More Live Gonzos, part 1: Shadows and Light – Joni Mitchell

I titled my 2019 series of posts on live albums after Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzos, but not all of them actually were double albums. To start off this year’s batch, here’s one that is. Joni again, to no one’s surprise.

I began listening to Joni Mitchell in 2003. By 2005, I had every record she made in the 1970s, and a couple each from the sixties and eighties, aided by the fact that her entire back catalogue was in the four-CDs-for-£20 section of my local record shop (Fives in Leigh-on-Sea; now I live in London and don’t have a local record shop. Go figure). Shadows and Light was one of the last I got round to. It didn’t seem to have a great rep compared to Miles of Aisles, and it is a very different beast.

Recorded at an outdoor show at the County Bowl, Santa Barbara, in 1979, Shadows and Light is Joni at the tail end of her jazz phase, when her music, at least on record, was the most abstruse it would get; she had moved away from verse-chorus structures around the time of For the Roses, turning instead to stanzaic form, often with no repeated melodic phrases within a stanza.

By the time of the 1979 tour, Mingus, her collaboration with jazz bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus, had been out a few months, and some of its players feature in the band she toured with: Jaco Pastorius is on bass, Don Alias on drums and percussion. Also along for the tour were Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on piano and Michael Brecker on saxophone. Even compared to the LA Express guys, this constituted serious, heavy-duty jazz talent. These guys exist in a different world to bozos like me, and sometimes it’s a little difficult to put aside my awe at their collective technique to actually listen to what they play and ask myself, does this work for me as a listener?

And that has always been my chief problem with Shadows and Light. I’ve never found a way to listen to it non-intellectually. I have never trusted my lukewarm reaction to it, so have kept coming back to it as if it must just be that I’ve not put the work in. I’m the kind of person who can very easily turn something fun like listening to music into homework, but Shadows and Light has always felt like homework. I chose it to be one of this series of live-album posts to see if it would click this time.

*

After a brief intro (a verse of Shadows and Light, sung with the vocal group the Persuasions, intercut by snippets of dialogue from Rebel Without a Cause – “you can’t be idealistic all your life” – and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers singing I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent), the album* begins with In France They Kiss on Main Street. As I wrote here, when I first heard the studio recording of this song, Skunk Baxter’s fizzily disorted lead guitar struck me as horribly cheesy and inappopriate, so this version with Metheny’s chorused guitar not gesturing at all towards the grammar of rock music does have a certain advantage, one reinforced by Don Alias’s drumming. His relaxed, funky feel in the choruses, when he switches to the ride and drops the 16ths he plays in the verses, allows the song to stretch out like a cat awaking from a snooze. If I’m honest, Pastorius’s bass is busy for my taste (we’ll come back to this) and I’m not big on Mitchell’s electric guitar tone (she took to playing a George Benson Ibanez jazz box in the late 1970s, dropping her trusty acoustic), but these are gripes about Joni’s music in the late seventies generally, not something to hold against this particular reading of In France They Kiss on Main Street, which opens the album creditably.

Lyric-led and atmospheric, Edith & the Kingpin (like Main Street, from The Hissing of Summer Lawns) translates better to the stage than you might expect. The whole band, including Jaco, is restrained, and as a unit they’re tasteful and unobtrusive. Next comes Coyote, probably my favourite track from Hejira. Alias (on congas for this one; he was such a brilliant percussionist, even better than he was behind a traps kit, and he was great there too) is excellent on this one, and Mitchell’s long, slowly uncoiling verses weave their magic as surely as they do on the Hejira recording and the spellbinding performance she gave at the Last Waltz.

Next is Mitchell’s adaptation of Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his tribute to tenor sax great Lester Young, who played with Basie and Billie Holliday. The song is one of the great accomplishments of the Mingus album, and on the album recording Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are on spine-tingling form on electric piano and soprano sax. Mays does a fine, if less prominent, job on stage at Santa Barbara, but Brecker demonstrates some of what I’m less keen on about his playing: an overbearing tone that says gameshow rather than late-night bar, and an over-eagerness to go for that crowd-pleasing high note or legato run. But again, it’s impressive to get such a composition across at a daytime outdoor show at all.

Jaco’s Solo (that’s the track name, hence the cap S) is, as you’d expect, virtuosic in the extreme. He runs though every technique of which a bass player might avail themselves, inventing some along the way. Did any bass player use a digital delay to provide a loop for themselves to solo over before Pastorius? This was 1979, before there was such a thing as a digital delay pedal, and I believe that Pastorius was using a rackmount system, so if he wasn’t the first, he was certainly among the pioneers.

The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines features possibly the most difficult vocal Mitchell ever wrote for herself. Although she sometimes sounds a little hoarse during the gig (the band were five weeks into a 6-week tour, with few nights off), she clears every bar the tune sets her. The thing is, there’s an oddly funky lope from Peter Erskine’s drums on the studio recording, which is a bit lost on this recording. Alias begins the song and Mitchell sings two verses accompanied only by drums but Alias isn’t replicating Erskine’s beat (he plays pattering, seemingly random snare patterns, rather than two and four with ornamentations as Erskine did). Maybe the song evolved in arrangement over the tour, but I’d have liked to have heard it played straighter.

Spare, atmospheric readings of two highlights from Hejira follow: Amelia and the title track. As I said, I’m not a big fan of Michael Brecker’s tone when playing tenor, but he was in restrained form on Hejira, adding subdued soprano sax. Alias and Pastorius are good one too. Amelia is even sparser, mostly just Mitchell and her guitar, with a little support from Pat Metheny, playing with a volume pedal (or the volume knob on his guitar) in emulation of the lovely, atmospheric touches that Larry Carlton added to the studio recording. For me, it’s the album’s single best moment. Just stunning.

In between Amelia and Hejira comes Metheny’s solo showcase (titled Pat’s Solo on the record sleeve). The strongest passage is the lyrical playing in the central section of the solo (when Mays’ keyboard shifts from providing a drone to adding chordal movement). Until that moment, Metheny plays with some cool rhythmic ideas, but the solo feels to me a little lacking in focus.

Side two begins with Black Crow, Don Alias adding a pattering 16th-note hi-hat and bossa nova-style sidestick to Mitchell’s strummed chords. Mays’ piano works well, as does Metheny’s guitar, but I again find myself yearning for a subtler sax player than Michael Brecker. Pastorius’s bass runs at the end of the song are jaw-dropping.

It’s followed by Alias’s conga solo – easily my favourite of the three featured solos on the record; it sounds like he has four hands – which leads into Dreamland, from Don Juan’s Restless Daughter. For all his virtuosity, Alias can’t quite compensate for the absence of Airto Moreira’s surdo, Alex Acuna’s shakers and Manolo Badrena’s coffee cans. Without those extra layers of percussion, and without Chaka Khan’s wordless backing vocals, Dreamland just isn’t the same experience. It’s good, but it’s markedly less good than the studio recording. A bit of a shame.

Free Man in Paris is probably the album’s breeziest moment, but… OK, lets tackle this head on at last. The problem I have with Jaco Pastorius as a bassist (and, I know, we’re talking about one of the most technically accomplished players of all time, and who am I to judge?) is simply how busy he was. Of course, not every bass line has to just lock in with the kick drum and do nothing more than that, but playing that way at least some of the time allows more space for other musicians to do things too.

Pastorius’s constantly moving lines step all over Mitchell’s vocal on this one, and he and Alias play competing fills at the same time as if they’re not listening to each other. If you compare it with the much more disciplined studio version, on which Wilton Felder sits out entirely for the into and half the first verse, you can hear what I’m grousing about. Mitchell can phrase and have that phrasing be effective as she’s not always competing with a babble of 8th and 16th notes from the bass guitar. For me, I guess, Pastorius’s bass playing is the tax I have to pay to listen to Joni Mitchell from Hejira to Mingus and on Shadows and Light, much of which is magisterially good.

Furry Sings the Blues is a case in point. It’s a wonderful song, a meditation on what had become of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, since the heyday of WC Handy and bluesmen like Furry Lewis himself, “propped up in his bed with his dentures and his wooden leg removed”. It’s a lyric-heavy song, and is recited as much as sung, but the atmosphere it creates is compelling and totally singular, and the text is so acute. Bringing something that casts such a delicate spell to the stage is a tall order, but (unlike at the Last Waltz), Mitchell pulls it off completely. Metheny’s volume-pedal guitar is chilling, and Alias plays spare, sympathetic accompaniment on snare, toms and cymbals. Pastorius, Brecker and Mays sit it out, leaving space for Mitchell to fully inhabit the vocal. It’s up there with Amelia as one of the best things on the album.

At this point, the a cappella vocal group the Persuasions take the stage and join the band for a version of Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love, played with Alias and Brecker. It’s good fun, and probably was even more fun for the audience who were actually there. It’s then a hard gear change into Shadows and Light, the philosophical centrepiece of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The original has an uncanny aspect to it, created by massed overdubs of Mitchell’s voice and Arp synthesiser. This version is a little warmer, and maybe a little less spooky, but still strong.

I’m not sure how closely the album tracklisting mirrors the set list of the show, but next up the band return for the unlikeliest crowdpleaser in history, God Must Be a Boogie Man, which has the audience clapping and singing along the first time Jaco plays the refrain melody. It’s a more grounded, swinging take on the song than the floating, almost free-form album cut, but I found myself enjoying it as much as the album recording

Finally, Mitchell gives the audience what you suspect they always wanted from the show: an old song from her folkie days, played fairly straight. It’s a version of Woodstock, arranged for guitar. Mitchell’s readings of Woodstock always tended to be more foreboding than, say, CSNY’s more stomping take on the song, but even by her own standards this one is hugely ambivalent about the possibility of getting back to the garden; Mitchell even adds the kicker “to some semblance of a garden” the final time she sings the chorus, as if that’s the very best that can be hoped for. Like Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light, it has the spook. It’s a troubling but hugely impressive end to the album.

*

After having lived with this record all week, listening to most of the songs upwards of three times, I’m still unsure about it. For all the talent on stage (and there was so much of it), this is just not my favourite Joni Mitchell sound. While the LA Express could be as corny as a talk-show host’s house band, they were exuberant and warm. There’s something clinical about the sound of these guys (the Roland Jazz Chorus amps that Metheny and Mitchell use may be part of it – transistor-based amps designed for jazz guitarists to be run without any distortion at all high volumes, they can be very cold sounding), and Jaco is, well, Jaco. Perhaps Mitchell was happy for him to play as expansively as he did. I feel, as I so often do when listening to Hejira, Don Juan’s and Mingus, that it’s a shame he didn’t lay back more, let the music be driven by the vocal. Brecker, likewise, I only really like in his most restrained moments; the bigger he played, the more oily his tone became.

I wanted Shadows and Light to really click for me this time, and I’m disappointed it still hasn’t. The best of it (Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light) is so good that I’m sure I’ll return to it again in a couple of years to see whether my reaction has changed. But this is a game I’ve been playing for 15 years now. Perhaps it’s just not meant to be.

MItchell & Metheny
Mitchell & Metheny

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