Almanac Music: Not Quite Bob – The Icons: Part 1 – Joni Mitchell

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Quite Bob – The Icons – Part 1 – Joni Mitchell

 

Roberta Joan Anderson was born in Alberta, Canada in 1943.  She’s Mitchell when she marries and Joni to her friends and later professionally.  The marriage doesn’t last long but the name sticks.

 

A daughter of a teacher and an Air Force officer with a mix of Celts and Scandinavia in the bloodlines Joni starts out gigging solo in Saskatoon and Toronto as a folk performer before moving to the States in 1965.  She lands in Detroit performing there in small clubs with mostly original material before moving to New York in 1967.  She writes songs performed and recorded by others including Tom Rush and Judy Collins and later meets David Crosby who produces her first album Song To A Seagull in 1968.  She follows that with Clouds in 1969 and soon after the more instrumentally ambitious Ladies of the Canyon later that year.  On those albums she has already recorded signature tunes in ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘The Circle Game’, ‘Woodstock’ and these two, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘Both Sides Now’.  In front of a BBC studio audience in 1969.

 

 

 

 

For some artists this clutch of classics would be enough to parlay on stage forever but Joni is nothing if not driven and curious and adventurous and in 1971, after a move to LA,  she releases Blue, her timeless opus, covered by many, performed in its entirety by singers forever thereafter.  Self-produced, top notch backing musicians in Stephen Stills, James Taylor, Pete Kleinow and Russ Kunkel, if you’re a fan of any NQB artists you’ve probably got it and if you don’t you should have.  On Tidal note because Joni is dirty on Spotify for reasons well canvassed elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

My favorite from Blue (and of a lot of other singers) is ‘A Case Of You’, here on stage in 1974.  Note her playing the dulcimer, an old instrument she is expert in.

 

 

 

 

Joni continues the high standard on her 5th and 6th albums, For The Roses and Court And Spark which is the first album of hers I owned.  By the time of that album her support musicians not only include her Laurel Canyon buddies in Graham Nash, Crosby and Robbie Robertson along with many great LA session players.  The core band is the cream of LA jazzers in Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Max Bennett and John Guerin.  She’s grown as an artist and it’s no accident that these greats readily agree to support her on stage and in the studio.

 

The next few albums have a bit of critical pushback though as she explores the greater freedom she finds in jazz structures and working with those musicians.  The critics want ‘Woodstock’ and she wants ‘Kind Of Blue’.  As is often the case, they’re wrong and the adventurer is right. Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juans Reckless Daughter and Mingus are really good and the revisionists have latterly included them in a consideration of her best work.  Those albums round out the 70’s, bring the tally to 10 studio albums while she’s in her mid-30’s.

 

Notable in this narrative is the curious relationship Mitchell has with Bob Dylan.  In 1975 she joins his Rolling Thunder Revue tours which also feature Joan Baez, performs on stage with him many times and seems at first glance a sympatico collaborator and respected peer.  However she later describes him as an inauthentic plagiarist and even accused him of halitosis, finding sharing a mic an uncomfortable experience.  Her No.1 ticket holder and cheerleader in David Crosby has remarked that Joni is 10 times the artist Bob is which speaks more of his own jealousy I reckon.

 

Whatever, they rightly stand alongside one another as fantastic artists.  Home movies being mostly of interest only to those in them we should applaud whoever pulled the camera out here to record this moment when the two of them are friendlier.  The respect on Bob’s face is clear and the famous friends sit back and watch the queen from Canada on one of her great early songs.  ‘Coyote’.*

 

 

 

 

Through the 80’s Joni infrequently performs live but does record a handful of albums that could be perfunctorily dismissed as ‘good not great’ but that ignores the fact that her ‘good’ is much better than most people’s great.  Not her best, but from someone for whom there isn’t really a worst.

 

In 1994 we get a return in Turbulent Indigo.

 

 

 

 

And here is a gift of insight into her work on one of the album’s great songs in ‘The Magdalene Laundries’.  On stage in Toronto in the year of release.

 

 

 

The meaning for her personal life is clear.  The previous year it had been revealed that in 1964 she’d given birth to a daughter then given up for adoption.  Perhaps in her 50th year (or thereabouts) there was pause for reflection.  Turbulent Indigo sits comfortably with her best work.  She releases only two further albums of original material in 1998 with Taming The Tiger and 2007 with Shine as she enters the phase of her career where her legacy is being curated.  Numerous Best Ofs and Collections with various themes.

 

‘Both Sides Now’ in 2000 is noteworthy though because on that she re-covers the title track as well as ‘A Case Of You’ which are amongst a great set of covers of jazz standards.  A crack band and orchestra including frequent collaborators in Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, who better to cover ‘At Last’ than Joni?

 

 

 

 

Not the rich tones of Lou Rawls or the force and grandeur of Etta James but damn fine all the same.

 

Sadly Joni has a non-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015 which heavily curtails her career but she is in slow and painful recovery and has been seen in public in recent times at various awards and testimonials to her great talent.

 

Where does she sit in the scheme of things?  A perhaps churlish observation might be that while she’s covered Bob many times (see below for her version of ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’), he’s never covered hers.

 

 

 

 

Maybe he can’t.  They’re singular things her songs, the voice, the arrangements, the distinctive guitar playing.  Lovingly covered by women, I can’t think of a bloke with the capacity to be like Joni.

 

Many imitators (listen to Aimee Mann or Beth Orton or a lot of the younger Australians I’ve covered in these pieces) but few peers.  The highest honour for US artists isn’t a Grammy, it’s an invite to the Kennedy Centre for one of the President hosted tribute nights.

 

Here is one of the many young women inspired by Joni in Brittany Howard at just such an event last year.

 

 

 

 

Not Quite Bob.  The Icons – Part 1.  Roberta Joan Anderson.  Decades since they shucked off the Royals, the Queen of Canada.

 

 

You can read more from Trevor Blainey HERE.

 

 

Read more stories from Almanac Music  HERE

 

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Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Fantastic account of a great talent Trev, and I’m disappointed I missed her performing live.

  2. Trevor Blainey says

    I haven’t seen her perform either. There are full sets on YouTube if you want to hunt them out. She’s a standout.

  3. Thanks Trev. I reckon Blue is a beautiful album with a singular richness of voice that remains fresh and compelling. And while they do have a few good songs of their own, The Counting Crows’ cover of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is a peerless abomination.

  4. She’s a star.

    Was she Tim Rogers special subject in Hard Quiz?

  5. Trevor Blainey says

    Never saw it. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’d choose Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop but he’s got wide taste in stuff I reckon.

  6. E.regnans says

    Oh the 2022 Best Picture Oscar winner – “CODA” – raises “both sides now” to an even higher level.

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