Joni Mitchell never dabbles in the predictable. The only way to appreciate her career is to appreciate her seemingly limitless appetite for experimentation.
Last night at Merriweather Post, during the first of two evenings at the pavilion, Mitchell threw yet another curve - or, perhaps more accurately, a string of changeups - at her audience. In the process, she put on the finest show she has ever offered locally. It was bright, brash, moving and thoroughly enjoyable.
Mitchell has been fooling her audience since her first album, "Song to a Seagull" in 1968. Her earliest efforts were solidly within the then-predominant folk vein. "Both Sides Now," her most famous song, is about as thoroughly standard as one could get within the world of James Taylor and Judy Collins.
Subtle changes started to show up in her early 1970s work. While there is a sense of established patterns in "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock," the bulk of albums like "For the Roses" were openly confessional. In songs whose melodies started to take on her now familiar metallic twang and whose lyrics began to close together into one long string, Mitchell laid out her loves and life. Her struggle with social changes reached its highest pitch with "Blue," as agonized an album as any produced by Neil Young during his "On the Beach" period.
"Court and Spark," probably her most popular album with the masses, was a transitional piece. There were elements of her past work but - working with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express - her music started to take on a rock 'n' roll edge that eventually would alienate some of her older fans. Some of that hostility would surface in her audience's reaction to her 1974 L.A. Express tour, captured on "Miles of Aisles."
In retrospect, though, something more important was going on during her protracted association with Scott. While the L.A. Express was hardly a true jazz band, it played with some jazz stylings and Scott himself is a respected jazz player.
The music Mitchell was hearing in her head surfaced on "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." Looking back on the set, it never deserved the criticism it received as cold and inaccessible, becoming instead a watershed in Mitchell's music where her folk lyrics, journalistic eye for the foibles of modern America and her interest in jazz finally met.
It also, unfortunately, marked a point where Mitchell's popularity with a broad audience began to fade. Her historical followup, "Hejira," was simpler and more broadly appealing but "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" - the actual musical followup - was more jazzy and infused with Latin and African rhythms.
Then, last month, came her long awaited "collaboration" with Charles Mingus. It was her most open alignment with jazz and it would also prove to spark as much controversy as "Hissing" or, for that matter, as any pop-based album in recent years.
All through the set there are signs of Mitchell's struggles with the Mingus legend. Nowhere is the struggle more apparent than in her artistic fight to find the right backup band for the music. At least three different units did versions of "Mingus": a traditionalist jazz group headed by Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods; a fusion group that included Stanley Clarke and John McLaughlin; and - finally - a band dominated by Weather Report.
The struggle, which is more artistically based than one might think, continued even after the album's. Her first live performances of the material were done with a sort of group that embraced both fusion and traditional. The collaboration with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and others had its moments but the jazz men never quite seemed comfortable with Mitchell's treatment.
Originally, the current tour was to be with Weather Report. But that idea was chucked in favor of a pickup group. Players came and went but, eventually, the group settled down to a quintet that had Pat Metheny on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Don Alias on drums and percussion, Lyle Mays on keyboards and Michael Brecker on saxophones.
Last night, at least, the agonizing over personnel all seemed quite worthwhile. Pastorius, Metheny and Brecker all have their detractors as solo musicians but they are flexible in their playing and seem to respond well to one another. Pastorius brings all the added ability to bring a smile to Mitchell's face, a facial gesture that has not been part of her onstage repertoire in the past.
In some ways, Mitchell's apparent ease on stage may have been the key to the evening. After all the uproar over "Mingus," she appears to have come to grips with the ghost of the legendary jazzman.
Last night's set was a well-balanced affair. There were pieces from "Mingus" and past songs rearranged into a jazz format Mingus would have approved of. There were a large number of middle-era pieces, notable from "Hissing," and just enough older songs, like a still-vibrant "Big Yellow Taxi," to keep the traditionalists in check. And there was even a bouncy version of the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" done with the Persuasions.
The highlights were numerous. "Edith and the Kingpin" was reworked to include some jazz, funk and even disco overtones. "Free Man In Paris" was delivered as a high-speed rock number with a good Brecker sax solo tossed in. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," the classic Mingus tribute to Lester Young that has now become a Mitchell tribute to both, worked better live than it does on record. It practically oozed smokey bars and jazz joints and there was a lovely Mitchell-Brecker duet as a centerpiece.
The most stunning piece, though, were the rearrangements of "Dreamland," "Black Crow" and "Shadows and Light".
"Dreamland" was done with Latin flavor as Mitchell sang it over the entire band playing percussion. "Black Crow" was a lively, first-rate jazz-rock reworking. And "Shadows and Light" took everyone to church as Mitchell and the Persuasions sang it over Mays' organ. It was stunning.
Joni Mitchell will be back at Merriweather tonight. Tickets are still available. Go see what she has to offer. She may surprise you, but you will love it.