THAT tickets were like gold dust for Joni Mitchell's solo concert at London's Festival Hall on Saturday is tribute, yet in relative terms only scant measure of her standing as one of the most important of the singer/songwriter breed currently gracing popular music. Joni, when posterity turns to assess, may well be judged the greatest.
Few other performers today can strike such rapport with an audience, yet few others can or are prepared to expose themselves, their private loves and fears, to the public gaze. Then again she is not a negative artist. Unlike her countryman Leonard Cohen and other contemporaries, who enact their emotions against a background of human desperation, Joni sings of hope, of love and joy. Of dignity in despair.
Her Festival Hall concert was her first in Britain since January and one of her rare appearances anywhere. One can understand how, for such a sensitive person whose performances involve reliving deep felt emotional experiences, to go out on stage and sing can be a terrifying occurrence. Early in Saturday's act, failing to project her voice, forgetting the occasional song and at one point being completely unable to tune up for a particular number, it looked as if Joni's nervousness would defeat her.
A frail, vulnerable figure on stage, she held on, however, felt and fed on the overwhelming warmness of an audience willing her on and finally was able to throw out to them the lifeline of hope that her songs represent. It was a moving performance. Switching from guitar, to piano, to dulcimer and back again throughout her two-part set she drew on all three of her fine albums for content, delving back to the first for "Nathan La Freneer," "That Song About The Midway," "Michael From The Mountains" and "Marcie," written for a friend who she said was in the audience.
Occasionally she prefaced new songs with the story of how they were written. The beautiful "California," a joyous celebration of her adopted home state which contains the immortal chorus line "I could kiss a Sunset pig," she said while homesick in Paris. Another, also performed on dulcimer, she wrote in Crete holidaying there and living in a cave after her January London concert. "I Wish I Had A River," an achingly intense love song ranking among her finest, she wrote around last Christmas.
A moment of rare, relaxed humour on her part came when the applause for the opening chords of "Blue Yellow Taxi" [sic] she confounded the audience by singing "I've got a girl called Bony Moronie" and adlibbing through three verses of the Larry Williams rocker. Then, the intro again and "Pegy Sue," [sic] by now enjoying herself, before her ecology single got under way. "The Gallery," "Chelsea Morning," "Both Side Now" were from "Clouds;" "Rainy Night House," "Conversation" and "For Free," her "guilt" song about a street musician, from "Ladies Of The Canyon" before a premier of the humorously-titled "I Could Drink A Case Of You And Still Be On My Feet." "Woodstock," currently the best known of her celebratory songs, was the closer and served to prove that Joni sings her own songs like no one else can. Hearing her emotionally shrilling "And we've got to get back to the garden" you realize that no other interpreter will convey what she means by the phrase.
Brought back for an encore she chose the classic "Circle Game," written some time ago for a musician friend who thought he was over the hill at 21, and called on her manager Elliot Roberts and a self-conscious Graham Nash to help her and the audience with the choruses.
If Joni does as she keeps threatening and gives up her already rare live performances then our loss will be monumental.
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