Joni Mitchell is a highly personal songwriter - which does not exclude wide and intense popularity, as the sell-out crowd at Municipal Auditorium Wednesday night demonstrated.
Her songs, which are evocative, moody and poetic, reveal themselves slowly, after repeated listenings; songs which, like Mitchell's wild, pure voice, grow on one.
In concert, as opposed to on records, some of the polish is gone, some of her technique is rough; sometimes she'll stumble, or reach for a note that is subtly wrong - but the beauty of a line, or a phrasing, suddenly perceived, hits much harder during a live performance. And in concert, of course, there is Joni - for her fans to love.
She begins a little raggedly, swinging uncertainly into "Help Me," backed by the L.A. Express. Because of the notoriously bad acoustics in Municipal Auditorium, the numbers in which she was backed by the full band were the poorest in quality, as the instruments overwhelmed her voice and garbled the lyrics.
But after the weak beginning, Mitchell quickly gained assurance, drawing the receptive audience into the private world of her songs, and even feeling at ease enough to play games with the lyrics. Although she performed some of her older, better-known songs ("Big Yellow Taxi," "Both Sides Now," "Free Man in Paris") and also a couple of brand new ones ("Coyote" and "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter) the major portion of the evening was devoted to songs from her new album, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns."
The songs from the new album mark a new direction for Joni Mitchell. Musically and thematically connected, they move away from the personal and out into the world. The problems of love and life remain, but seen in a wider social context. They are also the least accessible of her songs to date - the highly symbolic lyrics do not yield to easy interpretation - but they work on the unconscious at an almost archetypal level.
Lacking the voice-overs and other tricks of the recording studio, Mitchell often had to improvise to achieve desired effects. In some cases, as in "Harry's House-Centerpiece," a subtle shift in time and style of singing revealed the intended irony of the song more sharply than does the more complex instrumentation on the album.
Her performance of "Edith and the Kingpin" also revealed new power and depth; on the other hand, "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" seemed to lack the electricity and purity of anger which made it so outstanding in "The Hissing of Summer Lawns."
And yet, despite all this artistry and the many moments of beauty; despite the songs and the singer that made this a concert to remember, the most memorable event of the evening - the few minutes everyone will remember and talk about - was the second encore. In response to minutes of clapping and stomping, Joni Mitchell at last returned to the stage, bringing a friend with her: Bob Dylan.
Dylan was finally cajoled into doing a duet with Mitchell, but he only tapped his foot and played guitar while she sang "Both Sides Now" alone.
Next, "Girl from the North Country," with Dylan still maintaining silence. When, more than half-way through the song, he finally opened his mouth, anticipation was running so high that even a croak would have been greeted with cheers. He was, in fact, so hoarse (presumably from his concert in Houston Sunday) that he could do little more than croak his way through the verse.
But, after all, it was his presence that counted - it was the chance to see two people who write and sing from their hearts, and touch us so closely we think they must have seen into our lives.
And that's why fans go to concerts.
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