What did it mean? Joni Mitchell, this hemisphere's answer to Nico (woman, of melancholy), had broken up in concert. Broken up laughing, I saw it. I was on the second row watching while battling bizarre camera clickers and jaded stonies (people getting stoned to listen to Joni Mitchell?!). This would be the Joni Mitchell concert Sunday night in Duke's packed Cameron Indoor Stadium, right? (No man, You were so stoned that you were watching the ACC track finals and thought it was a concert.)
Earlier in the evening, a girl with a very pained expression had said, "Why doesn't she smile, she looks so sad?" (She said it like Joni was her big sis). That girl got more than she bargained for. In the course of the evening, Joni unwound, let loose and showed herself with a sense of humor. She moved. She smiled. And hey, she even laughed.
It took a while, though.
Tom Scott's L.A. Express, her back-up band for most of the night, opened the show alone. Looking like out of the same hair spray-club circuit mold, they all got their soles and went home happy. Tom Scott played everything that had a mouthpiece and then some (very versatile, in other words). Roger Kellaway played electric keyboards. Robin Ford (ex- of Jimmy Witherspoon's band) played electric guitar. Max Bennett (ex- of Zappa's Hot Rats band) played bass and John Guerin played drums. A tight outfit indeed.
When Joni Mitchell walked on to too-loud-to-be-customary applause, there were roses waiting for her, one on her grand piano and twenty more in a huge vase behind her. She didn't appear to notice. She was delicately and beautifully unemotional for the opening half. To say she appeared melancholy or near breakdown would be striving for manufactured drama (making heroes live out OUR fantasies). Who can ever say what motivates those on stage and what brings out great performances? Crowd expectation, maybe? Thousands of words are wasted on such matters daily. Sports heroes, political figures, musical artists.
Joni Mitchell was a magnetic performer. Eyes stayed focused on her. From when she opened with This Flight Tonight until she closed with the encore Twisted, the crowd appreciated every gesture, no matter how far she ranged from the album versions of her songs.
The first half of the concert was haunting. Backed by the L.A. Express, she performed songs mostly from her post Blue period. She said very little to anybody (including the band) never breaking into anything resembling confidence or happiness. At times, she would open up and let pure uncensored emotional sound flow. It sounded like beautifully controlled wailing from the depths of despair. She was detached, like a quiet stranger. Just like our fantasies wanted it, right? (A little touch of Norma Jean in the night.)
But she must have had a talk with her coach at halftime, because after intermissions she came out alone, sizing up the crowd by herself. That's when she smiled.
It seems that something in her song Big Yellow Taxi reminded her of a recent event in her life which she retold to the audience. In one swoop, she went from Guru Maharaj Ji ("wish him a lifetime supply of Cadillacs") to Eskimo women with cateye glasses doing frog-like dances in the village square.
From that point on, she was in command of how she would attack her songs she was determined to have a good time.
Although some avid fans might have objected to the "desecration" of her career's earlier works with band backing (Clouds for one) and her nonchalance with serious songs (like when she broke up laughing several times during The Last Time I Saw Richard, they can never say that she wasn't in control. It wasn't a manipulation, it was more like taking things as they came. With a performer like her, who does relatively few concert tours, it is almost accepted that people are going to have their expectations raised above human capability.
Still, I am reminded of the girl sitting behind me. In the frenzy of the encore, she had a near religious conversion, speaking in tongues and everything.
So. What did the laughing mean? It meant that all singer-performer-poets are ultimately human and subject to all the fragility and capacity for humor that comes with humanity. You hear her perform The Same Situation and People's Parties and think that any minute she will break down. Then, you hear her do Twisted or Raised on Robbery and wonder if she's not more in control of things than she thinks. There are no happy forever after endings. Some moments are better than others. Sunday night in Cameron Stadium was one of those moments.
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