Can it really be five years since Joni Mitchell's last concert here?
Mitchell's music is such a welcome part of both our FM radio diet and other singers' repertoires that she seems to be always with us. The irony is that it's mostly the songs of five years ago (and beyond) that we hear - tunes with the poetic grace and melodic sheen of "Both Sides Now," "Help Me" and "For Free" among the many.
During her peak "Ladies of the Canyon" (1970) to "Court and Spark" (1974) period Mitchell set a standard of songwriting excellence that may be unmatched in the modern folk/rock era. Only Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and John Prine have shown the consistency and power of her work during that stretch.
Returning to the Greek Theater Wednesday night for a sold-out, five-day stand, Mitchell used few of the songs from her early period. Instead, she concentrated on material from the more recent, eccentric, jazz-flavored works like "Hejira" and "Mingus."
The result was that Mitchell was more a bandleader at times on stage than the folk-oriented singer-songwriter found in her early concerts. Her lyrics were sometimes buried in the arrangements, and she frequently turned the stage over to one of her five top-grade musicians - a long conga solo from Don Alias, a bass solo by Weather Report's Jaco Pastorius, or a saxophone solo by Michael Brecker.
While her integrity was never in doubt, the overall tone was less compelling than Mitchell's earlier appearances. She remains an artist in transition, one who has yet to regain fully her creative balance.
When someone in the audience shouted out the name of Dylan's controversial, religious-accented "Slow Train Coming," Mitchell praised the LP, calling it a strong statement of faith.
Similarly, Mitchell's refusal to stick by her established folk form demonstrates that she is upholding her own artistic faith.
She all but defined her own course Wednesday in these lines:
You know It never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Like Dylan, Mitchell has been a restless artist. Her early work honestly revealed - rather than filtered - her own experiences. No matter how fragile the romantic relationship, there was usually a youthful optimism.
The change in Mitchell's work came in "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," (1975) when the early idealism and optimism began to fade. The album's somewhat dissonant, jazz-flavored arrangements forecast a shift toward a [sic] more ambitious structures to better convey the increasing complexity of her themes.
Still, it was when Mitchell's music was most simple Wednesday that it was the most engrossing. The support musicians often blunted rather than accentuated the nuances of her style. When she simply stood on stage and sang "Amelia," Mitchell was at her most commanding. In the song, Mitchell uses the symbol of Amelia Earhart's solo flight to suggest the uncertainty of one's own journeys.
By simply singing other tunes in the same unadorned style, Mitchell could surely have put on a safer, more easily accepted show. But it clearly isn't what she wants these days. Somewhat static early among the moody jazz textures, Mitchell loosened up toward the end with a spirited rock rendition of her "Raised on Robbery" and a playful remake of Frankie Lymon's old rhythm & blues hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" On the latter, Mitchell was joined by the Persuasions, an a capella R&B quintet that also opened the show.
But the evening's most interesting moment was its final one. For her last encore, Mitchell chose "Woodstock," her 1969 paean to flower-power idealism. While that song seemed incredibly naïve in light of '70s events, Mitchell updated the song to change it from a celebration of that era to a mournful longing for a return to its spirit. Again, it showed that she's an artist who takes nothing for granted. However spotty her current performance, it remains always vital and of interest.
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