wop, and it was paired with an equally varied music backdrop.
The avoidance of labels recalled Mitchell's early connection to the late Charles Mingus, who, when he was pressed to define his style, replied: "What I write and play is Mingus music."
Prior to Mingus' death Jan. 5 of this year, Mitchell collaborated with the great man on her latest album - named after him - and despite mutterings about the non-commercial nature of the project, she has boldly gone on tour with the same.
She's a stubborn woman, who has for the past four albums, balked at "stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song," as she sang on 1974's Free Man in Paris.
After a string of intense, soul-baring folk-oriented albums, Mitchell in 1975 produced a demanding look at suburbia, Hissing of Summer Lawns, followed by intense experiments on Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.
Amid critical drubbing and slumping sales, she admitted to Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe: "I know some of these projects are eccentric,...experimental, and some of them are half-baked." But: "I'd rather be crucified for changing things than for staying the same."
The result of her persistence is that on Sunday about 10,000 people - perhaps three times as many as ever saw a single jazz show in Vancouver before - got to experience the richness and variety of Minus Music and Mitchell Music.
Backstage, while her parents from Saskatchewan waited at the dressing room door, Mitchell, supposedly the subdued, reclusive, type beamed to the press: "It feels really good, when you consider some of the reviews of the recent albums. So much great music has been minority music. It's good to reach people."
After a wistful comment that three decades ago the best pop music was also the best jazz music, she noted that these days a lot of jazz musicians are selling out to pop forms.
"I guess," she added with a trace of pride, "I'm the only rock and roller crossing over into jazz."
But at the same time, Mitchell is hardly a born-again jazz singer. "I don't like a lot of jazz singing. The great ones like Billie Holiday, yes, but I feel many don't interpret a lyric, the way say, Dylan does."
At the same time "jazz has a lot more freedom, space for variation, than rock and roll, where you get locked into a certain way." So her band this time around is jazz oriented: bassist Jaco Pastorious, guitarist Pat Metheny, sax-man Michael Brecker, keyboard player Lyle Mays and Don Alias on congas and drums.
Besides jazz, Mitchell treated the fans Sunday to the rare sounds of soul, gospel and doo-wop, via the opening act of the Persuasions, who also teamed with her on two numbers.
As with the Mingus collaboration, which came about when Mingus approached her, Mitchell lucked onto the Brooklyn-based a cappella quintet:
"We were both playing the Berkeley folk festival. One night at the hotel this drunk staggered through the lobby singing Why Do Fools Fall In Love? I started singing, and so did the Persuasions. The next day at the festival they did Circle Game on stage with me. Afterward they said if you're ever touring and need an opening act..."
Following the Persuasions' 45-minute warm up Sunday, Mitchell and band opened their two-hour set with Big Yellow Taxi, and another old favorite Just Like This Train, from Court and Spark.
Then it was Mitchell on electric rhythm guitar "rollin, rollin, rock and rollin," and adds a final selection from yesteryear, Free Man in Paris, with a racy sax break by Brecker.
No one was quite ready for it, but Mitchell discarded her guitar and the band deftly slipped into a track from Mingus, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, a tribute to the tenor sax pioneer Lester Young (1909-1959). Inspired Mitchell lyrics over a Mingus instrumental: "When Charlie speaks of Lester you know someone great has gone, the sweetest singing music man has a Porkie Pig hat on."
Another selection from Mingus, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines, was followed by a daring bass solo by Pastorious, a vibrant, bouncing piece of work that was far removed from the boring, self-indulgence that it might have been.
Backed by some moving guitar from Metheny, Mitchell then tried two songs from the maligned Hejira album, that showed her in full possession of her insight and sensitivity.
"Maybe I've never really loved, I guess that's the truth. I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes, and looking down on everything I crashed into his arms. Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms. (Amelia)."
And Hejira, which, says Mitchell, means "running away honorably": "I'm so glad to be on my own, still the slightest touch of a stranger can set up a trembling I my bones. I know - no one's going to show me everything, we all come and go unknown, each so deep and superficial between the forceps and the stone."
Another mood swept us away, as Alias began a conga solo that lead into the enchanting, African-flavored Dreamland, from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, followed by Beale Street style blues on Furry Sings the Blues.
The recent material wound up with the sardonic God Must Be a Boogie Man, from Mingus. Mitchell: "If there are religious believers out there tonight, I'll remind you that yes, God does have a sense of humor. He made all of us."
Throughout this section of the show the audience response had been solid and enthusiastic. And as she said later, when asked if she minded playing a hockey arena: "I thought it was very intimate in there tonight."
To close, Mitchell treated the crowd to a rockin' version of Raised on Robbery, then brought out the Persuasions to sing along on a gospel tune.
The encores began with Mitchell on piano, doing the Last Time I Saw Richard. Then - "it's rock and roll now" - with her and the Persuasions doing an energetic and intricate version of the doo-wop classic, Why Do Fools Fall In Love.
At the very end it was just Joni and her guitar, with a wistful, philosophical evocation of Woodstock, so long ago and so far away.
Having seen so many artists frozen in space, it was freshing to find one who's come so far and glimpsed new forks in the road, while still knowing the way back.
Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=865
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