In the studio, the artistic marriage of Joni Mitchell and Tom Scott has so far worked surprisingly well, but live it has sometimes left a lot to be desired.
Devotees of the fragile, sensitive and sensual Ms Mitchell were sometimes left a little perturbed as the lady and the band sometimes trod uncomfortably at Ms Mitchell's two British concert appearances this year.
Sometimes they all but drowned the singer out, and just what was that version of "Woodstock", complete with wah-wah guitar and a kind of jump rhythm, all about?
Certainly it wasn't 1969 anymore and times has indeed changed, but Joni was still singing "Cactus Tree" just the same as she did it for "Songs For a Seagull".
And just why was Tom Scott getting so much of the spotlight? I mean, his arrangements might have added a lot to "Court and Spark" but his solos are so limited, they really start to sound all the same after a while.
So, despite my belief that Joni Mitchell is, and has been for the last four years or so, an artist of unique calibre, it was with some trepidation that I approached "Miles of Aisles" (nice title, hey?), the live double album souvenir of Ms Mitchell's American tour with the LA Express as support group.
For a start, there is no doubt whatsoever that the versions of Ms Mitchell's songs which are accompanied solely by her own playing, be it guitar, dulcimer or piano, are better than the recorded versions, if it's spirit and intimacy you're looking for.
Side two of the record, starting out with the romanticism of "Cactus Tree", going through a totally compelling version of "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire", perfect sound balance between Ms Mitchell's convincing vocals, crisp guitar work and Scott's chilling sax, followed by the ever so sensuous "Woman of Heart and Mind" (these two songs from "For the Roses" coming on top of each other really do just how intense an album that was) and then turning to the "Blue" album for a peerless "A case of you" and ending up with the intimate and deep ,melancholy tinged joy of "Blue" itself, makes its the most moving 20 minutes or so of recording I've heard all year.
And side three isn't bad either...
On that we get Ms Mitchell, urging the audience to "put on their best out-of-tune voices" for "The Circle Game", and they oblige; a fine rendering of "People's Parties" done acoustically (for "Court and Spark" the song was performed with full back-up), "All I want", "For Free" on which the lady giggles a lot, even putting in the exact name of the good hotel in which she stayed the previous night, and bringing the band back on for a fascinating treatment of "Both Sides Now" where she triumphantly retorts to the line "They say I've changed", "Yes I have".
Right, so far so good; nay, so far exemplary.
It's on sides one and four where my only reservations of the album creep in , and to a large extent they centre around Scott and his boys.
For sure they're all good musicians - Joni's old man drummer John Guerin has a fairly original technique and guitarist Robben Ford usually plays great.
No, it's the musical incongruities of the performance of "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" that worry me.
Maybe I'm being terribly close-minded but I can't, as yet, help preferring the starker originals. Still, it's impossible not to get off on their exuberant, almost calypso, arrangement of "Carey". "The last time I saw Richard" (Ms Mitchell putting on her clucking barmaid voice for the "drink up -" lines), is attractive too in it's dreamy romanticism, and the group version of "Rainy night house" is as acceptable as the "Woodstock" version.
That leaves two new songs "Jericho" and "For love or money" the lyrics for which Ms Mitchell has taken the trouble to have written on the sleeve (in fact the sleeve, for which she's mainly responsible, is a treat, and there are actually two bona fide photographs here, instead of the usual self-portraits or other devices which leave one thinking "that's not really a picture of Joni", and she looks great in both of them.)
To use her own words, they're both love songs, the former a very hopeful song where she uses the story of Jericho and its falling-down walls , as an image of herself opening up to a lover. Right now, I can't remember her being quite so warmly optimistic about a love affair. The LA Express seems a little unsure of the song's tender melody, but it's handled okay.
Not absolutely sure about "Love or Money" which is a great deal more complex lyrically doesn't have that strong a melody. Hopefully it'll improve with repeated playings.
And so, that's "Miles of Aisles" a perfect Christmas present if ever there was one.
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