We have never been morbid enough (or reliable-enough readers of People) to follow our own “death pool” but as music lovers we’re worried one of the next big-name obituaries we’ll read in the morning paper is that of Canadian singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. The seventy-one year old legend suffered a brain aneurysm earlier this year and has been struggling since.
The latest news has offered some hope, that Mitchell will continue to recover. The New York Times recently reported she has moved home, been able to speak again, and is in the care of a close friend, Leslie Moore. Still, rather than reflect on her two dozen album catalog all too late, we’ve been listening to our favorites this week.
As is the case with many of our favorite performers, our first choices are the live albums. Mitchell released two live albums, Miles of Aisles in 1974 on which she is backed by L.A. Express, and Shadows and Light released six years later. Both follow a run of artistically ambitious and successful studio albums, and so the song selection on each is superb.
The best songs on the first live album come from Blue and Court and Spark, but we’ve always liked the way the double LP opens with songs from her earlier albums.
“You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” and “Big Yellow Taxi”
L.A. Express originally started playing as Tom Scott’s backing group, so they lean towards jazz fusion instead of the folk style of Mitchell’s earliest albums, predicting the direction she’d move her music over her next few projects. Her next live album also features a jazz group, which includes substantial parts for Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius and Lyle May. Several of its best songs come from her collaboration with Charles Mingus, which was the last record he worked on. Shadows and Light contains relatively few songs from her earlier albums.
The other live performance of Joni Mitchell record collectors can find is her appearance on the Band’s collaborative farewell concert, The Last Waltz. The film is hailed by boomers as as one of the greatest concert films ever shot but for folks who didn’t grow up with some of its marquee names it feels more like a tour de force of the washed-up and drug-addled. Mitchell’s appearance provides an undeniably material reality check in the midst of moments like Neil Young’s coked-out, bloodshot performance and a rambling, directionless interview with Rick Danko.
The song Mitchell performed in The Last Waltz opened he then-new and slow selling album Hejira. “Coyote” contrasts the touring world she’d experienced as part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue with day to day rural living. Whether Mitchell would rather be the rancher in her song than herself is left to the listener’s interpretation, but the song is certainly the most interesting on the triple-album soundtrack.
The other remarkable thing about Mitchell’s appearance in The Last Waltz is that she’s there at all. The only other women welcomed into The Band’s boys club all accept secondary roles: Emmylou Harris meekly performs Robbie Robertson’s “Evangeline” and the Staple Singers, featuring the amazing Mavis Staples, didn’t even perform at the actual Thanksgiving Day concert in San Francisco.
This seems to often be the case with Mitchell, a frequent anomaly in pop music — she is, for instance, the highest-ranked woman on Rolling Stones‘ list of the greatest guitarists of all time, and except for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours has the highest-ranked female-fronted album on their list of the 500 greatest. It’s all the more surprising that only two of her twenty albums are on that list, but she is still the second most-represented female performer.
Mitchell certainly belongs on the list of guitarists. Her style was always highly innovative compared to contemporaries, especially in her use of unique open tunings. She also became increasingly percussive in her playing as she evolved into more of a jazz performer, which becomes especially interesting in her interplay with Pastorius on Mingus and Shadows and Light. By consistently working in the areas between folk, pop and jazz, she didn’t really need the recognition of industry press like Rolling Stone. Her albums have always sold well.
It seems likely that even as Mitchell recovers, she will probably not make another album. Her last was Shine, released in 2007, and she had previously talked about retiring from songwriting. It’s just disappointing because that disc was an interesting return to her earlier, folkier style, and contained some of her best story-telling songs since Hejira. And it seems even less likely she’ll make another live album, but we can always hope. A couple years ago we had a Blue-era bootleg here in the shop, but it quickly bought off the turntable by an excited fan.