Joni Mitchell is mighty - like a rose. But what a shame to limit that comparison to only one flower; this composer and singer sprouts new artistic roots almost every season.
Lately, it's Joni and jazz, sort of a logical culmination of her steady growth as a folk singer, and experimental popster, a rocker, and a neo- balladist. She brought her bouquets to Pine Knob Saturday night. Happily, everything was in full bloom and the show was a triumph, despite formidable obstacles that the Knob had ready for both her music and her audience.
The incomparable Persuasions opened the show, draping the hillsides with their rich, sweet, five-part blues, R&B, and gospel harmonies, while there were still hundreds of cars queued at the entrances. This robbed many people of a full set and forced early arrivals, not to mention the Persuasions, to put up with a very noisy house.
These singers performed a cappella, relying only on that most natural and expressive of instruments, their voices. Despite all the turbulence, tunes like The Temptations' classic "Cloud Nine" and Elvis' old warhorse "Return to Sender" and the gospel song, "Freedom Train" worked well indeed. But because the sound crew was into sonic overkill there was little warmth radiating from the loudspeakers, a quality central to this group's beautiful "persuasiveness." An intimate, properly amplified setting would have brought the house down; here, they were just highly effective housewarmers.
Mitchell opened with "Big Yellow Taxi," just right for this setting. Her electric quartet kicked out strong funk and the tune rocked the audience immediately. Then "In France They Kiss on Main Street" brought another instant roar of recognition. Joni's fans know her tunes cold, even when thoroughly rearranged. The band generated fluffy bright sound clouds with hard electric edges, with drummer Don Alias solidly in the pocket, displaying nicely clipped high-hat patterns and powerful snare work.
The rest of the band was difficult to evaluate, although bassist Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonist Michael Brecker on stage, it's a near-certainty that few wrong or even merely inappropriate notes were played. All are essentially bright, trebly stylists, but the house PA mix mooshed it all together. Even on rocking tunes, this band generates a delicate, understated sound. Amplifying it to the point of complete sonic engulfment for thousands of people is a lot like projecting an Oriental brush painting on the side of a huge skyscraper: The colors fade, the subtle implications are lost, the essential perspective is profoundly disturbed. Metheny was almost indecipherable, his pretty sounds lost in the electric haze. Even Brecker's lustiest saxophonics, as on "Free Man In Paris" were hard to hear. Only the amazingly aggressive Pastorius managed to punch through all the glare and blare.
Mitchell then turned to Charles Mingus' music, working first on her lyrical interpretation of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, " much improved over her already satisfying LP version. Joni's voice was stronger, more confident, soaring over the difficult melodic leaps and unusual phrasings in the middle sections with ease and swing. It's a rare joy indeed to hear such steady growth: The woman's vocal artistry continues to mature. And on such quiet tunes as this, the band's marvelous interplay was much more apparent. Pastorius added all kinds of ghostly electric sighs and groans, his bass a steady dark current under Mitchell's seemingly placid surfaces. Some may doubt that Joni is a real jazz singer; but here all doubts were laid to rest. "Dry Cleaner From Des Moines" got perky treatment with tasty brushwork from Alias before Pastorius and Brecker kicked it into a tough rocker. Mitchell and her guitar sang a song about Amelia Earhart, then did a duet with Brecker, then with Alias (on congas) on "Dreamland," then a distinctly melancholy solo "Furry Sings the Blues" and a surprisingly sexy rendition of another tune from her most recent LP "Mingus," "God Must Be A Boogie Man," with bass and drums, The set closed with a hot "Raised on Robbery" during which a few bard of boogie woogie on an acoustic grand piano instantly drew cheers.
The encores topped the already galvanic performance. Joni brought the Persuasions on state for revival time, first with a delightfully gospelized "Shadows and Light" and then an authentic flash from the 50's, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" But the crowning moment was her closing, solo rendition of her crowd's anthem "Woodstock," sung in a bluesily austere, abstracted style. Mitchell stood alone in the stark white spotlight, intoning the phrases with almost sacred conviction.
"And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden," she sang. And for a brief, magnificent moment in a place that tends to treat music and music lovers like K-mart shoppers, the pavement was banished and paradise regained. For such is the power of a lone, lovely rose like Joni Mitchell.