Monthly Archives: January 2019

Double Live Gonzos, part 4: Live at Leeds – John Martyn

John Martyn died on 29 January 2009 – 10 years ago today.

Like much else about its creator, Live at Leeds isn’t what it seems. It’s purportedly a straightforward recording from 13 February 1975 of John Martyn, Danny Thompson and John Stevens playing live in the students’ refectory at Leeds University. Actually, Live at Leeds was (according to Martyn expert John Hillarby’s sleevenotes of the most recent re-release) put together from various live shows across the country from the same tour.

This is not an uncommon practice in the world of live albums. Many is the live record that has received in-studio touch-ups (The Last Waltz among them) or includes a track or two from a different gig to the one the album documents. I have even heard one producer explain how he and a band (he didn’t say who) recorded the audio for the group’s live DVD in the studio due to a malfunction with the equipment on the night of the gig. Using the audio from a handheld camera used for audience shots to guide them, the players replayed their performances, punching in bar by bar to recreate the feel, tempos and articulations of the live show. Compared to that, Live at Leeds is a paragon of honesty.

A single album, containing just six tracks, Live at Leeds had been assembled with Island Records’ help (they supplied the mobile recording truck), but in the end they decided not to release it, feeling the project had limited commercial viability. Anticipating the developments in punk rock by a couple of years, Martyn decided simply to press it up himself and sell 10,000 copies by mail order from his house in Sussex. As well as artist and producer, he became (with his then wife Beverley) record company and distributor. While his judgement was correct in terms of the artistic worth of the record and his fans’ eagerness to hear it, the strain of doing all that work himself led him to require several months off afterwards, during which he went to Jamaica, befriending and collaborating with several local musicians, including Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Live at Leeds begins with a majestic 18-minute reading of Outside In that takes up almost the whole of the first side. They’re different beasts, but this version is the equal of the studio take. Which is to say, it’s up among the best recordings Martyn ever made. I miss the astonishing power of Remi Kabaka’s explosions on the tom-toms (if you don’t know it, check it out to hear what I mean), but John Stevens is a master of creating atmosphere with cymbals and toms. The studio take is warm, molten; the Live at Leeds Outside In is music of vast cosmic spaces.

The listener unfamiliar with Martyn’s work and his technique with the Echoplex will be likely be confounded by how much sound is coming from just three players*. By this stage, Martyn was an Echoplex master, probably the greatest exponent the machine ever had. His searing, distorted lead guitar (played, remember, on a Martin acoustic) more than compensates for the absence of Bobby Keyes’ lyrical saxophone on the original. I do wish I knew what he was singing, though.*

Solid Air, one of Martyn’s most beloved songs, is a thing of aching beauty. Solid Air the album was where Martyn truly honed his instantly recognisable vocal style: slurred, husky, imitative of a tenor saxophone in both timbre and approach to phrasing. After a long opening track that’s all but instrumental, hearing Martyn slide into the opening line of Solid Air is a shivers-down-the-spine moment.

The performance is a stunner. Tristan Fry’s vibraphone, so crucial on the studio recording, is hardly missed; this version is about John Martyn’s voice and the way Danny Thompson supports it with his bass. Stevens keeps to a supporting role, patiently keeping time on the hats, with few flourishes. He was wise enough not to break a delicate spell.

“I tell you what, this is a good’un,” says Martyn before launching into Make No Mistake, another highlight from Inside Out (have I told you how much I love Inside Out? For heaven’s sake, go and listen to it now if you’ve never heard it. It’s strange and so wonderful). Make no Mistake is a vehicle for some of the album’s best improvisation between Martyn and Danny Thompson. After about three minutes of relatively contained playing (though Thompson is nimble and lively throughout), the pair of them just take off, with Martyn playing fast, scalar raga-like lines as Thompson uses the bow to reinforce the Indian feel. The musical chemistry between the pair was something very special indeed.

It segues into Bless the Weather, which the audience recognises from its first two chords. Taken at a brisker tempo than the familiar studio recording, with Stephens playing pattering 16ths, this is a very free version, informed by how far Martyn’s explorations in jazz had taken him in the four short years since Bless the Weather‘s release. “Bless the weather that brought you to me,” Martyn sings, “curse the man that takes you home,” the substitution of “storm” for “man” making plain perhaps what lay behind the metaphor all along.

A little over three minutes in, the players abruptly shift into a slower, more shuffle-based feel, as if reprising Make No Mistake. Stephens dispenses with his 16ths to converse with his snare and toms, and the group end the song with a strong major-chord resolution. “Nice one, Danno!” Martyn calls out over the audience’s applause.

A brief Man in the Station follows, with Stephens’ most rock-influenced playing of the set (conventional boom-tssch, two-and-four stuff that even simpletons like me can manage), while Thompson’s kinetic bass playing fills in all the gaps left by the lack of a lead guitar.

The song is followed by the only sustained bit of on-stage banter (to use a word I’d really rather not have to; there is no other word for it though). Martyn, in cockney-geezer mode** advances the opinion that Ravel’s Balero was written as, how to put it, a soundtrack for intercourse. (The strong language explains the parental advisory sticker that accompanies recent editions of the record.) The jokes don’t stand up massively well to repeat listening, but I do think they’re a worthwhile inclusion; this is what seeing Martyn play was actually like. He and Thompson did spar, verbally and physically***, and there was an aggressive edge to it at times; a live record that excluded that element of the John Martyn live experience would lose something fundamental.

The final song in the set is an 8-minute version of Skip James’s I’d Rather Be the Devil, which Martyn had recorded (brilliantly) for Solid Air. Unfortunately, this version doesn’t get to the same territory as the studio recording. Partly this is down to having fewer instruments, and partly it’s that Stephens isn’t quite the right drummer for the job. Fairport Convention’s Dave Mattacks, who played on the original, is maybe not the first player who comes to mind when thinking about powerful rock drummers, but he invests those tom fills with plenty of thump, and breaks them up with snare flams, cymbal crashes and hi-hat fills. Stephens has a lighter touch, plays with brushes and sticks mainly to the toms, which lack the low end of Mattacks’. Consequently, the song has a lighter, hoppedy-skippedy kind of feel, at odds with the claustrophic paranoia of Martyn’s vocal.

Disappointing it may be that the gig ends on an unsatisfying note, but Live at Leeds is still absolutely essential for the John Martyn fan, whether casual or deep. The best of it (essentially the first four songs) are incandescently brilliant, the relationship between Thompson and Martyn seemingly telepathic. Martyn’s run of records in the seventies (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out, Sunday’s Child, Live at Leeds, One World and Grace and Danger) is as good a sequence as anyone else’s in popular music, and Live at Leeds is a vital part of it; I’d recommend it ahead of Sunday’s Child, Bless the Weather and even Grace and Danger.

john martyn

*I’ve got the “precious babies” bit, but what’s the first thing he says? It sounds like “Fillet o’ fish”.

**One of the odd things about Martyn was that he had, essentially, two accents. Sometimes he spoke in gruff Glaswegian, at other times, like a working-class Londoner (despite having been born in New Malden, Surrey). He’d adapt his voice depending on the audience and his location, seldom acknowledging the oddness of the habit.

***The album was originally going to be called Ringside Seat, and a photo shoot was arranged in which Martyn and Thompson were in a boxing ring, in gloves and shorts. Inevitably, they started hitting each other for real.

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Double Live Gonzos, part 3: The Last Waltz – The Band

A *triple* live gonzo, no less, and a movie. And if I refer to my 2002 four-CD box set, then its twice the length of the triple-album original. I’ve been thinking hard about what version to work from, and I’ve decided not to do a song-by-song rundown since I’m much more familiar with the expanded edition, and that’s just too long. Instead, I’ll shoot from the hip. Bang it out.

Robbie Robertson had long been comfortable with the idea that he and The Band were a big deal. When he decided that The Band should call it a day (and the jury’s out on whether he had decided they should split or simply stop touring; it does seem as though his assertions that it was the latter were just a fig leaf to cover the former), the idea of a farewell concert seemed obvious. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of booking Winterland, why not invite your all celebrity musician buddies and influences along? And why not get the world’s premier film-maker to come as well, and shoot it on 35mm for posterity? And why not let Bill Graham add a Thanksgiving dinner to the evening, and charge fans over $110 in today’s money to be there?

Don’t get me wrong. I love The Band, and Robertson’s songs, and I’m glad Scorsese was there to capture it all. But yeesh, plenty of bands of comparable stature have settled for smaller gestures when deciding not to go on tour again.

But for all the whiff of self-regard it gave off, The Last Waltz is still a legendary moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. Not because of how well The Band played, but because they were able to put together a mini Woodstock in their own honour for one night only: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Dr John and, um, Neil Diamond. The Band were always a group beloved by musicians; plenty were happy to come along and pay their respects.

The Last Waltz, as well as being a concert and a live album documenting that concert, is also a film by Martin Scorsese made in the 1970s, which makes it worth seeing by definition. It is beautifully shot, and edited (by Yeu-Bun Lee and Jan Roblee) with a real eye for the interaction between musicians. Bil Graham felt that the movie failed because it didn’t include the audience. Graham was no film critic. It’s precisely because it’s laser- focused on the musicians that it works so well. If you’re not a musician, watching it will show you a lot about how players on stage function as part of an ensemble. If you are a musician, you’ll see people who do what you do routinely, but raised to an art form.

Now for the inevitable “but”, though. At The Last Waltz, the music wasn’t always that good. “These are not musicians at the top of their art, but laborers on the last day of the job,” said Roger Ebert perceptively, reviewing the movie The Last Waltz in 2002, and he was bang on. By 1976, every member of the band looked older than his years (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Robertson were only 33 at the time of the concert; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson was 39), and there was a weariness about some of the performances, even on their final day of labouring.

I don’t want to dwell too long on the negatives, so here they are in a big glut to get them out the way:

  • Up On Cripple Creek, which opens the album, had to be sped up to a workable tempo for the film. The version on the album, not sped up, is sluggish and a chore
  • Danko’s voice on It Makes No Difference is thin and wispy, while Manuel’s falsetto on I Shall Be Released is excruciating
  • The guys take a full minute or more to hit the groove when playing Caldonia with Muddy Waters; before that moment, it’s a joke
  • Garth Hudson’s synth sounds are regrettable throughout
  • No one in the audience cared about Bobby Charles, or that he wrote See Ya Later Alligator
  • No one on the stage told Clapton that All Our Past Times is a godawful dirge he couldn’t sing in tune
  • Joni Mitchell’s Furry Sings the Blues is not a rollicking good tune for a celebratory concert
  • Tura Lura Lural?
  • Neil Diamond??

So it’s very far from flawless. But much of it is incandescently good. So let’s talk about those bits.

The movie, in the canniest move the Scorsese made when assembling the film, begins with an abridged version of the encore, The Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Don’t You Do It, sung by Levon and Rick. It’s smoking.

Richard Manuel’s voice was a sadly diminished instrument by the time of The Last Waltz (that’s Robertson singing the top harmony on Cripple Creek, not Manuel; in the movie, there’s a shot of Robertson and Danko singing the chorus; Manuel is in the background, playing piano with his mouth firmly shut), but in his lower range he still possessed an exciting, powerful growl. And he seldom sounded more believably desperate singing The Shape I’m In than he did here. The studio cut on Stage Fright sounds mighty tame in comparison.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is almost unbearably poignant, particularly in the movie. Watching Levon Helm once more assuming the identity of Virgil Caine, with the addition of Allen Toussaint’s gorgeous horn arrangement, is the most moving moment of the whole concert.

WS Walcott Medicine Show and, even more so, Ophelia both absolutely cook. Levon was definitely the group’s MVP that night – unlike Danko and Manuel, his voice was strong and rich as ever, and his mixture of grace and power behind the kit on these tunes a marvel.

Halfway through Caldonia (presumably the moment the group realises it’s embarassing itself), the players raise their game and the second half of the song and all of Mannish Boy are dispatched with everyone they have. No one would listen to The Band and mistake them for a great true blues band, but they do a far better job with Mannish Boy than any all-white, 80% Canadian group has any right to.

Coyote and Shadows and Light with Joni Mitchell are both excellent, and highlight the band’s adaptability (Helm’s and Robertson’s particularly). Coyote is an incredibly demanding song compared to, say, Who Do You Love (played with old boss Ronnie Hawkins) but the ensemble play it pretty much flawlessly. Ditto Shadows and Light, which on The Hissing of Summer Lawns is arranged for multi-tracked voices and Moog synth. The Band’s ensemble arrangement, which Barney Hoskyns has said was conceived by/with John Simon, was true to their own spirit and that of Joni’s Hejira-era songs.

Van Morrison blasts his way through Caravan, and it’s glorious.

Dylan’s set, though,while obviously the most keenly anticipated moment of the night, is something of a headscratcher.

Dylan let Scorsese film only two songs, worrying that his presence in the movie would take attention away from Renaldo and Clara, his hybrid concert movie/drama filmed during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (hmm, good call, Bob). Watching the songs in question does improve on merely listening to the man and his one-time backing group stumble though them, but still, no one’s finest moment.

My friend Yo Zushi said of The Last Waltz generally, and Dylan’s performance particularly, that “this wasn’t any kind of last waltz, not in some end-of-an-era sense. […] The stark reality is that this was actually just Robbie Robertson’s leaving do. […] Dylan’s (and Young’s) attitudes made it clear that this was an occasion to mark with a good-luck card and some drunken acts people regret the next day.”

Yo’s a little more down on the gig than I am, but I do think he’s hit on what explains Dylan’s sloppy, seemingly drunken, set – much the least together run of songs in the whole concert. Compared to everyone else, even Young (who chose a pair of sombre, Canada-themed songs to perform), Dylan sounds relaxed, goofy, out for a good time. Nothing, Dylan seemed to recognise, could match what these men did in 1965-66 (Planet Waves and Tour ’74 had proven that), so why not just have a little fun?

So that about covers the concert. But there’s the not inconsiderable matter of the Last Waltz Suite – of which two moments rank up with the very finest things The Band ever did. Scorsese filmed two performances by the group on a soundstage, inserting them into the movie in appropriate places: a lovely performance of a new song called Evangeline with Emmylou Harris and a version of The Weight with the Staples.

Assembled because Robertson felt that country and gospel were both under-represented on the set list at the Winterland and the group wanted to pay proper respect to its influences, the two songs are, as I say, masterpieces. Evangeline shows that even at this late stage in The Band’s career, Robertson could still write songs that seemed somehow timeless. At his best, he had a way of connecting with the very essence of America’s folk music forms and placing them in the context of his extraordinarily adaptable rock band (note that pianist Richard Manuel drums, bassist Rick Danko plays fiddle, drummer Levon plays mandolin and organist Garth Hudson plays accordian). Evangeline is his final success with The Band, and all the more poignant because of it.

The Weight is, if anything, even better. It replaces the down-home bar-room piano and acoustic guitar for a smoother, uptown arrangement with organ, grand piano and electric guitar (two in fact), and brings in the Staples, with Mavis taking verse two and Pops verse three. With the Staples on board, The Weight became emblematic of all that was best about The Band, and not just in musical terms. As Greil Marcus and Barney Hoskyns have noted, this performance emphasises the “community” and “plurality” of The Band’s music: “when the group took the stage with the Staple Singers, they brought together men and women, black and white, young and old, north and south”.

Whether these thoughts occured consciously to those taking part, who can say (though Robertson has always appeared to be aware of his music’s place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so I daresay the thought has crossed his mind). But the point is, while the moment may have been premeditated, the power of the effect makes that entirely irrelevant. Hearing – and even more impressively, seeing – Mavis Staples completely lose herself in the song towards its end, ad libbing, clapping and whispering “beautiful” as the echoes of last harmonised “aah” fade away, who could disagree with her?

Ultimately, The Last Waltz is better watched as a movie than listened to as an album. As a document of what became of those Woodstock-era stars, it’s invaluable, and as a way to understand the dynamics and interplay of live performance, there’s nothing that touches it. It looks and sounds great, too. But there’s no denying that The Band were on the downslope by this time, that Richard Manuel’s voice was getting haggard and that his drinking was doing visible damage to his body**, and that, simply, the world of music had moved on and The Band were yesterday’s men.

lastwaltz1

All-star singalong finale: l-r Dr John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson (organ), Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Hudson, Ringo Starr (drums)

*Of course, I do know why Diamond was there: Robbie Robertson produced his Beautiful Noise album, and presumably Robertson, Bill Graham or both felt Diamond would be good box office. But he’s so out of place. It kills me that George Harrison (who championed The Band in the press endlessly) or the Grateful Dead (who played with them at Watkins Glen, Woodstock and the Festival Express tour, and who were back in SF having finished a tour the previous month) weren’t there, while Neil Diamond was.

**Robertson’s rationalisation for ending The Band as a touring unit was that “the road” was so demanding as a way of life that it can kill you. He talks in the film about the “great ones taken by the road” (I may be paraphrasing and that might not be an exact quote, but it’s very much the gist).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t accord with his stance a few years earlier when he had to magic the Moondog Matinee project out of thin air to stop his bandmates killing themselves through drink and drugs in their downtime. What did he think Manuel and Danko would do if no longer part of an active, touring rock group? He must have known that they’d form little pickup bands and go straight back out. Which is what they did. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Robertson, a), just didn’t want to be in The Band any more and, b), if something bad did happen with Richard or Rick, he didn’t want it to happen on his watch.

Double Live Gonzos, part 2: Miles of Aisles – Joni Mitchell

Permit me to get my obligatory annual Joni post in early this year. My apologies that this is slightly late. I wrote most of it on Friday and Saturday and then got sick and have been too fuzzy to finish it until now.

Largely recorded over four nights at the Universal Amphitheatre in August 1974, Miles of Aisles capped a very good year for Joni Mitchell. It was the year Mitchell broke into the Hot 100 for the first time as a performer, going Top 10 with the single Help Me, and going all the way to number two on the Billboard 200 album chart with Court and Spark. In short, it was the year that Mitchell became, briefly, a pop singer.

She did it by presenting her music with fuller instrumentation than it had had previously. Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie had tended to make lusher recordings of Mitchell’s songs than their author did; little surprise, then, that they had the hits while Joni had to settle for the bedsit adulation.* When she made the fateful decision to hire members of the LA Express and the Crusaders to play on Court and Spark, and give a contemporary pop-jazz sheen to Help Me, Free Man in Paris, Trouble Child and the rest, it didn’t just make her songs chart ready; it also allowed for the possibility of her playing (more or less) rock ‘n’ roll shows to (more or less) rock ‘n’ roll audiences.

Miles of Aisles isn’t quite that. A double album, its first and last sides showcase Joni and the LA Express, while the second and third sides feature Mitchell with guitar, piano and dulcimer, and only minimal input from Tom Scott on flute and soprano sax.

The record follows the structure of the shows from that tour: the LA Express opened, playing an instrumental support set, then Joni joined them, then she played solo, then the band rejoined her for another half-dozen songs. So, while stiched together from various shows, the album captures the flow of the sets well.

The first side with the LA Express is up and down. It begins with a nice version of near-hit You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio. I like how Robben Ford’s guitar gestures at country without playing country cliches, and Max Bennett and John Guerin are solid and supple on bass and drums. If the ending is a little protracted, it’s still a fine opener. More troubling is the take on Big Yellow Taxi, which acquires an unnecessary extra verse and a rhythm track that sounds like a bad attempt to choogle like Creedence. The less said about Tom Scott’s solo, the better. The band make the song song sound like a Coke commercial. Fortunately, there’s nothing else this bad on the album.

Things improve immediately with Rainy Night House, initiating a pattern: throughout their two sides, the LA Express sound much better at slower tempos. Ford and pianist and pianist Larry Nash are particularly effective here, and Scott, playing flute rather than sax, adds a pretty, spooky note to one of Mitchell’s spookiest early songs. Unfortunately some of the effect is undone by the version of Woodstock that follows. The intro certainly shows that Ford and Guerin can play fast and smooth at the same time, but it’s a rather strange arrangement that’s neither fish nor fowl; it’s not the spare, chilling reading of Joni’s recording, the blustering, stomping rocker that CSNY turned it into, or the acid-smashed folk-country-rock of Ian Matthews’ UK number-one recording, where Matthews sounds genuinely scared throughout.

At the end of the song, Mitchell announces an intermission. When she returns, it’s with her acoustic guitar, and the next two sides are pretty much just her alone, playing and singer unaccompanied. For fans of Joni’s earlier records, sides two and three are the reason to own Miles of Aisles. She’s on sparkling form, in absolute control of her vocal performances, and very impressive instrumentally too.

Cactus Tree (a song from Song to a Seagull, Mitchell’s debut), is taken from a show at the LA Music Centre in March 1974, and has a noticeably different acoustic to the other tracks. It’s a great performance, though, and demolishes the studio original. It’s followed by a likewise excellent Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, from For the Roses. Mitchell is joined by Tom Scott on soprano sax, and the song plays to his strengths far more than the uptempo tracks on side one, where he sounds cheesy. Here, he’s spine tingling – his phrasing acute and his melodies surprising. The one blot for me, though a minor thing, is the those repeated “downs” that Joni sings. The three-repeat phrasing of the original (“you know it’s down, down, down the dark ladder”), with each “down” on a chord change, had a lighter touch. Nonetheless, it’s a chilling performance of one of its author’s darkest and most troubling songs.

The version of Woman of Heart and Mind is preceded by an enthusiastic member of the audience shouting, “Joni, you have more class than Richard Nixon, Mick Jagger and Gomer Pyle combined”. Mitchell cracks up, but a more apt response to this puzzling comment might have been a shrug. I mean, obvs. The song itself comes from a different show, but it is really good, and the audible edit required to make it happen is justified, given how good the performance is.

A Case of You and the title track from Blue follow, and make you wonder at what it must have taken to play such vulnerable, personal material in front of audiences of thousands**. As with the rest of the songs on side two, the performances are excellent, though A Case of You is the one time on the record where I feel like there’s a measurable gap between the magic of the studio recording and the live version. A Case of You is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff. There’s no disgrace in not being able to get to such a place as a singer twice. The wonder is that she got there at all.

Side three begins with The Circle Game, before which Joni encourages everyone to sing along with the chorus, in emulation of the studio recording from Ladies of the Canyon. There’s something about this Circle Game that hits me in the gut in a way that the Canyon version doesn’t. Perhaps it’s the added depth and richness that Mitchell’s voice gained in the years between the two recordings, the changes she made to the phrasing and melody in the chorus, or maybe it’s the communality of thousands of voices rather than a handful, but whatever it is, for me this is the definitive reading of the song, and probably the best single moment on the whole album.

The jump from the philosophical universalism of The Circle Game to the intensely personal People’s Parties is a little jarring. Not that feeling awkward and out of place is not a universal emotion, but feeling awkward and out of place at Hollywood parties is a more shall we say exclusive experience. It’s not my favourite Mitchell song, but it’s a solid performance.

If any performance on Miles of Aisles could be called workmanlike, it’s probably All I Want. It’s a good version, dispatched with the minimum of fuss. For Free (here retitled Real Good For Free) improves a lot on the Ladies of the Canyon original, which I’m not that fond of. Partly, this is down to her flattening her delivery of the opening verse so she rhymes “jewels” with “schools”, rather than “joo-els” with “schoo-els”. More pressingly, I think the Joni Mitchell of 1974 was better placed to comment on the differences between her existence and that of the street musician than the Joni Mitchell of 1970.

The band comes back for the last song on side three, Both Sides Now, which features another clearly audible edit.*** It’s one of the best, most emotional, performances on the album. Their arrangement, while still perhaps a little cheesy in the coda, gives plenty of space to Mitchell’s vocal, and Nash and Ford in particular play beautifully; Ford working with his volume pedal to create gorgeous floating textures, while Nash sprinkles delicately metallic high notes from his Fender Rhodes.

The final side begins with Carey and The Last Time I Saw Richard. Carey is given a light, pseudo-calypso treatment, which works better than you’d think, although again, the dairy content is high. Mitchell’s vocal suggests she’s enjoying it, anyway. The Last Time I Saw Richard is, I gather from reading old reviews of the album, divisive. Some find the imposition of a full-band arrangement gives the song more shape and momentum, while others feel it removes the intimacy (and that Mitchell’s barmaid impression spoils the mood). My take is somewhat in the middle. I think the band play it well, and give as much room as they feasibly can to Mitchell’s long, unruly verse lines. I don’t mind her clucking-barmaid voice either. The Blue recording of Richard is one I don’t ever listen to out of context of the album, and don’t always feel works in context; its looseness sometimes feels like shapelessness, though when it does tend to hit me hard when I’m in the right mood for it.

The album ends with two then-new songs: Jericho and Love or Money. Joni would later record a cooler, sparer version of Jericho for Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. I prefer the Miles of Aisles recording for the way it’s anchored by Max Bennett’s bass; Jaco Pastorius (who played on DJRD) is a little abstract and in his own world for my taste. Love or Money is anchored by a cool groove from John Guerin and Max Bennett. Like a song from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, it has a melody that repeats over the course of a half-verse, rather than on a line-by-line basis. This makes it a little hard to get a handle on for the first half-dozen listens. I do think it’s a good song, but a curious one to end on.

The big question for any of us who weren’t there is, how closely does this resemble the sets that Mitchell actually played in 1974? As I said earlier, the basic shape of the set is accurate. LA Express first, then the band with Joni, then Joni solo, then with the band again. But the album release looks longer than those sets that are listed on Setlist FM for this tour. The closing pair of songs are apparently what was played to finish the show on 14 August at the Universal Amphitheatre, and I don’t hear any edits in the applause between the moment the song ends and when Mitchell says thank you and goodnight. So that seems an accurate piece of sequencing. The decision to include those but not the singles off Court and Spark is a bit of a shame, though; I guess that the label thought including new versions of older songs would likely lead to stronger sales and wouldn’t eat into sales of Court and Spark. I’d have loved to hear a live version of Help Me from 1974, though.

If you’re in the market for a Joni Mitchell live album, definitely go with Miles of Aisles. Its cross-section of material performed solo and with the band gives it wider set of moods and styles than the more narrowly focused Shadows and Light, and the songs are performed with a warmth and exuberance I find missing from the latter, even if its vocal and instrumental performances are more virtuosic. Other than a couple of questionable moments on side the LA Express, it’s solid front to back, and there are performances of early songs that outdo the studio recordings.

800px-1974_joni_mitchellMitchell, live in 1974, picture from inlay of Miles of Aisles

*Big Yellow Taxi only made it to #7 on the Hot 100.

**Later in 1974, she supported CSNY during their European tour, including a show at Wembley Stadium in front of 100,000 people.

***I guess that Mitchell and her enginner Henry Lewy felt that the hiss and noise of vinyl (and the likelihood that few were listening on headphones) meant that they could get away with such edits.