Talk From The Rock Room: Put the Boot In: Joni Mitchell – September 14, 1979 Greek Theatre – ‘Particles of Change’

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Put the Boot In: Joni Mitchell – September 14, 1979 Greek Theatre – ‘Particles of Change’


Playing in the ‘rock room’ today in a crispy audience recording spotlighting Joni Mitchell’s third show from a five night run at Berkley’s 6,000 seat Greek Theatre, September 14, 1979. Joni had taken a sharp turn away from commercial elements in her music since 1975’s Court and Spark and embraced a jazz aesthetic for her recent musical offerings. A testament to the strength of the performances is that taking place only a few days prior to this concert was a show in Santa Monica that would be mined for Mitchell’s official live concert document from the tour, Shadows and Light.

Joni’s 1979 set contained a substantial cross section of her career, mixing and matching her fan favorites with deeper catalog cuts and more experimental tracks.  Her backing group for the tour was made up of a stellar four piece collaborative of jazz musicians. Mitchell would feature on piano and guitar while famed jazz stalwarts Pat Metheny on guitar, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Lyle Mays on keys and Don Alias on drums backs Joni with new arrangements as well as instrumental approaches unique to Mitchell’s original recordings. In addition Joni would also have saxophone player Michael Brecker join for certain numbers as well as backing vocalists ‘The Persuasions’ who acted as the opening performers for the tour. This would be Mitchell’s first visit to Los Angeles in five years so the crowd’s anticipation is tangible on the recording.

The recording playing in the ‘rock room’ today was recorded from the 5th row of the Greek and lends a ‘being there’ aspect to the concert that is lacking from the official soundboard recording from Santa Barbara. The Greek Theatre is well known for its special acoustics which in turn results in amazing recordings. Crowd reactions are well balanced and every instrument is audible and nestled into the sonic spread. Famed concert recordist Mike Millard (known for his killer Zeppelin pulls) and archivists JEMS have provided us with a sonic dream from Millard’s first generation tapes made for a friend and a vital era of Joni Mitchell’s career. Millard recorded the show on his trusty Nakamichi 550 recorder and the result as you will hear is jaw dropping.

The show opens with a funky ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ in a rearranged rendition that grabs the crowd right away while also eliminating the need for cat calls for the song throughout the evening. The track reveals new nuance as it opens like a lotus. Joni’s professional backing band fist hand in glove to Mitchell’s esoteric arrangements and chord changes, yet also playing her more ‘standard’ songs with fresh arrangements and exciting approaches.

After ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ Mitchell plays three songs from three simultaneous LP’s. ‘Just Like this Train’ from 1974’s Court and Spark, ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’ from 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns and ‘Coyote’ from 1976’s Heijra. ‘Just Like this Train’ slots perfectly into the station with its syncopated changes and sleek verses. ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’ was a semi successful single, but here it is played with great success driven by Pastorius’s alien toned riffing. Midway through the song Metheny takes his first solo of the evening to great feedback. This instrumental break increases Mitchell’s intensity when she comes back from the break adding up to a killer version of the track.

‘Coyote’ begins with feather light percussion though the tempo is galloping at a full clip on four legs. Pastorius flicks harmonics on his bass lending sonic flashes to Mitchell’s churning rhythm while Metheny lends some contrary lead lines. Mitchell’s voice is perfection as the arrangement rises and falls with well-timed ornamentation from her jazzy pals.

The second song in the first group of numbers to hail from The Hissing of Summer Lawns follows with ‘Edith and the Kingpin’. A song Mitchell said, ‘Sometimes you write about the exact thing you saw, but other times you take something that happened over here and put it with something over there. In 'Edith and the Kingpin,' part of it is from a Vancouver pimp I met and part of it is Edith Piaf. It's a hybrid, but all together it makes a whole truth.’ The extended arrangement is a similar blend with the silvery drift of the verses intersecting with a ‘disco’ interlude.

Perfectly placed in the set, Mitchell plays a substantial, ‘Free Man in Paris’ next while also giving the ‘hit parade’ attendees their attention. Michael Brecker makes an appearance for a saxophone solo spot and stays on the stage for ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ a Charles Mingus cover (with added Joni lyrics) and closing song from Mitchell’s most recent LP offering Mingus. The next continuous piece of music is the expansive centerpiece of the concert with a running time of almost twenty minutes.

The oh so hip Greek crowd is ready for a bit of jazz fusion and from the recording the ‘rock room’ can deduce that this is one of the highlights of the concert. Swirling melodies, freeform Mitchell vocalizations and top shelf musicianship are on full display. ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ leads into a disorientating Jaco Pastorius bass solo settling in complete contrast to the preceding songs. Pastorius’s solo is massive, using delay pedals he creates grooves from space and accompanies himself through distorted landscapes. Heavy chording, harmonic displacement and dissonant four string expressions put the crowd on the edge of their respective seats. Midway through Jaco quotes Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ to the crowd’s pleasure.

Jaco’s bass spotlight then segues into a Mingus bookend with ‘The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’ opened on shuffling snare hits. Joni jumps in with her finest scat singing, moving around the scale, ending syllables with vibrato, emoting a horn, grooving, levitating to falsetto and back to the base. Brecker and Pastorius break into an improvisational jam, the music sounds heavy. A mind bending ‘Berkley’ jam develops out of Des Moines and concludes in perfection on a drum mute.

After a brief pause Mitchell strums the guitar opening to ‘Amelia’ from 1976’s Heijra. The air is full of dramatics as Joni’s vocals enter.  This reading is only Mitchell and her hollow body electric guitar until late in the song Metheny plays a series of cloudy swells. The show thus far has been weighted in Mitchell’s mid to late 1970’s work to the ‘rock room’s great joy. ‘Amelia’ is full of space and sonic vistas, Mitchell’s voice crystalline as 30,000 feet to which the crowd’s rapt engagement can be felt on the recording. Every inflection and waiver as detailed as Mitchell’s compositions themselves.

Revealing the plan for the second half of the performance ‘Amelia’ seamlessly falls into the arms of a Pat Metheny spotlight. Metheny plays a chorused and clean guitar etude that is more a painted pastoral left coast scene than a ‘show off’ solo spot. A soft bed of keyboards appears and assists in easing the band into the title track of Mitchell’s 1976 LP Hejira. Mitchell’s voice now returns as the band navigates their way through the song’s restless drift. This is the first ‘folk’ construction of the evening since the concert opener. Again, tasteful playing by the pro’s in the band result in a fresh dynamic reading of ‘Hejira’. The band emotes movement and melancholy with nary a line or punctuation missed with a finite detail. Joni replaces Michael Brecker’s name for Bennie Goodman during one of the lyrics to which he responds. Hejira is full of pithy lyrics and stunning conversations,

Brecker also gets an opportunity during the end of the song where he takes a stunning horn solo. Drummer and percussionist Don Alias now gets to display his talents for his solo spot. In opposition to self-indulgence or bombastic displays, Alias uses delicate hand percussion and tribal drums to speak to the crowd. Nary is there a crash cymbal to be found as Alias picks up on a rhythm that the crowd can jump on. Mitchell collaborates with the discovered groove and begins to sing ‘Dreamland’ from her 1977 album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Everybody joins in with the percussive instruments as a series of images from pastoral vacationing to the vile claiming of lands that do not belong collaborate as one aural image.

Soaring out of Mitchell’s ‘Dreamland’ comes the ink dark ‘Black Crow’ soaring against the deep blue sky of Berkley. Another track from Hejira, the band leans into the rhythmic interplay of one of Joni’s shiftiest songs.  Still heavy with Hejira, ‘Furry Sings the Blues’ follows in a similar arrangement to ‘Amelia’ with Mitchell’s guitar in the forefront and Metheny painting in lush strokes over the verses. Butterfly drums apply just enough motion to keep the song from hanging weightlessly.

‘God Must Be a Boogie Man’ from the tour supporting Mingus album lends Mitchell a bit of ‘bop’ in her vocal. She also gets some assistance from the crowd during the call and response portion of the chorus. Jaco again gets loose in this portion of the show quoting the melody and passing it around the stage. ‘Raised on Robbery’ gets a welcome cheer from the audience as Joni turns op the temperature with a run for the back door reading of ‘Raised On Robbery’ from 1974’s Court and Spark. Giving a bit of grit in her honey sliders smooth throat, the band’s digs in with Mitchell for a set concluding masterpiece. While not available on the this recording, during the tour this is when Joni would introduce the band.

Just prior to beginning ‘Shadows and Light’ Joni is asked by an audience member what her theological symbol is to which she responds, ‘Question mark’. Sung with a poetic intensity, ‘Shadows and Light’ is one of Mitchell’s finest lyrics. A perfectly fitting encore, Joni is joined by ‘The Persuasions’ who bring the lyric and song to stratospheric levels. A stunning display, the recording seizes this musical moment which teeters on religious experience. 

Following this cool interlude, Mitchell performs the final two songs of the concert which are only the second and third cuts taken from any pre-1974 Mitchell albums. It's obvious the Joni was focused on the current and new and not past glories. Joni sits at the piano stool for an intimate 'The Last Time I Saw Richard' originally found on Joni's 1972 Blue record. Here Joni investigates every nook and cranny of the song with her current emotions and place. At the song's conclusion Joni thanks the crowd for their enthusiasm.

A proper send off follows with 'Woodstock', a song Joni had to play or she wouldn't have made it out of the venue. The encore rendition leaves the band behind and features just Joni and her guitar. The reading is everything the hopeful could ask for, sparse, rearranged and beautiful. The crowd is silent except for announcing that they love favorite lines and with that Joni bids farewell while concluding an amazing evening of music. The 'rock room' per usual wants to thank enterprising tapers like Mike Millard who took their chances to deliver us sonic treasures all of these years later.

Constantly an artist in flux Joni Mitchell's 1979 tour expressed the intimate and diverse recordings that she had been collecting post Blue. With a stunning group of contributing musicians Mitchell was able to present her already unique brand of music with musicians who understood her direction and would not be fooled by any sudden changes in the creative winds. Mitchell twisted up and disregarded any sort of misdirected pop leanings into a pure distillation of loose jazz influenced compositions and tributes. Her 1979 Shadows and Light tour was the exclamation point on Mitchell's previous 5 years of high level creativity.

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