40 Years of Shadows and Light
The Cutting Room, New York, July 12th, 2019
By Patrick Leader, reporting for JoniMitchell.com
In the community of obsessive Joni Mitchell fans that I move in, it's always a bit of novelty when I tell people that the first Joni album I bought was Shadows and Light, the 1980 double live record of her 1979 tour with the Pat Metheny Group and the Persuasions, along with Jaco Pastorius and other recent Joni collaborators. She had already released 10 studio albums and a previous live set already, and had been collecting obsessive fans for a decade and a half. And I didn't come to Shadows and Light primarily because of Joni; I was a huge Pat Metheny fan and knew he was a huge Pastorius fan; when I heard that Pat had gotten to play with Jaco, I needed to own that recording.
Of course I knew Joni's music, a little; I'd loved the singles that got on the radio, but Shadows and Light was my first deep dive and I never came up for air. So when an acquaintance told me he was participating in a tribute to that tour, I was very interested to hear it.
Shadows and Light, the album and the concert film, was recorded at an outdoor amphitheater in Santa Barbara in September 1979. The setlist consisted mostly of songs from her most recent four albums, the phenomenal string of jazz-influenced recordings from Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976), Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) and Mingus (1979). To my ear, Joni was singing every previously recorded song better by the time of tour, especially the songs from Mingus. And while she has worked with amazing individual musicians throughout her career, the band assembled for this tour is the strongest collective she ever played with.
So bassist Jesse Krakow, who organized this project, had his work cut out for him, and he and the phenomenal, wide-ranging band that he assembled, rose to the occasion. I've attended a number of Joni tributes over the years, and one thing I've found that if there is a strong house band that plays throughout the evening, you end up with a much more satisfying and adventurous night than when each artist brings their own backing. This event, performed at New York's The Cutting Room on July 12th, was the most cohesive and musically strong evening of Joni Mitchell's music I've attended since Joni's Jazz in Central Park on Canada Day in 1999, with music direction and house band assembled by Vernon Reid and covering the same timeframe in Joni's discography.
Krakow anchored the recent event on fretless bass, a direct and acknowledged homage to Pastorius, and Krakow's playing was a huge pleasure throughout. Amber Martin, a strong jazz singer and characterful stage presence was featured most prominently on vocals, with Joanna Choy and Rebecca Pronsky contributing juicy back-ups, and star moments of their own. Mike Fortunale on electric guitar, Stuart Klinger particularly fine on acoustic, Rich Bennett alternating guitar and keyboards, and Ray Rizzo's drumming rounded out the band, with Robert Conroy taking lead vocal on one song.
The evening opened with an short excerpt from the choral song "Shadows and Light" and proceeded into "In France they Kiss on Main Street" (the concert album opens similarly). Both songs were strongly performed and exciting, but the next song, "Coyote", jumped it up another notch. Amber Martin absolutely owned the vocals, deftly navigating the jumps from speech voice to fully melodious singing, catching the tricky intervals and rhythmic turns with absolute ease. Coyote is one of Mitchell's finest compositions, especially musically. In addition, both the recorded and live versions show what an amazing musician Jaco was and what an important collaborator; and Krakow matched that achievement, with ferocious playing and a true sense of collaboration with Martin on vocals and with the other musicians. Fornatale's and Klinger's playing made huge contributions to the musical blend. "Coyote" was perhaps the highlight of the evening.
Joanna Choi took her first solo vocal on "The Jungle Line", a wildly inventive composition from 1975. Singing the first verse with just bass accompaniment, she was joined by the other musicians including Ray Rizzo on drums as the song heated up. Then Robert Conroy joined the band to sing "Off Night Backstreet", a Nick Cave-ish take in Joni's original key, Conroy's strikingly deep vocal giving way to Fornatale's electric guitar-god soloing.
Rebecca Pronsky sang a beautiful lead on "Hejira" which she claimed is one of Joni's two finest lyrics (no argument from me). Krakow's bass was particularly fine here. Pronsky then nailed the fiendishly difficult "Dry Cleaner from Des Moines".
Amber Martin returned to lead, on "Furry Sings the Blues" (Pronsky's other favorite Joni lyric) and Black Crow. For "Raised on Robbery" the vocalists traded verses, including Mike Fornatale. Choi sang a beautiful, sad, sweet "Amelia" and the set closed with a rocking "Free Man in Paris".
The evening was performed to an appreciative but small audience, so the band could've been forgiven for forgoing encores, but thankfully, they proceeded. The first encore was "Blue Motel Room", which was probably Martin's finest vocal of the evening. Languid, impassioned, articulate and commanding. Martin actually insisted on restarting the song so we could hear how amazing Stuart Klinger's opening guitar was. This was my second high point of the evening. The musicians closed out the event with a psychedelic version of "Woodstock".
40 Years of Shadows and Light
The Cutting Room, 44 East 32nd Street, New York, July 12th, 2019
- Shadows and Light (excerpt)
- In France they Kiss on Main Street
- The Jungle Line
- Off Night Backstreet
- The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines - Furry Sings the Blues
- Black Crow
- Raised on Robbery
- Blue Motel Room
- Amber Martin, vocals
- Joanna Choy, vocals and keyboards
- Rebecca Pronsky, vocals
- Robert Conroy, vocals
- Mike Fornatale, electric guitar and vocals
- Stuart Klinger, guitar
- Rich Bennett, guitar and keyboards
- Jesse Krakow, fretless bass and musical direction
- Ray Rizzo, drums and percussion
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