COLD BLUE STEEL - Joni Mitchell insensitive to miles of aisles?
CINCINNATI - UC Armory Fieldhouse, Tuesday night, Feb. 10, 1976: Those of us who have spent long lonely nights savoring the recorded voice and words of Joni Mitchell had our dreams fulfilled Tuesday night. The poet laureate of all songwriters performed at the UC Fieldhouse for a "more-than-capacity" crowd. With almost ten years of recording behind her, it was Joni's first appearance in Cincinnati.
The program began with a forty-five-minute-set of African-jazz-rock executed by the L.A. Express minus Tom Scott. The timing and interplay of guitarist Robben Ford with the experienced pianist and synthesizer-wizard Victor Feldman was most impressive. Ford's syncopated accents coupled with Feldman's rhythmic hammering accounted for most of the group's spark. Max Bennet's base-line and John Guerin's tasteful drumming held it all together.
David Lewell's tenor and soprano sax with Robben Ford doubling sounded like a single instrument. Laying down the riffs was their job and they did it well. The Express peaked on a John Guerin composition "Down the Middle" in which Guerin and Feldman were featured on drums and congas respectively. Up until this point the Express seemed to be merely going through the motions, although it must be said that the motions were flawless.
After a 15 minute intermission, the "queen of roses" appeared in a jet-black French-Canadian-like jacket, pants, and hat. Her sleeves were embroidered with red roses, her trademark since the debut of her album, For the Roses. Joni's dress was complemented with a vase filled with the same flower placed at such an angle so that whenever she moved out of the spot, the roses stole the light.
Her program consisted almost entirely of musical-poems from her last three albums, For the Roses, Court and Spark, and her latest release, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, along with "Real Good for Free" and "Rainy Night-House" from Ladies of the Canyon.
The former composition was one of the only two songs she performed on acoustic piano. The stage crew (referred to in the lyric in ad-lib fashion) seemed to have some trouble tuning the piano before the start of the concert. When Joni struck the keys, although her touch was light and feminine, the piano failed to carry the dynamics of the line and the tone was flat. The expression in her voice, however, coupled with some excellent reed work by Lewell did more than save the performance. Luell gave the tune its final dramatic effect by fading off the stage. The audience approved with applause.
Unfortunately, the high points in Joni's two hour program were far between. Her performance Tuesday night marked the middle of her U.S. tour. To those of us who got a good look at her she appeared somewhat worn out. After listening to her live album, Miles of Aisles, one might have expected more than she gave. Joni is known for capturing with her voice the various nuances of feeling contained in her lyrics. This was plain to see on two new compositions, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and "Furry Sings the Blues," the latter being a tune she had written recently in Memphis for an old ragtime trumpeter.
Her feeling and expression was more apparent on "Rainy Night-House" in which she completely outdid herself, rivaling her prior performance of the same composition on the live album. Her ad-lib phrases were remarkably executed.
The question arises: Why did she lack this sensitivity throughout the major portion of the program? Perhaps the apparent fact that she was tired, seemingly walking around in a daze at times, is an answer. The disappointing quality of the piano, another factor, and what may well have been the most poignant irony of the concert, was the whistling and yelling of the audience. As prophetess of the 70's Joni may not go unrecognized, but how many will truly understand her lines such as, "They seem so removed from romance" or "Amour, mama, not cheap display." It was a poet's concert and the attitude of the crowd must have been a distraction to Joni. A portion of the audience wanted to boogie and they weren't getting what they came to hear. Perhaps her silent disregard for the crowd was all the evidence needed.
Although Joni's performance might not have been up to par, for all of us who could only dream about seeing her for so long, for all of us who could only imagine her music and voice, for all of us who have lived inside her poetry, for all of us who won't be getting Valentines this year, it couldn't have been too great a disappointment.
There are few people in this world whose very presence is a kind of radiation which defies analysis: Joni Mitchell is one of them.