Now Playing: Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell – Busy Being Free – BBC 1970

by | Sep 2, 2019 | 1 comment

Flickering on the ‘rock room’s’ flat screen today is a
wonderful and intimate performance by Joni Mitchell on the BBC in 1970 called Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni
It’s slightly puzzling to say the least that this ‘holy grail’ recording has
never seen an official release. Thankfully for Mitchell’s fans it has become
‘available’ online to stream and/or download for those into that sort of thing. In
the ‘rock room’s” humble opinion this footage spotlights some of the most stunning and
personal artistic musical expression in the pantheon of popular music.
Recorded on September 3, 1970 and later broadcast on October
9th this cozy performance in front of a respectful audience features
many of Joni’s finest early works. Recorded in between Mitchell’s 1970 LP Ladies of the Canyon and 1971’s famed Blue, Mitchell is captured during her
musical and artistic ascent. Mitchell plays seven tracks pulled from her first
four recordings including a stunning rendition of “California” played on a
zither from the yet to be released Blue. Here
Joni is fresh faced, relaxed and in ravishing voice. The performance in total
contrast to Joni’s appearance at the Isle
of Wight
festival the week prior. While Joni still played well, she was
faced with issues from the colossal crowd, spaced our revolutionaries
slithering around the stage, and a general disconnect from spectators much
interested in their surroundings than Mitchell’s lacy and delicate musical
brush strokes.
Mitchell’s televised set runs just over a half hour and is
mesmerizing from the very first number. There were four additional songs
Mitchell played that were not included in the show which I will note in the
appropriate places during this review. In addition to the magical music Joni’s
wonderfully organic and shy being and beauty permeates the screen. Every nuance
and breath is counted, the silence as important and the melodies.
Beginning the In
film is Joni is on acoustic guitar, angelically stoic at a
microphone stand. The opening song flowing from her is “Chelsea Morning”. The
song predates Joni’s debut album and had already been recorded by Judy Collins
and Fairport Convention, (then appeared on Joni’s 1969 Clouds) but here it is played by its composer, solo acoustic and as
nature intended. Joni begins confidently, her voice a sunrise bird call, her
verbal imagery as vibrant as her rich painted canvases. The strident strumming
a slumbering feline stretching for the sunlighted windows of her Chelsea
apartment. Joni finishes the song with an embarrassed giggle the result of
appropriate applause.
Following “Chelsea Morning” but cut from the broadcast is
the unreleased song, “Hunter (The Good Samaritan)” which was originally
intended for Blue, but never made it
onto an official release. A socially relevant song about a mysterious stranger
never intended for public consumption.
Next comes another song cut unfortunately from broadcast
(yet circulating) which Joni dedicates to any Scientologists in the crowd. “The
Gallery” hails from Mitchell’s 1969 LP Clouds
and expressed here in a riveting rendition. The song, which Mitchell also
states is about a male artist who “connoisseur’s the ladies” is a noteworthy
statement about a man who thinks he knows what the ladies like. Speculation is
that the song is a reference to Joni’s relationship with Leonard Cohen.
Moving back into the official broadcast footage, Mitchell
still on her acoustic guitar plays, “Cactus Tree” from her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull. The song’s narrator
tells the tale of men and woman. Woman is courted in various ways and
reciprocates in kind to those who want to share her presence, through her
attempts and longing for being “free” conflict with the ideal of being wanted.
The song’s abstract emotions are deeply more complex than my layman’s
description, but its foundation has been explained.  Musically, Joni plays a gently prickling
finger picked guitar line. The melody dynamically rocks between grounded and
soaring, with Joni rising in glorious falsetto. The only descriptive fitting
for this rendition is breathless.
An additional yet unreleased track is premiered next with
“My Old Man” which would appear on the upcoming Blue LP. At this point in the proceedings Joni moves to piano. She
introduces the song as still unfinished and needing a verse, but reveals that
currently it is one of her favorite songs to sing. The subject of “My Old Man”
is Joni’s current love interest Graham Nash who reciprocated compositionally at
the time with his famous song, “Our House”. “My Old Man” shares that the love
between Joni and Graham does not require proof or papers and exists just fine
on its own accord. Mitchell plays a patient stained glass piano introduction
and as she sings the introductory verse a shimmering smile settles across her
lips. Stunning.
Before I can recover from this previous and amazing rendition
Mitchell follows with “For Free”. The song sits on Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies from the Canyon and spotlights
one of Joni’s most endearing melodies. David Crosby was obviously a fan as he
covered the song on the 1973 Byrds reunion album. Lyrically the cut deals with
Mitchell’s rise to fame and procures an alternative glimpse of how artists are
viewed and valued while providing a view of Joni’s conflicted views on her
ascending popularity. A highlight of the performance and a highlight of
singer/songwriter music in general. Superlatives fail to conjure enough
expression for this astronomical song and reading.
The next two songs played were not in the original
broadcast. The first, “Woodstock” finds Joni still seated at the piano bench
where she plays her version of the song made famous by 1970 cover versions from
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and British band Matthew’s Southern Comfort.
Joni introduces the song with the now famous tale of how she could not make the
Woodstock festival which inspired her to compose the song in her hotel room.
Mitchell’s performance here is beautifully conflicted, featuring a misty night
time piano line and hopeful lyricism. Similarly to the rest of the show, Joni
is sweet smiles and singing with eyes closed ecstasy and finishes the song with
an angelic wordless recitation of the melody.
Joni then leaves the piano and moves to her dulcimer for early renditions of
additional unreleased versions of songs from her upcoming Blue LP. Joni explains to the assembled crowd about her dulcimer
referring to it as her “stretched our fiddle”. The first song is “California”
which Joni explains was written while she was adventuring in various places
around the world and feeling homesick. Joyous, buoyant and warm, Mitchell’s
anticipation and relief for home pour from her syncopated and metered verses.
Shimmering falsetto and delicate strums decorate her movements both on stage and in the fictional world of song.
“All I Want” follows on dulcimer and is also unfinished but
is played here with a playful looseness that is missing from the studio
version. Joni’s rhythmically scrubs the song’s contagious strumming pattern
which she drapes over her longing vocal lines. In this early state we are
offered an early sample of her clandestine songwriting process.
Returning to acoustic guitar Mitchell concludes the evening
with two of her most critically acclaimed songs. Joni tells the crowd, “I’m
really in the mood to sing, unfortunately my pipes are kind of going now”.  “I’d stay here for another hour”. Starting
with “Big Yellow Taxi”, Joni breezes through the songs changes while flashing a
resplendent smile. With nary a pause Mitchell then segues into “Both Sides Now”,
composed by Joni, made famous by Judy Collins and then appearing on Joni’s 1970
LP Clouds.  Additionally, Mitchell also recorded the song
with orchestration for her 2000 album Both
Sides Now
illustrating her affinity for the song. Her voice softy rocks
between fragile vibrato and conversational while her strums keep time like a
transparent metronome.
As the performance concludes Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell flashes across the
screen as the assembled studio crowd shares their enthusiasm and the broadcast fades
to black.  In hindsight this thankfully immortalized
concert is quite possibly the finest Joni Mitchell document from her early and
prolific era. The show finds Mitchell’s work caught between dazzling green
canyons and indigo blue while illustrating Mitchell’s songwriting and artistic
intentions blossoming on both instrument and easel. This BBC performance
introduces the listener to both Mitchell’s well known numbers and a few rarer
cuts stuck between the pages. No matter the song performed; her beauty, honesty
and immense artistic aesthetic is captured on celluloid for the duration of

Joni Mitchell BBC 1970

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