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.

 

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