Friday night, January 18, the songs came … and went. And in the aftermath some fans of Joni Mitchell stood outside the stage entrance waiting, their outstretched arms, branches firm against the wind; more numerous than the flowers they held, the children grasped each rose securely, as I feel we all need to be held. It was, a smaller gathering, compared to the activity that had preceded it inside, but the same emphatic chords were heard.
For the music remained - in the air, in the children that breathed it all around me - even as the roses began to fade. But the children waited; they waited … for the roses.
For the roses, Joni Mitchell had lingered behind in her dressing room, carefully pressing every flower into its protecting container. For even as they died, they were giving birth - to her music and a tour that would bring her songs to aging children all around the country.
But her tour, like her music, didn't begin with such a tender scene, it began in a fog - the kind that prohibits an arrival. As Joni explained to her audience, a couple of feet above the ground their pilot "chickened out" - he must have realized he was landing on the "highway, and not a runway." So her plane circled and then flew on - like a lady who spreads her wings when it's time to leave - and they arrived in St. Louis a day later than they had planned.
It was not surprising, then, when Joni Mitchell opened her first set with "This Flight Tonight," singing, "Turn this crazy bird around / I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight."
Actually, though, it was Tom Scott and the L.A. Express who led off the concert, and before they arrived a roadie told me of their capabilities and experience. Everything you hear on the radio, he said, at least one of them probably played on it. And they can sight-read almost any piece of music, he added. For they are all studio musicians with a long list of credits and a lot of time in the business.
Later on, Tom Scott told me how the band came together. "Well, the group got together as a result of a jazz club that I played at one night a week in North Hollywood, which is just outside of Los Angeles, you know. It started more than a year and a half ago, but the personnel [has] changed several times since then."
Tom stated, "We had something to say, more than just on a casual basis. We felt maybe we had a serious contribution to make." They've ended up making an album, which should be "out next week," and as the band now stands, for this tour, personnel includes Tom Scott on various reeds and woodwinds, John Guerin on drums, Max Bennett on bass, and the new additions, Roger Kellaway on electric piano and Robin Ford on guitar.
As for describing their music, Tom begins, "It's a little funky, and a little big of jazz …" Roger notes, "The scope of music is very wide …" he elaborates, "Well, we all have pretty thorough classical upbringings. Myself, I studied for fourteen years to be a concert pianist. And the knowledge that we have is part of what the musical level of the L.A. Express is all about; and it has to do with what the cello quartet is all about." Here Roger is referring to his own group, aside from the L.A. Express, which "… is completely acoustic and has no drums, and it is not electric. It's piano, bass, marimba and cello." Roger is also a composer (he's responsible for the instrumental theme for the TV program "All In The Family") and a cello quarter album, Come To The Meadow, is soon to be released.
So the members of the L.A. Express are very versatile, and this enables them to back up Joni Mitchell in a competent fashion. I asked Roger Kellaway how the two musical entities came together. "Tom did Joni's last album [For The Roses] and I assume the relationship got started in that way. And then I know that Tom was working at The Baked Potatoe in Los Angeles with this group, the L.A. Express [at the time it included keyboard player Joe Sample and guitarist Larry Carlton] … Meanwhile Joni had come in and heard the band and wanted to record with them. So her new album [Court And Spark] is recorded with the L.A. Express.
"Tom and I have been trading music back and forth for about seven years. And we were working Dante's with the old quartet playing bebop gear, which is something I love to do, and I happened to be asked if I'd consider going on the road with them and I didn't even question it, I said, 'Yeah. I'd love to.'"
So there they were onstage - Joni Mitchell and the L.A. Express - and they moved through "This Flight Tonight," "Free Man In Paris" and "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio," followed by others. But that was only the first set and after a brief intermission Joni returned alone to open the second half of the concert, accompanying herself on guitar or piano, and proving she really hasn't changed so much in the years that have passed.
She showed this first in her choice of songs, returning to her first album for "Cactus Tree," and then in her easygoing manner with the audience. Her second tune was "Big Yellow Taxi" and she stopped and then restarted in an attempt to keep time with the audience clapping. Changing her mind and beat once again, Joni admitted in a warm and honest fashion, "I think I like it better my way." Even though it threw her and her music off, she had tried playing with the audience, and not just to it.
She finally turned to the dulcimer and the album, Blue, to do "A Case Of You" and "All I Want," and then back she went to the piano for the title cut, "Blue." Her final solo effort was dedicated to "For Free," with Tom Scott slowly ambling across the stage near the end, clarinet in hand, and Joni jesting, "He was playing real good … for fifteen hundred dollars a week."
Vocal communication between the audience and the artist continued all night (Joni encouraged it) and, when the band returned, one person expressed his disapproval - "play without the band!" To some Joni Mitchell freaks, the backup, electric sound came across too heavy for the delicate emotions that flowed through her songs and their souls. And sometimes the arrangements differed on the older material and this displeased them; the last tune before the break was "Woodstock" and it had already been rearranged once by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young. Tom Scott and the L.A. Express set it to a jazzy beat and, while Joni Mitchell felt at home within the flow, it left some people with a feeling of alienation during the intermission. But once the band was given a chance again, "play with the band" issued froth from another part of the audience.
I asked Roger Kellaway about the musical arrangements. He said the Joni and the L.A. Express had been playing together "for a matter of weeks - two weeks. We rehearsed an average of eight hours a day for ten days. And Robin and I had to learn the L.A. Express tunes too, because we didn't know those."
He continued. "I feel that the direction was primarily Tom's because he had worked with the L.A. Express on Joni's last album and a lot of material we're doing in the concerts comes from their album. So the musical direction was laid down quite a bit by Tom, and I think that he was assuming, knowing our experience as musicians, that the rest would be covered by our sensitivity towards working with somebody like Joni."
For their final tune, Joni and the band rendered "Raised on Robbery," the hit single prospect off her most recent album, which was followed by another song from Court And Spark, "Twisted" (originally done by one of Joni's early favorites, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross), as an encore. However, the first night of a tour an artist rarely ignores an audience's wishes, so when the applause continued Joni and Co. returned once more to do "Blonde In The Bleachers," a tune off her previous lp. Still, the desired effect was to leave the audience with the sounds of Court And Spark, and perhaps because the music helps give some indication of where that leaves Joni Mitchell.
"Everything comes and goes / Marked by lovers and styles of clothes," she sings in "Down To You." Yet many things have stayed the same and on Court And Spark she's playing the game of love and, once again, not winning. She finds the same reason she discovered some time ago, and during "Help Me" she admits, "We love our loving / But not like we love our freedom." The problem is later further defined in "The Same Situation" - "With the millions of the lost and lonely ones / I called out to be released / Caught in my struggle for higher achievements / And my search for love / That don't seem to cease."
So as Joni is handing out roses to her fans outside the Opera House after the concert, I'm not surprised. For the roses are a sign of her position and achievement, and she's handing them out in pairs, like lovers, for every spirit hates to die alone.
There are many sides to Joni Mitchell and her music, but take from her what you will; I left with two roses.