Though not exactly foaming at the mouth with garrulous quotes, JONI MITCHELL nevertheless delivered the goods at the London concerts. STEVE CLARKE reports...
THE LADY sits at the head of the table, boy friend on her right. Her face isn't attractive in the normal sense of the word but it's not the kind you forget in a hurry — gaunt without being wasted and highlighted by prominent cheekbones. It's also a kind of haunted face.
She's a rich girl and not afraid to admit it. One of the "Nouveaux riches", she'd called herself earlier — though that was slightly tongue-in-cheek. She's got a sense of humour too, see.
Every now and then a well wisher nudges in and says hello to her. Rod Stewart, bright green suit, matching tartan waistcoat, and ruffled front shin, goes and has a bit of a natter. Has his picture taken.
She doesn't stay very long and, after a while, she walks — bodyguarded — out of the restaurant where her party's being held and into a black limo. She'd sang about that car earlier (or, to be precise, a car like it) in a song called For Free which comes from her third elpee LADIES OF THE CANYON. Changed the words a little though. In the original, she sang about having just three gentlemen escorting her to the halls. This evening she'd sang "About l6" And as she sang the lines "And I play if you have the money or if you're a friend to me," a note of cynicism crept into her voice. Was she being s hypocritical? Or this another example of Joni Mitchell's fearsome honesty?
She's a star alright but she comes over as the Reluctant Star, as with most other human situations she can see through that one. For instance, Joni Mitchell barely does any interviews. "She's nice. Go over and say Hello. She'd like to meet you but she doesn't do interviews . . . these things are so awkward." — (Co-manager Elliott Roberts In London with her, takes care of business).
She doesn't like having her photo took either. Some fella at her concert — one of three at London's New Victoria Theatre — broadcast the fact that Miss Mitchell would leave the stage if any pictures were taken. And at the party afterwards a similar statement was issued by the English boss of Elektra-Asylum, her record company.
Is this elusiveness yet another example of keeping the press away from the star so as to increase the enigma? Or is it that Joni doesn't really consider herself too much of a star — or, more likely, doesn't put that much importance on her star status. From her lyrics it's obvious that she's quite aware of her stardom but she seems to regard it as inhibiting. But in the same breath she enjoys the freedom that it brings, ie the cash. In For The Roses, she sings "I really guess I seem ungrateful with my teeth sank in the hand that brings my things I really can't give up now."
ON SATURDAY she didn't look too much like a star, either on-stage or off. For the first half of her set she wore flared jeans and a blouse belted around her middle and changed into a plain powder-blue evening gown for the second half.
But the music . . . that's what Joni Mitchell is all about. Forget all this star crap. I think she tries to.
Tom Scott's LA Express opened the show with around half an hour or so of jazz-cum-funk-doodlings. Scott has now been playing horns with Joni for her last two albums FOR THE ROSES and COURT AND SPARK — although it wasn't until the latter that his music played any real role in her music. All the musicians in his band are very accomplished but often the music they produced de-generated into mere musak. And somehow they overdid it at times.
Joni herself appeared on stage without any "Hello-I'm-glad-to-be-back-in-England" (no bullshit, you see) and, strumming an acoustic guitar, went into that Nazareth (!!) song This Flight Tonight. She didn't sound too good and her voice seemed kind of flat and the band treaded very gently, feeling their way. Obviously she was very nervous. Her on-stage gait is not one you would expect from a performer who's made six albums: she stands as though she's hardly ever been on stage before. (On a couple of occasions she sang without either a guitar or a piano to keep her hands busy).
Scott tacked on a sax solo at the end of This Flight Tonight and that was that. Not a bad start but in no way was it shattering — although the sheer power of her voice came through a couple of times.
No introduction of any sort as She went into You Turn Me On I'm A Radio.
Her vocals had now improved no end and she sounded just
as good as on the record, although the band were still very loose and
seemed under-rehearsed. She finished the song by improvising vocally in
harmony with the guitarist.
Scott added backup vocal on Free Man in Paris, the first song of the set from COURT AND SPARK. He's not a very good singer — although trying to sing the part of a Joni Mitchell back-up vocal where she does it herself on the record ain't too easy.
Her confidence grew and her voice was now more mellow than before and she hardly ever broke into that piercing falsetto she used around the time of LADIES OF THE CANYON. Still without a word she moved to the piano for another COURT AND SPARK song, The Same Situation, with its very-fine melody. Again it's a very honest song and although a lady of experience, Joni doesn't sound world-weary like so many of today's so-called rock poets. She fights a situation realistically: "Send me someone who's strong and somewhat sincere."
It was during this song that the ice finally broke and Joni established some kind of conversation with the audience. She was barely into the piece when she suddenly started playing something different. "Hey, you guys," she giggled to the nonplussed band. "I've been working on this other thing. I know it wasn't what we were doing but I'd like to throw it in." She explained they'd just had a two-week layoff so things might be a little loose.
They started the song again and it was the best so far. During Just Like This Train — another COURT AND SPARK song — her vocals were almost extinguished by Scott's sax break. The band kept with her for Rainy Night House and although they didn't ruin it, the sparser, recorded version is far better. They did, however, virtually destroy Woodstock, adding a totally uncomplementary broken rhythm and some soul chords.
And that was the first set.
NOW I reckon that Joni Mitchell's the best at what she does. There's not another singer-songwriter, male or female, fit to handle the same guitar. She's as good as that kind of thing gets and to see one or two of her songs ruined brought me down a little. She did, however, get a whole lot better in the second set.
Cactus Tree, from her first find totally romantic album, came first, plain and simple and beautiful. Big Yellow Taxi followed and some words got changed and instead of "Big Yellow Taxi" she sang about a Big Yellow Tractor taking down her house.
Then came her first real rap of the night. She rambled on about being at a party where all the food was white and all the furnishings were transparent. And all the people had Nixonian expressions (predictably that got a lot of applause). And then she sang People's Parties — again from COURT AND SPARK. Her phrasing was perfect and she seemed to have butterflies in her voice, holding down notes long and low until they disappeared.
She picked up a dulcimer and sitting legs astride did three songs from BLUE: All I Want and A Case of You and Blue with its immortal "Crown And Anchor Me" line. Beautiful, breathless, sensual phrasing. Another long preamble and she sang For The Roses. Then it's that uncomfortable song about heroin, Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire. The eeriness of the song is enhanced by Scott's excellent sax solo from off-stage.
Look, all these song titles are getting boring but let me tell you she did some more songs from COURT AND SPARK ending with Raised On Robbery, a band-accompanied version of Both Sides Now (in which she added "Yes I Have" after the line "They say I've changed,"), an encore of Last Time I Saw Richard — where she mimicked a New York barmaid putting on a harsh accent for the lines 'Drink up now, it's gettin' on time to close" — and Annie Ross's Twisted.
Now that's a lot of songs to sing in one evening. During the second half she dispelled all my earlier misgivings, although those were really about the band. But even they had improved by the end.