NEW YORK - Over the last four years and three albums, Joni Mitchell's creative instincts and artistic inclinations have gradually drifted away from the pop music mainstream. But Mitchell's performance at Forest Hills last Saturday night (August 25) indicated she is still able to powerfully merge the aesthetics of her present craft with the contemporary sounds that made much of her past work so appealing.
Standing centerstage with her electric guitar, which she competently chorded and impressively picked throughout the evening, Mitchell opened with a striking set of "Big Yellow Taxi," "Just Like This Train," and "In France They Kiss On Main Street;" always sounding like the confident albeit youthful waif of her earlier career. Even though these songs were played true to their original arrangements, Mitchell's superb utilization of her stellar touring band (Pat Metheny, bass; Lyle Mays, keyboards; Jaco Pastorius, bass; Michael Brecker, tenor and soprano sax; and Don Alias, percussion), collectively and as individual catalysts or embellishments, pumped new vitality into each.
On consecutive numbers like "Paprika Plains" and "Free Man In Paris," Mitchell expertly juxtaposed her free-form jazz poetry (held together by the fiery rhythm section) with her passionate pop melodies (sparked by Brecker's soulful tenor solo). Then, armed solely with her most powerful instrument, her voice, Mitchell launched into an inspired "Sweet Sucker Dance" from the "Mingus" album, as if possessed by Charlie's spirit. This first taste of her latest project, termed inaccessible by many, was greeted wildly by the audience; partly because of the sheer power of its lyrical content, but mostly due to Mitchell's tremendous vocal range and inflections, her fluid body movements, and affecting hand gestures.
As the concert progressed, a well orchestrated flow was strongly evident as each musician was featured in a succession of intermittent solos and jams. After an eerie "God Must Be A Boogie Man" the Persuasions (they opened the show with their unique a cappella energy) joined Joni for a do-wop "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" with Mitchell's agile lead sending goose bumps out en masse.
As she played the last verse of "Woodstock" (her second encore) over and over again while backstage and out of sight, Mitchell reinforced the feeling that her music, wherever it goes, will always strike that awesome responsive chord.
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