Joni Mitchell is one of the rare folk artists from the late sixties whose first few albums eschewed covers of all the traditional folk warhorses, and concentrated entirely on her own compositions from the get-go. You almost get the impression from albums like Song For A Seagull, Clouds, and Ladies of the Canyon that at the point of her first release in 1968, she emerged from the womb as a fully-formed singer/songwriter. Who else in the realm of folkdom, besides maybe Bob Dylan at the point of his first album, was writing and recording all their own songs? And Joni managed to somehow make it late into the twilight of her existence here on earth before finally caving and allowing the release of any recordings that predated her official album releases - which are very telling of who she was in those extremely formative years. If you're a Joni Mitchell fan, this is an absolute treasure trove - virtually none of the five discs worth of material here has ever seen the light of day. They include no fewer than two dozen Mitchell originals that have never been previously heard. Hearing the contents of Archives - Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is revelatory, and pretty much like winning the Joni Mitchell lottery.
The five-disc set covers a four year period; early on, Joni had been befriended by local Saskatoon, Saskatchewan DJ, Barry Bowman, who made in-studio recordings of her at local AM radio station CFQC. At this point, she's known as Joni Anderson, and she plays and sings nine folk songs that were composed by folk singers like Merle Travis and Albert Frank Beddoe; seven of the songs were strictly from the canon of traditional folk offerings. The tapes were thought lost until being rediscovered by Bowman's ex-wife in 2015. The first track, Joni's take on the classic "House of the Rising Sun," is maybe the single best track on the entire collection - you're immediately struck with the impression that this girl is going places. Her voice here - light years away from the two-pack-a-day smoking habit that followed her throughout her mature career - is shockingly lyrical and crystalline. How Bowman managed to not leave mid-recording and find someone from a record label to hear this greatness for themselves - and immediately sign her to a contract - is beyond belief. Other highlights from this segment include the traditional tunes "Anathea" and "Molly Malone," where Joni's singing offers vocal theatrics that are unlike anything from any other female folk singer from that era - she effortlessly reaches upper octaves that would completely elude her in less than a decade.
Disc One continues with a live performance (from Joni's personal archive) a couple of years later at the Half Beat Club in Yorkville, Toronto, where she offers vocal introductions and live takes of many of the songs she sang in Saskatchewan in 1963. Her vocal theatrics are still absolutely effortless, but she shows a considerable growth in the maturity of her stage banter and the presentation of the songs, along with her acoustic guitar playing. With songs that by now she'd performed countless times over a relatively short period. The last three songs on the disc are performances recorded live in 1965 in her parents' living room.
Disc Two opens with a three-song tape that Joni recorded for her mother Myrtle Anderson's birthday (also in 1965); among the songs is Joni's classic "Urge For Going," which would eventually get a studio recording during the Blue sessions. Although it didn't make the final cut of the album, it would become a perennial concert favorite, and the version heard here clearly shows the genesis of Joni's songwriting style that crystalized during the mid-sixties. The disc continues with a five-song demo that Jac Holzman of Elektra Records recorded in Detroit. The maturity of the songs here for the yet-unsigned Mitchell is little short of incredible - the opening "What Will You Give Me" shows Joni's voice already beginning to morph into the more familiar tone of her first few albums. There are additional demos and home recordings here, along with a couple of small segments recorded for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), but the real highlights of Disc Two occur during the live songs recorded live in 1967 at the 2nd Fret Club in Philadelphia. Where Mitchell plays her own songs live, including stellar and fully-formed versions of the aforementioned "Urge For Going" and especially "The Circle Game," which would become one of her biggest songs and one of the cornerstones of her album Ladies of the Canyon, which really put Joni squarely in the public consciousness in 1970.
Disc Three continues with more live recordings from various sets of the Philadelphia 2nd Fret shows, along with a variety of demos and home recordings; most notably recordings made for the Folklore program that aired on Philadelphia's FM radio station, WHAT. Songs from Joni's canon that begin to make appearances in her performances include "Song For A Seagull," "Both Sides Now," and "Morning Morgantown." But one of the standout performances is the rare (at this point in her career) cover of the Neil Young song "Sugar Mountain," which was recorded during one of the Folklore segments. It's a much more upbeat take compared to Neil's dour and subdued approach to his most important early song.
Disc Four starts with more home recordings, then the remainder of the disc and all of Disc Five covers three sets that Joni recorded live at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also in 1967. The sets all include mature versions of many of Mitchell's most important early songs, and the tapes were also thought to be lost; amazingly, they were discovered in 2018 by the Michigan History Project. The Project also discovered a ton of Neil Young tapes from the same era, but that's a story for another day! Anyway, Joni tears through classics like "Chelsea Morning," "Conversation," "Michael From Mountains," "Little Green," and of course, "The Circle Game." There are spoken introductions to almost all the songs, and this is one of the most thrilling aspects of this box set: getting to hear Joni Mitchell's own words, enlightening us to the circumstances and meanings of some of her formative early music.
Of course, the sound quality is all over the place, but for a set that's mostly historical in scope, it's surprisingly (and consistently) pretty great, especially the home recordings, demos, and radio station, in-studio recordings. And the live recordings - especially those from Canterbury House - are also quite good, considering the vintage. All my listening was done via Qobuz's 24-bit stream, and the sound was very good on my home system! I have this vision of loveliness of Joni Mitchell from 1969 that's etched on my brain from a BBC session that aired just after Woodstock's completion - I'm absolutely in love with that snapshot in time of Joni. If you're at all a Joni Mitchell fan this set is indispensable and a must-listen; it's fortunate for fans that she survived her 2015 aneurysm and was able to oversee the production of this set. Very highly recommended!
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Added to Library on December 8, 2020. (2531)
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