One is a genuine Arizona Song Bird, warbling nearly forgotten oldies and obscure rock ‘n’ roll originals with a voice clear and powerful as a desert sunset.
Another is a willowy graduate of the flower power child generation, world wise yet wistful, placing her incurable romanticism and vulnerability on the line with every lyric.
The third is a silver spoon sophisticate of Manhattan breeding, daughter of a Metropolitan Opera bassoonist, dripping with glamour and presence.
They are Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and Melissa Manchester, respectively. And they are all in danger.
Their jeopardy is that none of the three can claim absolute dominion over her distinctive field of musical conquest any more by sheer virtue of longevity. In each of their genres – Miss Ronstadt in mainstream rock, Ms Mitchell in jazz/folk flavoured confessionals and Ms Manchester in over 40 Top 40 – these women are unquestioned survivors. But survival goes to the fittest, and all three have thrived largely without opposition until the 1980s.
Miss Ronstadt’s dilemma appears most acute. In an arena where ladies once feared to tread, the rock market is now glutted with qualified, talented heiresses-apparent to her musical throne. Ironically, the group Quarterflash, which will open for her at Pine Knob, contains a personification of the new female breed in its lead singer Rindy Ross: perky and confident, with good pipes and non-threatening stage allure.
Just about the time Ms Mitchell, Joan Baez and Judy Collings were perceived as the last practitioners of a dying art form, intoxicating diamond in the rough, Rickie Lee Jones appeared to define the realities. And Ms Manchester’s challenge is unique: As radio stations and record companies strive to appeal to youthful consumers, the demand for adult pop vocalists has waned. (Whatever happened to Manhattan Transfer’s explosion?) They must do something.
Each artist is responding to the challenge in a different way. For Miss Ronstadt, 36, the answer appears to be diversification. Once receiving more attention for escapades with ex-California Governor Jerry Brown than for her music, she has been dipping her voice into a variety of projects: Her light opera Broadway and film debut in Pirates of Penzance (“Some critics found Ronstadt’s acting to be wanting,” remarked Time magazine, “but they found it”); New Wave rock in her 1979 Mad Love LP, and social activism in no nuke rallies.
Miss Ronstadt’s voice is such a magnificent instrument that it has tended to make her lazy in the past, compromising on her choice of material and willing to simply belt her way through a song rather than interpret it – her version of Elvis Costello’s Party Girl, for example. Her last album, Get Closer, was exactly that, closer than she has perhaps ever been to fulfilling the potential of her voice. Still, she cannot avoid her share of controversy: She agreed to perform five concerts in racist South Africa’s Sun City in the face of United Nations censure.
For Ms Mitchell, 39, the realisation was merely coming to grips with who she is. “When we started in this business we were the ones who said you can’t trust people over 30,” she told Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond. “It was inevitable that we would eat a lot of what we said. Now I’m finally hearing some good things about middle age.”
Recently remarried to bass guitarist Larry Klein, she responded to the passing of time with one of her finest albums in years, Wild Things Run Fast. Stripped of the hip jazz pretensions of her recent works Mingus and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Wild Things frolics with a wholesomeness and melodic appeal that signify a sort of rekindled recognition. Particularly in the stand out tunes Chinese Café and Man to Man.
For Ms Manchester, the solution was easiest of all: Target a new audience by singing commercial pop. A recent Grammy Award winner for the upbeat single You Should Hear How She Talks About You, Melissa was previously one of the least recognised successful ballad vocalists in the country. The Hits Midnight Blue, Fire In The Morning and Don’t Cry Out Loud all are hers, but either because of the soft nature or the universal timbre of her voice, the singer songwriter’s accompanying acclaim has been lacking.
Joni Mitchell performs July 4, Linda Ronstadt (with Quarterflash) July 5-6, and Melissa Manchester (with David Brenner) July 7-8 at Pine Knob Music Theater, I-75 at Shashabaw Road, Clarkston. Call 647-7790.
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