There are only a few performers that can carry you back to the days when the patches on your jeans and long-haired scratch folk singer flirted with your sensibilities and ultimately, your mind. One in particular "wayfared her way down" from Canada into the States, claiming Laurel Canyon as her musical hideaway. She always seemed a very elusive lady, cancelling concerts because of last minute stage fright; yet there were those who followed her fickleness as well as her genius from time to time. I missed her in Miami and at Tanglewood, and when her Boston concert was a sell-out I considered the Providence Civic Center a small compromise.
Last Wednesday night Joni Mitchell, accompanied by the L.A. Express, stole into Rhode Island with a quite pleasant calling card. The L.A. Express is an extremely tight band, and although Tom Scott's absence was felt, it's impossible to cancel them off as just Mitchell's warm up band. I was first introduced to them on Joni's live album, Miles of Aisles, and it was hard to believe they could carry on so well together. Together with John Guerin on drums, Max Bennett on bass and Robben Ford on electric guitar, their own form of jazz ebbs and flows from beginning to end as a totality of sound, and you're left with the impression that maybe you've overlooked something in the shuffle of money and albums, familiar sound and names. There's little fear here that one musician will upstage another.
It's pleasant to be at a concert where everything is on time and the wait between sets doesn't dull the excitement. Exactly fifteen minutes after the band's appearance, I heard a welcome sound; Joni Mitchell was finally there, clad in top hat and sequined jacket, all shiny and, yes, different, too. There are some who view changes in stage manners as a break with a past secure image, but as far as I could see, she still has quite a feel for that "soundhole on her knee."
Joni started it off with Help Me and For Love or Money from her Miles of Aisles album. She seemed really comfortable in the spotlight while she eased the L.A. Express in bittersweet recollections of lost lovers and lessons in survival. She followed rapidly with Free Man in Paris while she literally let her hair down from under her hat and released that spirit she describes in song as plusses and minusses-electricity. She reached back to her For the Roses album for the next two numbers: See You Sometime, a haunting and confusing description of the need to keep from surrendering what has already been lost; and Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, one of her best lyrical achievements. Her lofty poetry and talent with the guitar seem to fuse to the extent that there is little question as to why she chooses to expose her vulnerability as a woman and performer; trying to succeed at both.
"Come with me I know the way," she says
"It's down, down the dark ladder-
Do you want to contact somebody first,
Does it really matter
If you come now or if you come later on?"
She seemed to seduce the crowd right into her Raised on Robbery number, which was probably one of the first sparks of jazz seen in her songwriting, much expanded on the Court and Spark album. In this song she teases her own sensitivities as to just who's taking who upstairs for a couple of laughs. There wasn't much room for stomping, but Rock n' Rollin and Just Like This Train set the stage for some impromptu carousing. The audience enjoyed her kicking loosely at all the things she's done too late because it seems everybody's waiting; skinny-legged kids and Toni-permanented ticketed ladies.
There wasn't much time for audience requests, yet she did a nice interpretation of For Free, during, which she explained her naiveté at buying a saxophone for the street musician who inspired the song. (I guess he hocked it the next day for a little "soul-quenching.") She also travelled back to her Woodstock days with Big Yellow Taxi and then launched into a spacey rendition of Rainy Night House, a song of late-night lovers' attempts to find each other before the travelling starts again and the calls from Florida drift in. Joni slowed up what seemed like several hours of song with Snakes in the Grass, a strange song about jungle life and its pitfalls, (I guess we all coil and strike sometimes.) She was somewhat annoying in that she seemed to have lost her ability to transcend a kind of shyness with the audience that I thought she had overcome on her 'live album'. She finally did relate a story about an incident that took place when she was on her southern tour of the U.S. It seems Joni and the L.A. Express did some touring of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee and heard some tales of an old jazz player by the name of Furry. They went calling with a carton of Pall Malls and bourbon asking for an audience with him. Old Furry, nearly blind, treasured their gifts more that their musical curiosity, and old Beale Street wasn't to be conjured up that easily. All was not in vain because they wrote a song for Furry; the ghost of all that jazz age finery.
Joni finished her second stage call with Twisted, all about the fears we conjure up especially about doubledeckered busses- just 'cos there's no driver on the top.