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Early Recordings Show Joni Mitchell’s Mastery Right from the Start Print-ready version

by Douglas Heselgrave
No Depression
October 28, 2020

Joni Mitchell is an extremely focused and careful artist who has always viewed her albums as finished works that put across everything she wants to communicate with her audience, so she's never been one to share her creative process through demos and early versions of songs. She has also been very parsimonious with authorizing concert recordings. Over her nearly 60-year career, she's sanctioned only two collections of live material, Miles of Aisles from 1974 and 1980's Shadows and Light, each of which showcased unique aspects of her performer's art and reflected pivotal points in her creative development.

Needless to say, the release of Joni Mitchell Archives - Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is a big deal for her longtime fans. This 5-CD collection features 119 unreleased songs from 1963 to 1967, chronicling her musical growth from a coffeehouse interpreter of traditional folk songs to a singer-songwriter of the highest caliber. The impression one gets from listening through these recordings is that her exceptional talent was evident right from the very beginning of her performing career. Whatever technical sophistication in terms of eclectic tunings and vocal inflection followed, Mitchell's voice and approach to rendering a song were fully formed from the outset.

The earliest recordings in this collection are recently unearthed performances from a 1963 radio program from her hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. No matter how many times you've heard "Dark as a Dungeon," "Copper Kettle," or "House of the Rising Sun," it's thrilling to hear Mitchell's unique interpretations of such classic fare.

A crystal clear recording of her set from Toronto's Half Beet club in 1964 features similar material, including heartfelt renditions of Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" and "Deportees."

Endearing oddities abound, including a recording of Mitchell performing for friends at her family home, a birthday tape for her mother that includes a rudimentary version of "Urge For Going," and a folklore radio broadcast from Philadelphia that features her version of Neil Young's at that point unreleased "Sugar Mountain." She tells the radio broadcast that it's a nice song, but that she fundamentally disagrees with her friend's perspective on childhood and that she wrote "Circle Game" in response to it.

For many people, the most essential part of this collection will be the live tapes that showcase some of Mitchell's earliest original compositions. Recordings from Philadelphia's Second Fret in 1966 and 1967 and a complete three-set show from Canterbury House reveal how much she grew as a performer in just a few short years. Listening to exquisite solo versions of songs such as "Night in the City," "Both Sides Now," "Tin Angel," "Little Green," and "Morning Morgantown," some of which were not recorded until several years afterward, is enough to make you fall in love with Mitchell's music all over again.

An insightful and unguarded interview with journalist Cameron Crowe that comes with the collection gives context to the featured works. In her responses, Mitchell effortlessly looks back and shares what it was like to be a woman starting out on a musical career so many years ago.

Joni Mitchell Archives - Volume 1 is a real treasure. Hopefully, there's a lot more where this came from.

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