NEW YORK - Joni Mitchell, (Asylum) has come a long way from her first record, "Song to a Seagull" to her most recent, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." Her early music was ethereal and acoustic. Relying heavily on the simple versatility of her voice and guitar she was a one woman band. Her contemporary sound oozes with the technological slickness of electronic music played in the jazz-oriented arrangements of her back-up band, the L.A. Express featuring Tom Scott.
Clearly, Joni Mitchell's stage presence and music have become more sophisticated and more ambitious. It is the vast commercial success of "Court and Spark" that allows her the freedom to introduce new and often previously unrecorded material. Even her dress has evolved into a new portrayal of her persona. On her 1973 tour the blue jeans and braids of the late Sixties were replaced by shimmering floor length gowns and a tint of bleach in her hair. In 1976 she's sporting a tailored two piece black pant suit and a wide brim hat under which she tucks her gold locks until she performs "Big Yellow Taxi," when she replaces the original hat with one she says comes from a Tennessee Yellow Cab Company.
Her show opened with the familiar hit, "Help Me," which she followed with a tune from "Miles of Aisles," "For Love or Money," and then it was back into "Court And Spark" territory with "Free Man In Paris." Throughout the show the music was over amplified but eventually her voice found its way above the band. With "For The Roses" and "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" Joni took the stage by herself, backing her smooth, thick voice with her able accompaniment on amplified acoustic guitar. A painfully, bittersweet clarinet solo by Tom Scott provided a memorable conclusion to "Cold Blue Steel."
From her new album Joni performed songs like "Shades of Scarlet Conquering," "Shadows and Light" and "Harry's House/Centerpiece." She also introduced four new numbers, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and "Coyote" (both written while she toured with Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review), "Furry Sings The Blues" and a nameless tune with the recurring refrain, "Come talk to me, Mr. Mystery."
From "Ladies of the Canyon" she performed "For Free," changing the original lyrics in places: "I'll play if you have the money/And I have a new song/And I get pushy." and perhaps the most moving song of the evening, "Rainy Night House." Here she featured her upper octave vocals following the lyrics, "I sing soprano in the upstairs choir."
A spirited rendition of "Raised or Robbery" was introduced by a strip tease beat and Joni donning a feathery shawl. The heavy, exotic, rhythmic "Jungle Line" closed the show. Shedding her guitar, as she did several times during the evening, she allowed herself the opportunity to be strictly singer/entertainer. Moving freely she seemed more relaxed and more confident than on her last tour, especially when her gut desire to rock and roll surfaced in a refined but obvious way.
With the house lights up and her cigarette in hand Joni returned for a single encore with "Twisted." Pausing in the middle of the song she asked the audience, "Are you all enjoying your craziness?" A unanimous yes was the reply.
Like her songs that speak of people as, "duplistic cowards of some multiplicity torn between high ideals and the temptation of the serpent," Joni is still singing to us, about us. She's not the same Joni Mitchell millions have come to know and love. Wiser and more confident, she's an artist who's learned to communicate with her audience. Taking chances is a part of this communication. She listened to the audience requests and they listened to her new ideas. Everyone got most if not all of what they came for.