Nobody in Philadelphia could have expected 70 degree temperatures on Washington's non-birthday (what Bicentennial?), but it was at least the third straight time that unseasonably warm weather hit town the day of a mid-winter Joni Mitchell concert. The first break after two months of dreadful weather, it lent the city an uneasy euphoria perfectly suited for the night's show.
Apart from the normal carping about how crummy it was for an artist of Joni Mitchell's sensitivity to be playing The Spectrum hockey rink, the crowd was unusually genial and eager.
With saxophonist David Luell having replaced Tom Scott, the L.A. Express opened, blowing the fashionable brand of noodling pop-jazz expected of them, energetic if not impassioned, engaging if not original. Okay for preliminaries.
As anticipation grew to fever pitch, Joni entered the spotlight. With the Express supporting, she performed the all-too similar Help Me and Free Man In Paris, which sandwiched the last tour's set closer, For Love Or Money. So far uninspired. But as the band departed, Joni settled into an enrapturing, intimate (as can be in a cavern) acoustic set that was mesmerizing. Even with a broken string, she continued undaunted: she sang the traditional Yarrow a Capella. She prefaced it with recollections of playing the local coffeehouses; the poignancy of the moment made me remember the nervous, fragile Joni who played her first Philly dates in 1966.
For The Roses, Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire (Luell shining) and the classic For Free followed. To everyone's pleasant surprise, Joni then cracked: "Hate to be pushy, but I've got some new songs." As she brought back the band, she debuted Coyote and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter; later she introduced two more, Talk To Me, Mr. Mystery and Furry Sings The Blues. Clearly none of the four are in finished form yet, but it is exciting to see an artist of Joni Mitchell's stature in the process of creation. It recalls those coffee-house days when the most important part of her set would be the unveiling of brand new material, then something like Circle Game, Marcie (originally The Ballad In Red And Green) or I Had A King. As it was with Love Or Money and Jericho, the new pieces showcased during the last tour, these new tunes are difficult to assimilate into her concert program. As well, much of the material from HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS has been extensively reworked for live performance. Harry's House/Centerpiece has become a not terribly successful solo acoustic number. Shadows And Light, a vocal choir tour-de-force on the album, has mutated and expanded into an open-ended, meandering Cold Blue Steel affair.
While her experimentations weren't without flaws, it was exhilarating to see Joni Mitchell taking risks in public. Though the new and old favorites could have and have previously sounded better, she was in wondrously glorious voice and spirits. The lady has potential.