Mitchell [1975]

After more than a decade of de facto exile from the mainstream, Joni Mitchell has regained much of her media profile, if not her commercial impact, thanks to deserved if belated accolades from critics and music business peers. Recent Grammy Awards and a special Billboard citation epitomize the ironies of Mitchell's '80s obscurity: Because she reached her highest profile with the broad success in 1974 of Court and Spark, which remains Mitchell's lushest, most accessible album, the Canadian musician and painter has found herself comparatively ignored in later years simply because her work ventured into more eclectic amalgams of her already diverse influences. Yet in her forays into world music, jazz, and pop collage, Mitchell has remained a prescient and influential artist. This 1998 concert special sheds welcome light on the work from that post-Spark quarter century, its 22 songs dominated by the confessional works that have remained Mitchell's strong suit. Early favorites like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Just Like This Train" retain their charm, but it's Mitchell's more mature pieces such as "Amelia" (from Hejira) and "Sex Kills" (from Turbulent Indigo) that convey the depth and acuity of her work. A superb band--including Brian Blade, Mark Isham, Larry Klein, and Greg Leisz--provides a sinewy, sympathetic framework well-suited to the palette of jazz, folk, and pop colors that Mitchell daubs on her songs. Adding further intimacy to the performance is a circular stage design, a small audience, and a welcome lack of "big" production effects; instead, Mitchell indulges her second career as a painter through a pre-show stroll around a gallery of her visual works. Mitchell's frail health in the late '90s, as well as a lifetime of cigarettes, has taken a toll on her voice, which has lost much of its upper register. Yet there's also an added richness to her lower range befitting this sharp-eyed survivor's art. Old fans will also recognize the flurries of girlish laughter in between-songs patter, while savoring how Mitchell's powers as a writer and player (especially on a new, striking electric guitar) have matured as well. --Sam Sutherland

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