Judge Steve Evans once thought he paved paradise, but it was just a petunia bed.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Canadian folk rocker Joni Mitchell emerges from a mostly self-imposed exile to perform nineteen of her greatest hits:
• "Big Yellow Taxi"
Absent from the music scene for most of the last 15 years, Mitchell offers this live performance as a way of saying that her world view will not be co-opted by commercial demands or mercurial changes in musical fashion, public opinion and taste. Her voice sounds as lilting and delicate as it did 30 years ago; she certainly looks no worse.
It is ironic that Joni Mitchell's best-known song was made famous by other musicians. That tune is Woodstock, as performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who owe Mitchell more than a hit single from 34 years ago. Indeed, for her cerebral and eclectic musical output, Mitchell could be the ying to Bob Dylan's yang. Both court the music scene with a doggedly vague lyricism and unmistakable vocals, backed by the best session musicians in the business. Still, keeping these two apart remains in the public's best interest, as the offspring of any Dylan-Mitchell union would almost certainly shock a public accustomed to the intricately detailed beauty of their music.
Filmed on an intimate stage on the Warner Brothers lot in 1998, this concert captures Mitchell in all her wily hipster glory before an adoring audience who lounge on sofas, recliners, and a beanbag chair or two. Mitchell performs her best-known songs—initially solo, then accompanied by a backing trio—surrounded by her paintings on a minimalist stage. This is a crowd-pleasing set, covering material throughout her musical evolution from folk to world music, with jazz and occasional classical and pop flirtations. They all flow through the heart of a romantic anchored by the mind of a confirmed cynic. Opening song "Big Yellow Taxi" sets the tone with an infectious guitar riff and the now-classic refrain: Don't it always seem to go/that you don't know what you've got till it's gone/they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Mitchell deals in nostalgia, weaving a wistful tune that's equal parts romantic longing and environmental crusade. But that is the essential blessing and curse behind most of Joni Mitchell's songwriting: a desire to draw umpteen disparate issues and concerns into one metaphorical song, sung in 3/4 time. This is not necessarily a bad thing for those who are game, but Mitchell is a demanding artist—she assumes a certain level of knowledge and life experience from her audience, and there are no Cliff's Notes for the stragglers left behind. She clearly enjoys performing before an audience and this exuberance shows in the witty bon mots and sly asides that she peppers throughout her set, including one good-natured spoof of Bob Dylan's vocal delivery.
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Joan Tosoni, Painting with Words and Music offers clean, though limited, Dolby stereo and a soft image of muted colors, undoubtedly inspired by Mitchell's own paintings. The full-frame cinematography is strictly utilitarian, with only an occasional flourish from the camera. Mitchell essentially occupies center frame for the duration of the 99-minute running time, with occasional cutaways to the audience. Disc extras include a filmography and discography; standard stuff for a concert DVD.
Mitchell's celebrated songwriting prowess cannot hide that her lyrics are often obscure to the point of being incomprehensible. We wonder sometimes whether she's playing an aging hipster's joke by alluding to allegory and metaphor when there's really nothing there. Fans may cry sacrilege, but the song remains the same: the uninitiated would do well to start out with a CD of the classic Mitchell album, Court and Spark (1973), or the lamentation that is Blue (1971), then decide whether Painting with Words and Music should become an addition to the DVD library.
Joni Mitchell—Painting with Words and Music casts Mitchell in the role of storyteller and sage, in a setting as comfortable as the home of an old friend. This is contemplative music imbued with meaning, though the meaning may not always be as deep as Mitchell intends. Joni and her band acquit themselves with an evening of sonic beauty. Fans of the singer-songwriter will view this as a must-have disc; for the casual listener, the nineteen tracks offer a good cross-sampling of Mitchell's oeuvre covering four decades.
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