Sunday, August 20, 2023

Kat's Korner: Joni (live) at Newport

Kat: Wasn't a big fan of the videos coming out of Joni Mitchell's Newport appearance last summer (July 24, 2022).  There was too much attention place on the people onstage with Joni.  I don't mean when, for example, when Wynonna Judd was singing.  I mean when she or Marcus Mumford were on camera doing nothing but looking at Joni.  The whole thing made me uncomfortable.

At July 2023 gasped its last breath, RHINO released JONI MITCHELL AT NEWPORT -- or, as they title the streaming version -- JONI MITCHELL AT NEWPORT (LIVE).  How would it not be live?  The Newport Folk Festival -- where Joni first performed in 1967 -- is a live concert festival that's featured Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Jean Ritchie, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, Dave Van Ronk, Johnny Cash, Phil Ochs, The Staple Singers, Donovan, Gordon Lightfoot, Richard and Mimi Farina, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Richie Havens, The Lovin Spoonful, Muddy Waters, Tom Paxton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Janis Joplin (Big Brother & The Holding Company), Chuck Berry, BB King, Taj Mahal, Big Mama Thornton, Arlo Guthrie, June Carter, The Everly Brothers, Pentangle, Van Morrison, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Rush, Bonnie Raitt, Nanci Griffith, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Maria Muldaur, Patty Larkin, Emmylou Harris, The Robert Cray Band, Shawn Colvin, John Prine, The Indigo Girls, Los Lobos, Laura Nyro, Dr. John, Richard Thomas, Mary Chapin Carter, The Roaches, Suzanne Vega, Rickie Lee Jones, Sarah McLachlan, Randy Newman, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Wilco, Victoria Williams, Lisa Loeb, Joan Armatrading, Little Feat, John Hiatt, Roseanne Cash, Allison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Rodney Crowell, Bela Feck, Lucinda Williams, Loudon Wainwright III, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Beth Orton, Natalie Merchant, Aimee Mann, Guy Clark, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Rufus Wainwright (the first performer at Newport whose parents had also performed -- Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle -- Kate performing at Newport often as part of the sister duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle), Bright Eyes, Elvis Costello, Jane Siberry, Linda Ronstadt, Martha Wainwright (Rufus' sister -- Rufus beat her to Newport by three years), Carolina Chocolate Drops, Amos Lee, Jakob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Buffett, the Cowboy Junkies, the Black Crowes, Neko Case, Mavis Staples (as a solo in 2009, after several performances with her family over the years), Josh Ritter, Jack White, Wanda Jackson, Jackson Browne, Connor Orerst (earlier performed as Bright Eyes), My Morning Jacket, The Lumineers, Ryan Adams, Jimmy Cliff, Anais Mitchell, Hozier, Sufjan Stevens, Patti Smith, Norah Jones, Margo Price, Regina Spektor, Joe Henry, Drive-By Truckers, Mumford & Sons, St. Vincent, Tuck & Patti, Passenger, Phoebe Bridges, Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow, Cedric Burnside, Beck, Chaka Khan, The Roots, Dinosaur Jr., Paul Simon, Lana Del Ray, Turnpike Troubadours . . .  So many more.  I kind of think most music lovers grasp that a Newport album is going to be a live album -- parentheticals or not, it doesn't need to be mentioned.  How much is RHINO underestimating consumers of streaming music?  I'm mocking the "(LIVE)" in the streaming title in my title to this review, by the way -- I don't know why, but it really irritates me.

JONI MITCHELL AT NEWPORT is Joni's sixth official live album.  By "official," I mean that there are live albums made up of her performances at coffee shops and on radio early in her career that have been released by small labels (and there are of course bootlegs).  MILES OF AISLES was a necessary live album.  Joni had gold albums and had hit the top forty with FOR THE ROSES' "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio," but 1974's "Help Me" and "Free Man In Paris" and the hit album they were from, COURT AND SPARK, brought in a lot of new fans.  MILES OF AISLES served to bring them up to date on Joni's previous works (of the 18 songs, only "People's Parties" was from COURT AND SPARK) -- a kind of greatest hits package -- and also allowed Joni to redo her songs into the COURT AN SPARK style (that was the album that Joni finally felt she'd found the band -- LA Express -- who could grasp and reproduce her sound -- drummer Russ Kunkel having previously told her she needed to be working with jazz musicians).  

Six years later, 1980, Joni released SHADOWS AND LIGHT.  I never understood the reason for that double album of twenty-one songs.  It's my least favorite Joni album -- at least the studio album WILD THINGS RUN FAST had "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody."  There's no life to the album for me and it sounds like everyone's coming down from a nasty coke trip.  

In 2009, a great live album was release on CD and streaming, AMCHITKA (see "Kat's Korner: Joni Mitchell's unearthed treasure").  It was from a Greenpeacee Concert that Joni gave with Phil Ochs and James Taylor.  The double disc has 12 songs sung by Joni and "Hunter," a BLUE period song, is probably the real find though there are great covers of her songs "The Circle Game," "A Case Of You," "My Old Man," "Cactus Tree" and "For Free" as well.  

2020 and 2021 saw RHINO release two live albums as part of their journey into the vaults on Joni's work (see "Kat's Korner: The art of Joni Mitchell"). LIVE AT CANTERBURY HOUSE 1967 and LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL -- 1969 ("Kat's Korner: Documenting Joni's epic talents live").  Of the two, it's the Carnegie Hall performance that's most memorable and it gives me great hope for the upcoming (October 6th) release of JONI MITCHELL ARCHIVES, VOL. 3: THE ASYLUM YEARS (1972-1975) which covers the period for FOR THE ROSES, one of Joni's great albums and which will feature 17 songs Joni performed at CARNEGIE HALL on February 23, 1972. (It will also contain the concert Joni gave March 3, 1974 at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- if I'm less excited, this is the tour that MILES OF AILES already covered -- "Cactus Tree" on MILES is from that concert.)  I would hope RHINO would, as they did with the earlier Carnegie Hall concert, release this one as an album by itself.  

For now, NEWPORT is Joni's latest live album, her sixth official one.

Is it worth buying?

It actually is.  It works better as an audio than a visual.  Brandi Carlisle, in the album's opening track, calls it "a Joni jam."  It works as that.  There are eleven musical tracks.  

I read over some reviews to see if I had anything to offer because there are other albums I could be reviewing.  As I noted last week, Lizbeth e-mailed asking if I was going to review this album and I really hadn't planned to. The videos -- and the fragility of Joni egged on by 'concerned' looks -- really left me turned off.

But it is a strong album and one you should have in your collection if you're a Joni fan.

None of the reviews I saw seemed to grasp one point: Joni's in a HEJIRA mood.

She performs "Just Like This Train" as an instrumental and the song, as performed, sounds like it would fit better on HEJIRA than it did on COURT AND SPARK.  Now it's wonderful on COURT AND SPARK and I love that version.  But Joni seems to be re-evaluating her work.

And HEJIRA is clearly on her mind.  In the spoken introduction to "Amelia," she's asked about a favorite album and she initially demurs ("Oh, no, not really.  I haven't listened to them for a long time") before coming back with, "HEJIRA was a favorite of mine for awhile. I liked the writing on it, you know."  And she talks about the inspiration of it, the memories of it, the cross country road trip, a car break down, her purchasing a Mercedes in San Francisco and it repeatedly stalled and overheated.  She didn't have a driver's license, she shares, so she "had to tailgate on truckers" to avoid being pulled over. She explains, "And I wrote a lot of songs, the whole HEJIRA album is based on that particular journey."

The story leads into the song "Amelia" from HEJIRA which brings me back to SHADOWS AND LIGHT.  The 1980 album followed HEJIRA by four years and two albums.  Yet, of the 19 songs, five were from HEJIRA. None were from BLUE, none were from FOR THE ROSES.  But five of HEJIRA's nine songs made SHAWDOWS AND LIGHT -- despite this not being a HEJIRA tour, despite the concert taking place, again, four years and two albums after HEJIRA's release.

If you listen to Joni's guitar throughout the Newport concert, the ringing is more reminiscent of HEJIRA.  Even her performance of her 1968 standard "Both Sides Now" doesn't recall her early performance of it, or even the arrangement on MILES OF AISLES or, for that matter, 2000's orchestral rendition on BOTH SIDES NOW.  Instead, it calls to mind, "Blue Motel Room" from HEJIRA.  

Joni seems to be circling that album today.  Is it her favorite?  It is the one that she feels best captured the songs as she heard them in her mind?  

Along with covering her own songs, she also covers the standard "Summertime" and that really is the standout track for me.  However, praise also needs to go to "Come In From The Cold" (which, again, sounds less like it did on NIGHT RIDE HOME and more like a track from HEJIRA) which features some wonderful vocals from Taylor Goldsmith who makes a great duet partner with Joni.  Praise also needs to go to Marcus Mumford for his duet with Joni on "A Case Of You."

As Brandi says, it's "a Joni jam" and it's a very strong jam.