Joni Mitchell's music turns Judge Bill Gibron on—he's a radio.
"These are the clouds of Michelangelo
One of the major crimes in the cult of personality is that Joni Mitchell is not held in higher regard as a "popular" artist. Critic's choice? Cult act? Influential figure in the singer / songwriter genre? Absolutely. But since her first stint as a superstar in the making—from about 1967 to 1975—Mitchell's complex, creative catalog of challenging, ever-changing music has gone more or less unheard by the masses.
As with most musical entities, this is completely by mutual agreement between artist and audience. Mitchell has no desire to pander (when she's slipped and tried, the results have been very mixed—1985's poorly received Dog Eat Dog, for example), and the vast majority of the pop music-buying public doesn't want to think when it listens to its favorite acts. 1994's Turbulent Indigo was the last time Mitchell made a major push for some manner of mainstream recognition (with sensational, subtle songs like "The Magdalene Laundries" and "Sex Kills," it was a bold, brash statement). An interesting insight into her personal life was uncovered when, in 1997, Mitchell was reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption 32 years before. Since then, she has concentrated on her primary passion: painting.
In 2002, Mitchell announced that a reworking of many of her classic tracks, an album called Travelogue, would be her last recorded material ever (she would later recant this retirement announcement). Thankfully, Shout! Factory has gone back to the vaults to uncover a quintessential Mitchell performance piece from 1983. Entitled Refuge of the Roads (from a track on the Hejira album), it's a chance for us to see Joni at her very best, an opportunity to announce this important performer to a new audience and for an industry to meditate on why she's never been more of a beloved artistic presence in music.
Over the course of this wonderful concert/long form video piece, we are treated to the following tracks culled from concert, in-studio, and other live performances:
• "Wild Things Run Fast": from the album Wild Things
Run Fast (1982).
According to the liner notes provided by Shout! Factory on the DVD case, Refuge of the Roads was Mitchell's artistic expression of newfound romance, a visual tone poem to the concept of love and happiness. Filmed over the course of her 1983 tour with new husband, bassist Larry Klein, and the rest of her backing band, Mitchell indeed looks happy and content as she performs some of her more introspective and evocative songs.
Fans of the reclusive artist—this critic included—know that there are really two divergent musical personalities constantly struggling within Mitchell and her musical canon. One is the pop chanteuse; the gal who penned such glorious anthemic examples of three-minute majesty as "Big Yellow Taxi," "Both Sides Now," and "Woodstock." Then there is the experimental jive jazz torch, a lady working out her complex internal issues in equally perplexing time-shifts and arcane chord changes. That both antagonist entities can work together so well over the course of nearly four decades is a miracle.
But there is a bifurcated nature to the actual sound of Mitchell's songs that also bears mentioning. On record, Joni can come across as overproduced and fastidiously detailed. It's almost as if producers feel her challenging writing requires equally exigent arrangements. This may explain why many of her LPs failed to connect with record buyers. But a more obvious rationale for the rejection comes whenever Mitchell takes the stage, guitar in hand and strums out her sentiments, solo. If ever there was a need for an aural definition of "ethereal," these acoustic and/or electric exchanges between artist and audience more than illustrate the term.
It is this very component, the no-frills facets of her 1983 concert performances, that makes Refuge of the Roads so special. This is a soul-stirring collection of Mitchell at her most magical and magnificent. As she moves through the first four songs in the set, we are whisked away on the intricate shapes and epic open spaces she evokes with her words and musings. With a husky voice that suggests both wisdom and loss, ancient spirituality and mellowing wine, Mitchell draws you into the cosmos to which she's calling, helping you experience the infinite emotions her sonic images paint. By the time she is stomping to "You're So Square" or bringing the bop with the magnificent Mingus track "God Must Be a Boogie Man," she has won us over.
As the final tracks build in power to the sonorous solo reading of the classic "Woodstock," the outside world has vanished, and Mitchell has moved us into a new realm of the spirit revived and the soul nourished. Sure, we fans miss the radio-friendly ramblings that made her, at one time, the queen of thought-provoking folk pioneers (in many ways, she is the equivalent of a female Bob Dylan in poetry and passion). But well-known tunes like "Free Man in Paris," "Help Me," or "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" would probably sound out of place on this set list. Mitchell is out to suggest a mood here, using specific songs to intone a timeless, tender quality. Along with the effective, understated play of her band (husband Klein bends his bass strings like a groom caressing a newlywed bride), Refuge of the Roads is not just a concert: it's a happening as an otherworldly state of being.
But it's more than mere music that we are to focus on with Refuge of the Roads. Directed by Mitchell herself, in one of her first film experiments with the mixing of mediums, Joni's inner artistic tendencies help to create the incredible collage/montage moments in the performance. Using footage from famous films—Koyaanisqatsi, Woodstock itself—as well as home movies and other archival material to interweave and illustrate her enigmatic lyrics, the visuals are as alive as the music in this concert film. Sometimes the statements are obvious (images of the road for "Refuge," shots of streetlights for the song featuring said items in its title), but more times than not, Mitchell captures the essence of the visual, allowing the picture plus the song to merge into a single entity of expression.
While some who are drawn to performance pieces and concerts for their onstage interaction and chance to see favorite artists up close and crooning will be disappointed or distracted by the intercutting and inserting of non-show material and footage, this is one of the rare times when the two divergent elements come together perfectly. It is a testament to Mitchell's skill as a filmmaker, and a visionary, that there is a reciprocal relationship between the compositions and their depictions. Indeed, though it is only 60 minutes long (we could definitely have done with more material here, Ms. Mitchell), it is an hour well spent. Refuge of the Roads is a transcendent experience in sound, vision, and vibe.
Shout! Factory delivers a dazzling digital image that never once gives away this movie's 20-plus-years of age. Though presented in a 1.33:1 full screen transfer, the picture is magnificent. Old video has a tendency to flare and bleed, but none of those obstructing attributes are present here. The detail is rich and the colors radiant. Sonically, Shout! also ups the ante by providing two aural options. You can hear the material in its original, cleaned-up PCM Stereo incarnation, or find yourself lost in a splendid Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 Surround extravaganza. Wonderfully immersive and filled with the kind of spatial relationships we've come to expect from such channel-challenging presentations, the audio here is as good as digital gets. Just hearing Mitchell's guitar lilt from speaker to speaker as a chord cuddles a chorus is the true meaning of aural bliss. Sadly, Shout! lets us down in the bonus category by featuring a photo gallery as the sole extra for the package. Sure, it is nice to see snapshots taken by Mitchell and friends while on tour, but a discography, interview, or some other manner of contextual material would have been better.
Still, all lacking added content aside, Refuge of the Roads is a spellbinding, special DVD presentation. It gives us a chance to witness one of the true geniuses of the song as art form, and to catch up with a musician who, sadly, doesn't get half the recognition she deserves. For many, Joni Mitchell will always be a jazz-loving eccentric who doesn't understand how to connect with the common man. One listen to the beautiful transcendent music performed here should put such clueless calls to rest. Mitchell is, without a doubt, a creative force to be reckoned with, and Refuge of the Roads is a gorgeous tribute to her talent.
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