Every Picture Tells A Story
Rupert Loydell on Joni Mitchell's Shadows & Light DVD

Way back in 1979, Joni Mitchell had her [for me!] ultimate band on tour: bass-punk-genius Jaco Pastorius, guitar maestro Pat Metheny, keyboard whizz Lyle Mays, the smooth-playing Michael Brecker on sax, and Don Alias on drums. Rumour had it that the band would have been different if Weather Report's management hadn't been unhappy about more of their boys out with someone else at the same time. True or not, I'm happy watching these musicians play together and present the finest era of Joni Mitchell music.

For this is Joni Mitchell's moment of transition, from folk troubadour to jazz-rock singer, via some 70s pop and soft-jazz with the LA Express. This is the tour of the three greatest LPs she made: Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Mingus, before the slow decline into AOR and [cigarette] smoked-out retirement. This is a real melting pot of influences, proof that who you play with makes all the difference, proof that the confessional Canadian chanteuse had more to say about life than endless tales of broken hearts and angst-full relationships. Nothing has mapped out the feeling of relentless travel and touring better than Hejira; nothing has come close to the edgy meeting that Mingus records - for me a glorious failure, but one worth every moment of the awkwardness and musical hybridity it contains. Mingus and Mitchell are both far better elsewhere, on their own, but together something sparks and crackles in the air. Goodness knows why Mingus was the end of something rather than a beginning, although Mitchell has spoken elsewhere of these albums not seeling or being critically acclaimed in America, her home market, as they were in Europe. Whataver the reason, Joni Mitchell would never be as experimental and open again.

Anyway, this film, finally released on DVD by SHOUT Factory in the States is Joni Mitchell's own treatment of the tour video footage (plus, for those interested, a bonus set of tour photographs). Not only do we get to see the guys in the band soloing and intereacting, we also get Mitchell's own arty video inserts and overlays: wolves howl against the moon, Mitchell -the black crow, - skates on ice, and so on. I'd remembered these, from when this was originally aired on television, as intrusive and clumsy, and some recent reviewers have said the same thing, but this time round I didn't find them invasive at all. After all, how long can one tolerate Pastorius' white flares and Metheney's hippy hairband, or watch close-up of musicians' fingers? And, although it's a long time ago, Mitchell's dress sense sn't entirely tasteful or her stage presence altogether spellbinding. So the mix of stage shots and video digression hits just the right balance for this viewer, and helps overcome the slight feeling of the concert being a period piece.

Shadows and Light was also released as a live double album. It's one of those albums that over the years came and went from my collection, before finally taking root five or six years ago, when I finally learnt to love and live with the solos and lengthier/looser versions of songs [I still prefer Hejira though]. It's even better to be able to watch the concert now, and see this intelligent, vibrant, and quietly experimental music, being made and played.

© 2003Rupert Loydell