Last Tuesday night, a crowd of 10,000 anxiously filtered into Syracuse's War Memorial Auditorium, magnetically finding their seats in expectancy of what some would refer to as rock 'n' roll's leading lady, Joni Mitchell.
When the concert was over, she received what by now she has long been accustomed to - the ritualistic applause, the match-in-hand audience stomping for an encore, and her money.
Her strong yet ethereal soprano, accompanied either by her resounding acoustic guitar, or grand piano or L.A. Express, disguised an underlying cynicism: she contemptuously sang about that which she herself embodies, like a rich whore who no longer must walk the streets.
Don't get me wrong. I love Joni Mitchell just as much as you do, she has a marvelous ability to transfix an audience into permanent worshippers, myself included. But she does it with gimmickry and pomposity and it's almost sickening. (All you Mitchell followers read on, the worst part is over).
In a profession of rumpled informality, Joni marshaled her elegance on stage by appearing in a black satiny pantsuit, an embroidered rose attached to each sleeve of her lapelled jacket, as a gangster-like chapeau sat atop her shining blonde hair.
Illuminated by the hazily colored rays of the spotlights, the Canadian-born singer premiered with "Help Me," and from that point on her flawlessly flowing music spoke for itself.
She plunged into a varied mixture of her work, delving mostly into cuts from her LADIES OF THE CANYON, COURT AND SPARK and THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS albums. She also sang a number of as yet unreleased songs, such as "Coyote, Coyote," "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and "Ferry [sic] Sings the Blues," all of which assured me that Joni has not yet reached the dry well stage of her career, after which songs are pumped out sounding like Motown Music rejects.
After singing "Free Man in Paris," a piano was carried on stage only to be carried off again when one of its legs broke off. Clapping off the minor confusion, Joni sang "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," with David Louell on woodwind, the newest member of her back-up band, The L.A. Express.
Donning a taximan's cap, which she said was given to her for free advertising by the Memphis Yellow Cab Company, she sang an invigorated rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi."
Setting aside her guitar, Mitchell piano-soloed on a somewhat ad-libbed version of "For Free":
"I've got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
And the L.A. Express
And the wives of the band
And the girls they pick up..."
explaining later that that was the romatic [sic] version of the tale.
She told the story behind the blind clarinet player in that song who, when she asked him why his clarinet was busted, replied that it got jostled in a crowd. After she had bought him a new one, a friend of hers went back and saw that his clarinet was again busted, and he again claimed that it had been jostled in a crowd. Her friend told her that she was a very naive person but Joni maintained, "He played real good for free, though."
Joni was preceded by a minus-Tom Scott L.A. Express, and his absence showed. The group stagnated through a one-hour jazz-like mire, spewing forth a number of compositions from their recently released album.
They even had the gall to do a drum solo, something reminiscent of high school and Iron Butterfly days. But what they lacked when they played alone, they made up for as back-up to Mitchell, adding bosom and complementing her technique.
The intricate system of guitar tunings which David Crosby helped her develop, make Joni's music difficult to duplicate. Only two of her recorded guitar songs are played in standard concert tuning and some songs are impossible to play on a normally tuned guitar.
Joni played for a little over two hours, encoring with "Twisted." She didn't shortchange the audience, yet I felt empty inside when I left the huge, chair-filled auditorium which only a few minutes before had filled me with the recurring subjects in her songs: isolation, responsibility and success. But maybe that's how she intended me to feel, like I had just read a short story from LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN.
Just as "Ferry [sic] sings the blues and the passing cars all beep" in one of the songs she sang, I was deluged by this blue-eyed, freckle-faced girl and was duly impressed. I heard grumbling from friends that she lacked rapport with the audience, didn't talk to them as often as she might have, etc., but I can't accept that. Her communication is in her lyrics, and if we fail to grapple with the words, then we are the passing cars, and all we can do is beep.
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