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Joni Mitchell Joins Rolling Thunder Print-ready version

by Ray Padgett
Substack.com
November 17, 2020

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As noted a few days ago, Joni Mitchell joined the Rolling Thunder Revue in New Haven. Today's show in Rochester, though, marks the first time we can actually hear her contribution. For her first couple shows, tapers only bothered to capture Dylan's sets.

Her friend Ronee Blakley was the person who invited Joni on the tour. Blakley told the story to Variety last year:

She was my best friend from about '70 to '75. We ran together a lot all the time. So when I was on the tour, I invited her to come out and visit. She wasn't sure she wanted to. She didn't even bring a guitar at first. Then she came on stage and sang my song "Dues" with me, and that's what we did for a few shows. Then when she decided to stay, where would she fit in the show? The show was already too long... my set had to be shortened, then, because they added Mitchell for a couple of songs.

Sadly, it doesn't appear the duet Ronee mentions was ever recorded, but there is a photo:

As Blakley notes, Joni immediately got her own set, typically two songs but it would stretch to three or four by the end. Here's how Sam Shepard described the typical audience response:

Here's someone who just appears, just walks out with a plain guitar, a beret, and a history of word collage. Every single time the place goes up in smoke like a brush fire. She stands there in the midst of it, making believe she's tuning an already well-adjusted guitar until the place calms down. No doubt the element of surprise, of the audience not knowing she's on the bill, is partly responsible for the explosions, but there's something more important in it - the fact that people listen to her every word.

The element of surprise he mentions is, I suspect, important. Rolling Thunder has the reputation that any night, anyone could show up onstage unannounced. But, it's struck me following these shows, that reputation is somewhat overblown. Most nights have no unannounced guests. So far, Arlo Guthrie is the only real "name" to appear in that context. And I like Arlo Guthrie, but he's no Joni Mitchell.

However, from here on out, the promise that "anything could happen" was fulfilled each and every night, and by the same person: Joni Mitchell. She was never officially on the bill - she'd reportedly only planned to stay a day or two, but her fling with Sam Shepard kept her around - so I'm sure her appearance was still a surprise to most of the audience each night. I wonder if that's where this tour's somewhat unearned reputation for constant guests comes from: audience after audience telling their friends, "You'll never believe who sat in - Joni Mitchell!"

The songs she played might also have been a surprise to people. Unlike, say, Joan Baez or Roger McGuinn knocking out a few crowd-pleasers every night, Mitchell stuck almost exclusively to new songs. Of the six different songs she played over the course of the tour, four came from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, out the same month: "Edith and the Kingpin," "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," "Harrys House / Centerpiece," and "Shadows and Light." The first two she played a lot - including at this Rochester show - the second two only once (among her sets that were recorded, at least).

Of the two non-Hissing songs, one was the only older song she played the entire tour: "Woman of Heart and Mind" from 1972's For the Roses. And the second one was, of course, "Coyote," the song she wrote on the tour about her fling with Shepard (and his simultaneous fling with Chris O'Dell). Naturally, the song wouldn't show up until late in the tour; she had to live the story before she wrote it. The scene playing it in Gordon Lightfoot's house that got so much attention in the Scorsese doc came was filmed on one of the tour's final days.

Joni popped up a few times on the second Rolling Thunder tour as well, though she never stayed for a long stretch like she did in '75. The most notable overlap came around the second Night of the Hurricane fundraising concert, in Houston in January '76. As Louie Kemp relates in his book Dylan & Me, Mitchell was on tour in the area, and prevailed upon Bob to come to her show in Dallas the night after his Houston show. He drove all the way there with Kemp, Kinky Friedman, and co-tour manager Gary Shafner, but they arrived in Dallas too late. The concert had just ended. Joni was pissed, so they promised to make her show the next night, in Austin. They almost missed that one too, after Gary got arrested for speeding. But they finally hustled in halfway through the show.

To make up for his flakiness, Dylan got onstage with Joni for the encore. They sang "Girl of the North Country" together as well as Joni's "Both Sides Now." In a dark day for the taping community, no one was on hand to record it. I can't imagine what a Dylan-duet version of "Both Sides Now" would sound like. Nothing like that ever happened again.

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