TANGLEWOOD is one tough gig for musicians with microphones. The cavernous reaches of the Shed make for uncontrollable echoes, and every concert in this season's Popular Artist Series has been marred by distracting skirmishes between overzealous ushers and equally determined seat poachers. The effect has been like trying to listen to music in Grand Central Station.
But in last night's final concert, Joni Mitchell tamed the beast of Tanglewood. What began as a depressing mixture of rain, mud, mildew and audience mayhem, climaxed in the kind of exquisite artistic triumph that only she could produce. Nearly 14,000 determined souls showed up expecting the worst; those on the lawn came equipped with everything from slickers to pup tents. But instead of misery, they experienced a transfigured night the likes of which Tanglewood has rarely seen.
The beginning was anything but auspicious. Tom Scott and the LA Express — Mitchell's backup band and an accomplished group in its own right — played the warm-up set. The trouble was that their first notes coincided with the onset of a heavy downpour, which sent dozens of people with lawn passes streaming for shelter in the Shed. The band was thus forced to play over an intense din. On top of that, I found their Coltrane-influenced jazz arrangements magnificent, but too high-powered to get into so early in the program.
Matters looked like they might improve when Mitchell swept on stage, resplendent in silver sequins and black satin. She began her performance with a recent song, Free Man in Paris, but it and succeeding numbers were met with popping flashbacks and more din. Her exasperation finally broke through when she interrupted a rendition of The Same Situation to shout "shut up" at the audience. By that point, the evening had acquired all the earmarks of a first-class bummer.
But everything changed after a brief intermission when Mitchell returned for a solo set with acoustic guitar and piano. I think the trouble was the initial high volume; when it was lowered, people no longer felt comfortable making noise and were obliged to start listening. As soon as that happened, the Shed grew quiet as a cathedral. The reward was a set that revealed a panoramic view of Mitchell as artist and woman. Over the years, she's been developing two main public personas — one is that of the country poetess devoted to gardening, weaving and writing devotional songs about love and commitment. The other Joni Mitchell is the unattached, sophiticated, sassy, kooky LA urbanite.
Her genius, I think, lies not only in her musical craftsmanship, but in the captivating way she demonstrates that these two opposite selves are in fact natural complements of each other. Mitchell doesn't seem to have the slightest interest in purging herself of seemingly contradictory traits; rather, she's made it her business as an artist to first recognize them, then live them all out to the fullest, come what may. That may explain her fondness for the Ross and Grey song she did last night called Twisted. The final line is "And you know two heads are better than one.
Her choice of songs last night reflected both the stylistic variety and the basic thematic unity of her output. They ranged from Both Sides Now, a product of Mitchell's more markedly pastoral period, to People's Parties from her last album. The trait that most of the songs share is that each is a chronicle of some aspect of her own process of self-discovery.
She ended the concert with a joyous, half-singing, half-talking rendition of Twisted. The ovation that followed seemed to shake the entire Shed. In the midst of it, Joni Mitchell came back with a love offering of her own — she tossed some long-stemmed roses into the audience. There were no thorns on any of them.
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