Joni Mitchell's first appearance in Britain with a band was a triumph.
Joni's last appearance here was for a Festival Hall show where the sound came through as if it was being transmitted on short wave radio from Mars by a Martian eating a giant bowl of Rice Krispies.
Understandably she'd come across as a nervous, rather fragile lady embarrassed by the spaces between songs -- as breakable as a guitar string that's been strung a little too tautly.
The difference couldn't have been more complete. At The New Victoria Theatre on Saturday night, the sound was excellent, and, as on Joni's last two albums, the gaps that used to be left to your imagination are now filled with a superlatively appropriate band who do the job a lot better than my imagination. I have to admit it.
Miss Mitchell seems to have changed in much the same way as her music, to judge from her stage persona. Striding onstage in a loose-fitting top, jeans, centre-parting and rather more make-up than she used to wear, Joni looks a little larder and tougher, and a whole lot freer. Confident for sure. Folk waif into rock and roll lady, happy to let things roll along.
This time, she was enjoying herself instead of trying to pass some kind of test.
Since Bob Dylan took to stages to meet the folkie purists' hostility with The Band about eight years ago, solo acoustic performers have been turning themselves into bands as soon as they could afford to. Joni's one of the last to get around to it, but now that she's made the step, it's hard to see how she could have waited so long: Joni's voice is so much stronger for the backdrop. It's like a puppy can have a lot of fun playing with you and chasing the ball or the stick, but when you see him frisking with another puppy, it's a whole different ball-game. Joni's voice stands up now like a proud confident instrument in the knowledge that there's a whole pack of other instruments to bounce off.
Right off, she was trading off Robben Ford's guitar quite beautifully in the second number, "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio," lilting and whooping without a sign of strain.
Robben Ford was the guitarist who amazed a lot of people when he was playing in Jimmy Witherspoon's band supporting Eric Burdon in the armpit of the Marquee. If that band proved his technique and ability to dominate a band, Saturday's concert proved he's equally capable of hanging back and throwing in just the right phrase at the right time.
Ford apart, this was the band that provided the main part of the accompaniment on "Court And Spark": leader Tom Scott on various woodwinds and reeds, and once even a triangle; with Melanie's arranger/keyboard man Roger Kellaway (also a new addition), Max Bennett on Fender bass and John Guerin on drums.
The band played their own set first, which provided much flexing of instrumental muscles, but not a great amount of corporate inspiration, at least until a Coltrane composition which gave Scott, Kellaway and Ford their heads.
But the entrance of Joni with her amplified acoustic guitar seemed to provide everyone with a place and a purpose, and they played superbly throughout the night, leading off aptly with "This Flight Tonight." Then to "Radio," with the band providing a good blare at the right moments, and the lighting hitting bright red to point up the fact.
Then with little ado, it was right into "Court And Spark" with "Free Man In Paris" and "The Same Situation," archetypal Joni lines here -- "Tethered to a ringing telephone in a room full of mirrors/A pretty girl in your bathroom, checking out her sex appeal." Like Dory Previn, Joni always has those lemon-haired ladies just next door, birds of prey, and her situations always ring true.
Listening to her albums over all those years since I picked up the first one by ferreting through a rack years ago, when she was just an oddity on Frank Sinatra's label, has its ups and downs. It's a little like living next door in the canyon -- one day she's round smiling with a bottle of champagne and the next she looks just awful and you have to put the black coffee on the stove and sometimes she's a little too close for comfort and wants a little too much advice. But it's always worth it, and the amazing thing is that every one of those golden eggs in the nest is actually better, deeper, more lasting than the last one. I don't think anyone else has managed that over the same period of time.
She gets a little lost in the middle of "The Same Situation" -- the only time during the whole concert -- but it worries her not at all. She doodles a little on the piano, shouts to the band, "OK, on your spots," and we're off again -- like a lot of the numbers, it starts off solo and gets gradually embellished.
"I used to count lover like railroad cars, I counted them on my side/Lately I don't count on nothing, I just let things slide," she sings, and maybe it's giving her time to get the music even that much better.
The older songs are approached with a slightly cool reappraisal in the new light of the band and of other experiences, slightly muted jazz-accented funk. At times, L.A. Express sound a lot like the sound the Section put together for Carole King. When she sings "Both Sides Now," she sings "I look at life that way, sometimes still!", as if she's surprised that the song still has any relevance.
She does "Woodstock" and "Big Yellow Taxi" as well as the newer material and it's a long concert, never too long. Nobody can complain that their favourite's been left out, and still there's time for two long meandering introductory rambles to a couple of the songs. "Speedfreak!", someone in the audience shouts (there's always one of those). "No, I'm just a naturally compulsive talker," she says, carrying on in slight bafflement.
Joni comes back after the interval in a long blue dress and plays a few songs solo before being rejoined by the band. And the standard stays at an incredibly high level right through. Especially notable was a chilling version of her incredible "Cold Blue Steel." Singing with the deep siren voices of addiction, and wiggling gracefully behind her guitar at the same time, she made the song even more unsettling than it was on "For The Roses." There are times when the lady's lyrics seem like they'd been dragged protesting right out of your subconscious.
A frantic "Raised On Robbery" was a natural closer. "The Last Time I Saw Richard" and "Twisted" ("I finally understood what jazz was all about playing with these guys") provided a pleasing encore.
A great night. I could tell you I saw Rod Stewart in the foyer and all that gossip column stuff, but it really was irrelevant. What mattered was seeing Joni Mitchell, caught and sparkling like a well fed cigarette-lighter. No sweat, no fuss: just an effortlessly great concert.
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