The Lawn Ranger Rides Again

by Dick Richmond
Sounds Magazine
January 31, 1976

In the wake of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, JONI MITCHELL has taken to American roads with the newly formed LA Express. DICK RICHMOND caught the fourth date of the tour in St. Louis. The first of many reports follows. Keep your finger on that dial.

JONI MITCHELL received the highest tribute that can be afforded an artist by an audience in her appearance in St. Louis; silence. The free form folk singer from Canada attracted 5,100 participants, all of whom listened.

This quiet is readily understood once a person becomes aware that Mitchell fans are lyric freaks. Her voice is usually clear enough for a person to hear each of the words. However, there were times when she slurred or when her voice flattened out so that if a person was not paying strict attention, he would have missed what was being sung.

Then, too, her emotions ran from unmoved to dull. So much of the strength of her poetry was lost in her stoic presentation.

There are those performers who pale under the glare of the spotlight, and psychologically cannot force themselves to smile. Then they sing with such passion or beauty that it makes little difference that there is an element missing.

Joni did not do that. In fact, much of the tonal quality in her songs was marked by sameness. In essence, what she did was to carry a lyric along a plane, then raise her voice for punctuation before returning to that same plane.

That doesn't mean that one song sounded like every other song. They didn't and they didn't mostly because of the LA Express.

The LA Express accompanied her last year too. Then Tom Scott, a premier reed man, was leading the group and Roger Kelloway was on keyboards. The others were Max Bennet on Fender bass, Robben Ford on electric guitar and John Guerin on drums. David Lewell has replaced Scott, and Victor Feldman has replaced Kelloway. The others remain the same.

The LA Expresss, then and now, is comprised of some of the best studio musicians on the West Coast. Bennet has played for Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand and Frank Zappa, and once played bass with the Crusaders.

Ford was with the Charles Ford Blues Band and with Jimmy Witherspoon Blues Band. Guerin is an original member of the LA Express. Lewell was with Cold Blood, played with Woody Herman and in the studio with artists such as the Pointer Sisters.

Feldman is really the story. He is a Briton who, when he was a boy in short pants, sat in and played drums with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when Miller was in London in World War II. Since then he has played with Cannonball Adderly, Benny Goodman, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Loggins and Messina as well as others. He is pre-Roger Kelloway as a top studio and movie musician. What is more, this is the first time he has toured in 15 years. He was as excited as a kid.

The LA Express opens the show with 40 minutes of great jazz-rock and then plays back-up for Joni. None of their material was familiar. Not that it needed to be. It was exciting and vibrant and several times during the show, members of the audience were so caught up in the music that they moved as one.

One of the numbers was a Ford tune called Stairs, which began as a strain on the imagination, then fell into a series of small creations that easily established vivid mind pictures.

Ford quickly managed to pluck a melody from the jumble. As soon as he did, Guerin's drumming assumed a purpose that was as tasteful as it was distinctive.

Near the upper end of this long flight of Stairs, reedman Lewell, playing clarinet, was dreamy like being a little light-headed and breathless after an extended climb.

The five saved the best for last with a Guerin tune called Down The Middle, a drummer's delight. It elicited no particular imagery but it jumped almost like the swing numbers of the forties.

In spite of the abundant enthusiasm for the LA Express, the show most definitely belong to Joni Mitchell. Her fans adored her from the moment she appear on stage to sing Help Me through her encore Jericho.

She sang 21 songs, most them which were taken from her last three albums. Also she introduced three new numbers -- Talk To Me, Coyote and Don Juan Restlessness.

What was remarkable was the songs she didn't sing. For instance, she didn't sing. Both Sides Now, the composition that gave her her first big hit and Judy Collins a gold record. She also didn't sing You Turn Me On I'm A Radio.

Well, if the fans missed them, they didn't complain. After all, her songs are quite complicated and she might have forgotten them.

Now before you get the impression that the concert was bad: it wasn't. There were many highlights, but mainly they were instrumental, not vocal peaks.

One of the most notable exceptions was Cold Blue Steel. At this time Joni was onstage alone playing acoustic guitar and singing. Her voice was clear and lovely.

Then, halfway through the song Lewell appeared out of the darkness to stand in the shaded light and play little accent notes on clarinet. It was a counterpoint of clarinet and voice with the voice dominating.

Then as the words of the song came to an end, Lewell picked up the melody and once again faded into the blackness. The number was absolutely beautiful.

As she sang Free Man In Paris, Lewell and Ford joined her on the chorus. When Lewell wasn't singing he played flute. That, too, was one of the better numbers.

Tedium was only a real danger when she accompanied herself on grand piano for Shades Of Scarlet Conquering and The Boho Dance. The songs are newer and therefore not as familiar as some of the others. There were lost words, indistinct singing, and the point of the stories were as hard to catch as bits of paper in the wind.

Joni did perform some vocal heroics on a couple of songs. One was Rainy Night House, which she sang in a folk idiom as the band played jazz-rock. Throughout, her voice would rise into one of those great vocals that cowboys use when they're herding a stray.

Of the newer songs, Talk To Me was the most interesting. It has a slightly Latin beat and was performed with only Joni and Feldman onstage. She played acoustic guitar and Feldman was on congas.

The song concerns a girl begging a reticent chap for a little conversation. She is incessant in her coaxing, never to figure out that the uncommunicative young man is probably a tongue-tied dumbell.

A personal favourite of almost everyone was The Jungle Line, which featured her voice matched against a mass of feverish and determined percussion. In fact, it seems unlikely that anyone has heard that kind of drumming since Johnny Weissmuller made his first 'Tarzan' movie in 1933.

The jazz-rock of the LA Express dominated much of the programme. Behind her folk singing, it created some unusual imagery on Raised On Robbery. It gave the impression that the folk were out sampling life away from the isolated hills of home. Then, just when they were learning to cope with it, the evening ended.

And that pretty much sums up my feelings -- regarding the show. Just as I was beginning to cope with the show, it ended.

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