There’s an old handbook for professional writers which advises them to avoid gloomy stories about life if commercial success is their goal. Until Dylan came along in the early Sixties, most popular folk entertainers followed this rule. Joni Mitchell, the first female songwriter to emerge from the Sixties folk revival, first achieved commercial success for her sunny, picturesque songs. She immediately established herself as a Romantic lyricist, capable of word pictures as sensuous as those of Keats.
Like Dylan, she wrote experientially, if not autobiographically, while most folk singers were still interpreting the standard folk songs and a few protest tunes. Because mass audiences prefer to be entertained with romance and
fantasy, the timid, flaxen-haired Canadian was identified with ice cream castles in the air and feathered canyons everywhere. Yet much of her later music is on the cooler, shady side of life and love. She sings of guilt and lost innocence, broken romances, poverty, inequality, cruelty, always with the persuasive loneliness of a woman traveling.
Travel is both vehicle and theme for Mitchell. At her recent appearance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, part of a 10-concert tour, she sang a number of songs from Blue and For the Roses, which tell of internal and external journeys. She opened with "This Flight Tonight", a song about a reluctant departure from a loved one, as well as an internal voyage probing the recent relationship: "I can’t talk to you baby/I get so weak/Sometimes I think love is just mystical."
She explored the travel theme further in "All I Want," again traveling and looking to belong. Mitchell accompanied herself on dulcimer for this song from the Blue album, which she sang in the second set along with that album’s title cut.
With "Blue," her lyrical ability showed positive signs of growth, reaching a plateau in For the Roses, where she began to experiment with images and free verse. "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," which she also sang in the second set, contains a contemptuous, yet sympathetic description of a fix: "Hollow-grey-fire-escape thief/Looking for sweet fire/Shadow of Lady Release."
The burning imagery of fire and electricity is carried over to her new album, Court and Spark, from which Mitchell sang all but two songs, the title cut and "Down to You." With few exceptions, her performances were faithful to the recorded versions. The musical interlude on "Trouble Child" is much longer on record and gives more emphasis to the separation between the singer and subject of this unusual song which hints at madness. In view of Mitchell’s appropriation of Sylvia Plath’s "silence in a bell jar" on an earlier album and her inclusion of Ross and Grey’s "Twisted"- the only song on all six albums not penned by Mitchell- it seems she is exploring yet another realm, beyond the gloomy, in the unsung regions of the psyche.
Her live performance of "Twisted," a jazz tune in the Lambert, Hendrix and Ross vein, was far better than the breathy, ineffectual recorded version. And while "Raised on Robbery" didn’t have Robbie Robertson’s guitar in live performance, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express put down some rock’ n’ roll that raised a capacity crowd to its feet. the song started out with Mitchell’s teasingly thin soprano and then bellowed into the rousing, raunchy red light tune that it is for a strong conclusion to an unusually long second set. The lyrics on "Robbery" are bawdy- "I’m a pretty good cook/I’m sitting on my groceries/Come up to my kitchen/I’ll show you my best recipe"- and Mitchell sang with a fuller, surer voice, equaling the music and the subject.
Her vocal nuances and subtleties were emphasized on an uptempo version of "Woodstock." Vocal improvisations were highlighted during an interchange between Mitchell and guitarist Robin Ford, with Scott on flute. The audience responded to this arrangement with a standing ovation.
Mitchell’s appearance, all pink and blonde and sequined, as well as her straightforward rapport with the audience were surpassed only by the quality of her music. There were gifts of roses on stage and she made reference to "a knitted sweater from Stu." She talked between songs about her admittedly hypocritical view of pop stars. In "Free Man in Paris," she sings "You know I’d go back there tomorrow/But for the work I’ve taken on/Stoking the star maker machinery/Behind the popular song."
The new album and Mitchell’s performance attest to her ability and growth as an artist. Her maturity as a vocalist is complemented by the unique modal tonalities of her music. and she proves herself equally comfortable with uptempo jazz and solid rock numbers.
She may be better known for the "rows and flows of angel hair," but her artistry lies on her darker side, in her love/hate/freedom conflicts with lovers and her gentle but self-mocking attitude toward stardom and the pop scene. Mitchell hasn’t lost the peppermint tea and honey image; she’s just seasoned it with a little brandy and some powerful experiences from years on the road.