The Joni Mitchell that appeared before her fans at the PNE's Pacific Coliseum on Sunday, September 2 was far removed from the introspective, reluctant performer of her folkie days. Though she was still gentle, she exuded an aura of confidence and strength as she fronted a five-man band of renowned musicians.
I fondly remember the last time I saw Joni live and on stage. It was eight, nine, years ago at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre during a David Crosby-Graham Nash concert where Joni was the anticipated "surprise" guest. At that time, she was "going to camp out on the land and try an' set my soul free" by taking her own version of the Woodstock-vision to her custom-designed, rural retreat on B.C.'s sunshine coast. Eventually she left it, though, because she just "couldn't let go of LA/city of the fallen angels."
Along with her change in environment came a new musical attitude. Most of the songs on *For the Roses* and *Court and Spark*, which followed her return, were influenced by her Sechelt Peninsula stay. With their reliance on more electrical, fuller production than her previous acoustic-oriented efforts, they could be considered transitional albums.
For it was on her next album, *The Hissing of Summer Lawns*, that jazz elements emerged in her music. Joni said goodbye to her folkie fantasies and personal revelations, and headed for a more urban approach that ventured into social commentary.
The audience at Joni's long-awaited return to B.C.'s west coast reflected these modulations in her musical travels. There were aged Woodstock children, urban dancers and the fashion conscious. And she didn't disappoint any of them.
Though the concert opened and closed with songs from *Ladies of the Canyon* (1970), she concentrated on the jazz tendencies and rhythmic experimentation of her present musical direction (from 1975's *The Hissing of Summer Lawns* through the recently-released *Mingus*).
Two of the more accessible songs from her newest release, on which she collaborated with Charles Mingus, the legendary jazz composer/bassist who died in early January 1979 after a lengthy illness, were impressive examples of the progressive Joni Mitchell as singer, composer, and band member. In Mingus' tribute to Lester Young, the classic *Goodbye Pork Pie Hat*, Joni's maturing voice floated effortlessly along the lyrics she wrote to the tune, while the band of jazz's elite she had assembled for this tour swung a fluid, uptempo stream for her vocal excursions.
On the sparsely arranged, yet musically involved *God Must Be A Boogie Man*, which Joni composed after reading the first four pages of Mingus' autobiography, the assurance her voice has acquired over the years helped her to remain on top of (and be propelled by) Jaco Pastorius' slapping bass attack.
Not only has she gained more control over her singing, allowing her more personal expression without sounding contrived, she has developed an on-stage presence that is indicative of the polarities within her personality - determined yet soft-spoken; independent yet vulnerable; earthy yet sophisticated.
She is a true artist - one of only a handful remaining from the sixties who is still creative and vital today. Her craft is dictated by, and is an extension of, her own personal insights. She continues to take chances and challenges herself. That doesn't mean she's always successful, but her failures (like any artist's) are just as important and worthwhile as the successes when it comes to revealing the extent of her abilities and her frame of mind at that particular point in time.
Surprisingly, it was with one of her past radio hits and not one of her more recent jazzy ventures that problems arose. *Raised on Robbery* got off to a promising start with Joni's melodically spoken intro but when she finished the lead-in with "along comes a lady in lacy sleeves," the band jumped in and took off at a feverish pace that unfortunately became too complex for a song that benefits most from a straight-ahead rock approach. It resulted in a muggy mix that, for the only time in the evening, overpowered Joni's vocals.
Each band member was presented with various opportunities to shine, including either solo or duo improvising. There was a sax solo by Michael Brecker, and a wondering, evocative duet with Pat Methany's [sic] guitar and Lyle May's [sic] synthesizer.
But the more audience-appreciated solos belonged to Pastorius and Don Alias. Pastorius' concentrated bass playing reached a stomping climax that was complemented by his lanky stage meanderings, while Alias' energetic conga solo segued into an incredible percussive version of *Dreamland*. Backed by a variety of rhythmic instruments played by her band, Joni's lingering vocals woven through a syncopated African beat produced a mesmerizing effect that couldn't easily be forgotten.
With Alias on drums and Brecker on sax, she sang a funky, soulful rendition of *Why Do Fools Fall In Love*, with The Persuasions. This five-man acapella soul group who opened the concert were mismatched with the vastness and harshness that is the Coliseum. Their fervent enthusiasm and lavish harmonies are more suited to close surroundings where they would be more contagious and not lost to those seated further away than the first few rows.
When a thunderous and well-deserved ovation called Joni back for a second encore, a relaxed and happy artist appeared alone with her guitar. A hush came over the noisy crowd as she began a stark version of her age-old anthem, *Woodstock*. After all the intricately textured sounds of her electrifyingly jazzy arrangments, it was an appropriately nostalgic ending to an extraordinary concert.