Joni Mitchell's show at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium had been billed as a tribute to Charles Mingus, in response to her recent album, a collaboration with the jazz titan just before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease in January. But I was told that the show would also serve as a retrospective of Mitchell's career, which stems back to the late '60s and to such songs as "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game".
On Friday night (a Saturday date was added), the near-capacity house was treated to a varied, faultlessly paced excursion into Mitchell's repertoire, with material from the superb "Mingus" (Asylum Records) providing the focal point. Mitchell touched upon the remainder of her decade's worth of songs, but recent years took precedence over the distant past.
To accomplish the task of resurrecting Mingus (the album presents Mingus' songs put to words by Mitchell, based on Mingus' autobiography "Beneath the Underdog"), Joni brought in a virtuoso collection of "fusion" jazz players: Don Alias on drums and percussion, Michael Brecker on saxophones, Lyle Mays on keyboards, Pat Metheny on guitar and Jaco Pastorius on bass.
It's difficult to visualize a one time folksinger in such extraordinary company, but singer/songwriter/pianist Joni Mitchell is a rare talent in her own right. Unable to content herself with continuing in a folk-rock mold, Mitchell, a true artist, spent the '70s expanding into the jazz field. As her albums became more intricate and difficult to immediately grasp, her singing and songwriting showed a greater complexity and development. Her talent was evident at the Friday Show.
All the accouterments of Mitchell's vagabond past have disappeared. Instead of the fragile waif from rock-festival days, we see a woman in a meticulous blue pantsuit with rose scarf and neatly curled hair. An electric guitar has replaced the folk instrument. And Joni's singing once a clear reproduction of a song melody line, now soars above or skirts below the melody, sometimes in a scat singing style.
The set was a testament to the spirit of music. Abetted by a perfect sound system, Joni Mitchell sang with a supernatural fire, and her voice flowed with power. The musicianship proved equal to the singer, and the players fashioned a mighty ensemble, with brief phrases and nuances embellishing throughout. For instance, Pat Metheny's guitar sound -like a church organ- on "Coyote"; Michael Brecker's sax solo on "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines"; and Lyle Mays' boogie-woogie piano figure on "Raised on Robbery".
Each song in the delightful set had its own highlights; the concert was entirely memorable.
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," Mingus' tribute to Lester Young, featured Joni singing alongside Brecker's soaring saxophone. "God Must Be a Boogie Man" opened with Joni's moving monologue about Mingus, and Mitchell's "The Last Time I Saw Richard" brought her unaccompanied, to the piano.
Jaco Pastorius reeled off an amazing bass solo that utilized the range of modern day musical instruments. With some kind of a synthesizer/computer switch on his electric bass, Pastorius managed to create a rhythmic duet by himself, playing a continuous rhythm line that sustained itself even while he wasn't playing. On his solo, Don Alias took to the conga drums and wrought forth a complex rhythm. after the other musicians joined in on a variety of cowbells and woodblocks, Alias worked a call-and-response in African chant fashion, between his percussion and Joni's almost linear vocal.
For her opening act, Mitchell chose the Persuasions, a gospel-laced, street corner harmony group that is reputedly the best a capella vocal group in the business. The five-man unit, who have a new album called "Coming At Ya" on Flying Fish Records, were the best warmup Mitchell could have chosen.
The Persuasions returned to the stage for Joni Mitchell's finale. A gospel chant straight out of church, the song, probably titled "Wrong, Wrong and Right" left me speechless. As Mitchell sang a verse, The Persuasions responded in unison with an awesome, booming choir. The bass singer's magnificent pipes created a rumble through the huge auditorium's speakers. Several people around me cried.
The second encore, "Woodstock", Mitchell's anthem to the "love generation", placed the evening in perspective. As she sang, "I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation" I couldn't help but think that, as long as art exists, there is still plenty of hope.
Notes: Among interesting but obscure album releases, four hard rockers: the traditional rock of the Beckmeier Brothers (Casablanca) and the Iron City houserockers (MCA) and new wave outings by former New York Doll David Johansen "In Style" (Blue Sky-CBS) and Tom Verlaine (Elektra).
Cancelled: the last Day on the Green, scheduled for next Saturday, with Foreigner, Foghat, the Cars, Gamma with Ronnie Montrose, and Bram Tchaikovsky . . .Tasty new singles: "Sail On" by the Commodores, "Girls Talk" by Dave Edmunds and "Good Girls Don't" by the Knack.