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Joni Mitchell's Come and Gone   Print

by John L. Wasserman
San Francisco Chronicle
March 4, 1974

It has often been writ that the current crop of pop music stars approach their public roles in a manner fundamentally different from their predecessors.

This has to do with values, life-styles, performing patterns and height of the off-stage profile. Sometimes, this difference is simply one of form. A Beatle will buy a Rolls Royce. Conventional. And will paint it orange with pink polka-dots. Unconventional.

But sometimes, it is closer to a matter of substance. And no group behaves less traditionally than what might be called the successful-folk-poet-girl-singer composer (age 25-35) class. Of those who more or less fit that description and come quickly to mind - Melanie, Laura Nyro, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Carole King, Carly Simon, Judy Collins - a pattern quickly asserts itself.

On an average, they record no more than once a year. They are reclusive. They are almost never interviewed. They perform irregularly. Sometimes, they carry with them the air of the tragedienne. Sometimes, the mystical. Sometimes, the pretentious.

And, like Bob Dylan, their reluctance to tell their life story every time a tape recorder or camera is thrust in their direction adds greatly to their attractiveness.

JONI MITCHELL, who played to sold-out houses on Friday and Saturday nights at the Berkeley Community Theater, is a classic of the genre. There is no question of her talent as a songwriter-poet. "Both Sides Now" is her only composition to attain acceptance across the spectrum of pop music, but "The Same Situation" (from her new "Court and Spark" album on Asylum), "Case of You," [sic] "For the Roses," "For Free" and "A Rainy Night" [sic] are all beautiful, affecting songs with marvelous literate imagery and silken melodies.

She plays several instruments (guitar, piano, dulcimer) competently, is quite imaginative in her melodic lines and phrasing, and has a pleasing, satiny voice which cooperates nicely with her intentions until she tries pushing the range too high; at which point there emerges a distressing tendency to go flat.

All this is true. But does not fully explain her appeal. Ms. Mitchell's Friday night gang might as well have been a Grateful Dead audience: smoking grass like they expected Astroturf to take over the world tomorrow, shrieking and whooping and calling out endless inanities, plunging toward the stage at the end as if they had all discovered an open gas station with no lines.

And that, like a reaction to Laura Nyro, is not fully explained by talent. It has to do with vulnerability and openness. There is a helplessness about Joni Mitchell, as she walks unsurely about the stage and gently sways to her own music and clutches the sides of her floor-length gown when she has no guitar to hold on to. And there is an honesty, a bareness in her voice which implies a sharing of real feelings than a recitation of words.

At this point, my editor is saying: That's all very well, Mr. Deep Thinker, but did you like the damn concert?

WELL, HE ANSWERED authoritatively, yes and no. At her best, Joni Mitchell is spell-binding, but she is not always at her best. She sings rather without dynamic variation and her range is limited, producing a sameness of sound. The other problem is common to anyone who writes very personal songs. The subject matter is not invariably intriguing.

Still, the lady has a way with words, whether the reference in "Laughing It All Away" to "They've got passport smiles" or, in "The Same Situation," "With Heaven full of astronauts and God [sic] on death row..."

Tom Scott and the L.A. Express - a group of superior studio musicians including drummer John Guerin, pianist Roger Kellaway, blues guitarist Robben Ford and Scott himself on piccolo, recorder, flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone and tenor saxophone - did 35 minutes to open the show (which ran three hours) and accompanied Ms. Mitchell on 13 of her 21 numbers.

Their arrangements and execution was superb.

 

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