When you get right down to it, I don't believe in reviewing concerts. There is something defeating about relating impressions of an event that only happens once in any given location, and that readers can only experience vicariously. With a film or a play it's obviously a different matter. Anyone either enticed or disgusted by a critique may act accordingly at their leisure. A concert happens once, and from that time on you're out of luck till the next tour. There are times, however, when the need for a review is so emphatic that if it causes anyone to act at a future date, the column space hasn't been wasted. Last Saturday I spent about ten hours on some bad roads to see a concert like that, and that's what I want to tell you about - Joni Mitchell in New Orleans.
WE MIGHT AS well take care of one thing right now, something that should be pretty obvious already. There are only two people that I would drive more than across town to see, let alone to the next state. One is Eric Clapton, the other is Joni Mitchell. I've seen Clapton and was properly awed, but Joni is a different matter. Her tours are brief and infrequent. It is common knowledge that she is self-conscious about performing, and sometimes shows it. Some like to call that a lack of professionalism, but more on that later. New Orleans is as close as she's ever gotten, and that was close enough. I had heard too many stories about electric performances, played and over-played records too many times, become as caught up in the writing, style and elan of any performer I have ever encountered to pass up the chance. It was a forgone conclusion that the trip was in order.
It is an easy matter to become entranced by Joni Mitchell. Her four albums are a varied collection of remembrances, bittersweet and hopeful, a reflection on experience, longing and ___cal [unreadable]. It is difficult for anyone to do Joni Mitchell songs well, and no dearth of talent has tried. The songs are too personal and that is the attraction. One listens to Joni Mitchell to believe, and as we enter pop music's Great ___ of Hype, of Cotton Bowl concerts by bullshit groups, of Grand ____ after shave lotion, and of the surrender of rock capitalism to the robber baron ethic, then it is easy to see without looking too far that not much is really "sacred." That's why I went.
AND IT'S WHY I would urge anyone to go. Believers will become evangelical. Cynics will be charmed. If you go, sit up front or take binoculars, and watch closely. Watch as she comes out to enthusiastic applause, not really smiling, head down, walking straight for the mike. Watch how she goes directly into the first number, and doesn't seem to loosen up until half-way through it. Then watch as the applause sweeps across the hall and she listens and then breaks into a real smile and knows she got that one right. Tonight she has a cold. Second song. Two bars into it: "Excuse me" ... back to the piano for a drink of water and a kleenex. Scattered applause and friendly laughter. The walls are going down and her strength is building. The second song starts with more confidence (a new song from the upcoming album). Her raps are an adventure, a treat. Her voice is fast, and is punctuated by a high, almost nervous giggle as she rambles on about the background to a song like "Carey" or "The Circus [sic] Game." There is an eagerness, almost a little girl quality about the way she talks, and it is as engaging as it is misleading; because then you listen to the words from the piano, out of a single violet spotlight, and the childlike quality is replaced by a mature, if wistful worldliness.
"Blue, songs are like tatoos [sic]
You know I've been to sea before,
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.
Blue, here is a song for you
Ink of a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty place to fill in.
Well there's so many sinking now
You've got to keep thinking
You can make it through these wave
Acid, booze and ass,
Needles, guns and grass,
Lots of laughs, Lots of laughs."
The first set featured numbers on guitar, piano and dulcimer. The latter took an unusually long time to tune, and while she did that, she told the story behind "Carey" (which of course she didn't sing for a few more songs). At one point she interrupted herself with "I have a cold." Pause, more tuning. "My dulcimer has a cold." Then, as if it just occurred to her she sang "All God's Children," etc., and then the little laugh, and everybody loved it.
I SUPPOSE WHAT I like most about it was the feeling she really meant everything she said and did. When she sang, she wasn't just repeating words, not merely going through motions. How many concerts have gone to pieces because the performers acted like they just didn't care anymore? When she played the piano, it was with the concentration of someone who is vulnerable and knows it. There's a story about a special she did on the West coast where she started "For Free" three times because she couldn't get the piano just right, and finally sang it a cappella. She did "For Free" Saturday night flawlessly, and when it was over and the audience let loose, she acknowledged the applause not with a practiced casualness, but with genuine appreciation. The first set broke after about 45 minutes, and as she came back for the second half someone yelled, "How do you feel?" Cold-ridden Joni answered "All stuffed up," and then spontaneously, almost anguished, "and I wanted to play so good for you!" There are a lot of ways that could have sounded very false and very condescending, and it didn't, not for a minute. She did "Woodstock," and "Both Sides Now," and half a dozen more and came back to a standing ovation. As she did, she had the houselights turned up, and the evening came to an end with 1,800 now-true-believers singing "The Circle Game," and leaving dazzled. A beautiful lady, and a stunning night.
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