What’'d She Say Anyway?

by Peter Stack
San Francisco Chronicle
June 14, 1983

Sound System undercuts Joni Mitchell

Admittedly, I’'ve never gone out of my way to argue that Joni Mitchell is one of the great singers of our time. We all have our shortcomings. Maybe I’m just not sensitive enough for her music.

I don’t have a single recorded song of hers tucked away in my house, nor, for that matter, in my heart. One reason I went to the Concord Pavilion Sunday night was to get acquainted with Joni Mitchell, because I know people who gasp with excitement whenever her name is mentioned. I feel reasonably certain there exist entire cafes full of people writing in their journals that can be made to gasp collectively with the mere mention of the word “Joni.”

After sitting for about three hours with 9000 gasping Joni Mitchell fans in the perfectly splendid pavilion, I can’t say that I’m any closer to knowing much about her music than I was before.

Central to this fact is one simple thing: I absolutely could not make out but a smattering of words of the many thousands contained in her lyrics.

I don’t hold it against her that her voice was so garbled on the pavilion’s sound system as to make her sound like a wren getting strangled or goosed, but then I sort of do too. How can anyone appreciate the music of a highly stylized singer noted for meaty love lyrics, when the words come out like twisted wreckage? Isn’t there some responsibility for a communicator-in-song to stop a slurred or muffled show and order technical adjustments made? I’d rather listen to the buzz of a crowd than a singer getting sabotaged by her own microphone.

The handful of words I was able to make out were the following, in no particular order: “…love is precious…North Dakota junction…flowers of deep feelings…God must be the boogie man…one man band…I was raised on robbery…put up a parking lot…”

When I asked a friend of mine if she could understand what Joni Mitchell was singing, she joked: “I think she’s singing in Canadian.”

I had to look for other things to like about Joni Mitchell. I list these. She plays many guitars with accomplishment and grace. She plays the piano and dulcimer in like fashion. Her voice is good with considerable range, but on some of that range, she’s not quite home, so to speak. The very high notes especially.

The crowd appeared widely thrilled with its idol. Scattered throughout the throng were many people dancing in gyrating trances to the rock embellishments. Most of the dancers appeared to be young women upon whom the advanced hippie fashions of the ‘70’s had left a marked impression.

Anyway, Joni Mitchell appeared to have quite a lot of what they call energy on stage. She wore a gray-and-black loose-fitting dress with pockets and laced sandals. I would guess, with her somewhat unkempt blonde hair, she’s a natural to lead a delegation of Topanga Canyon artists.

I didn'’t think she tried to give much to the crowd at the Pavilion. There was something smug about her act and, at times, something almost a little haughty. On the other hand, her four-man band, which included her husband, Larry Klein, playing bass in a most melodramatic fashion, gave a lot. The band was hot, and interesting, and at least I was not bored to tears by its performance.

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