I can't remember the exact year it was that I saw Joni Mitchell in concert for my first and only time — though I want to say it might have been 1979. Anyway, by the time I did, she had sure come one hell of a long way from the waif-like, hippie folksinger best known for penning songs like "Big Yellow Taxi," and "Woodstock" for Crosby Stills Nash & Young.
Touring behind Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, a sprawling two-record set that also happened to be the most recent of her late seventies, more jazz-influenced work at the time, Mitchell was anything but the poster child for flower power here.
Backed by what has to be called a dream band by any standard — it included Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on keys, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Don Arias on percussion, and Micheal Brecker on sax — Joni Mitchell had by this time evolved into something more resembling an artistic ingenue.
Part beat-poet, part torchy jazz singer, and one hundred percent chanteuse, Joni had also learned through her explorations into jazz music to use her voice as an instrument like never before. Watching Joni that night, backed by this amazing who's who of jazz musicians was simply indescribable. It was like seeing somebody like Billie Holiday as she might have sounded as channeled through fusion period Miles Davis, with a side dish of Tom Waits.
On Shine, her first album of new material in nearly a decade (and her first for the Starbucks bankrolled label Hear Music), Joni Mitchell is still very much the mercurial, mysterious artist she was on those great, late seventies albums that make up the artists' so-called "jazz period."
However, unlike the all-star band backing her on that tour I saw way back then, here Joni mostly goes it alone – playing and signing nearly everything herself, including piano, guitar, and vocals which are at times multi-tracked to gorgeous effect. Save for the backing of bass, drums, and the occasional flourish of an alto or soprano sax, what you get on Shine is still pretty much all Joni. The only other really big name who shows up on the album is James Taylor, who plays acoustic guitar on the title track (which is a standout here).
On the instrumental "One Week Last Summer" which opens Shine, Joni plays piano and all of the other instruments with the exception of Bob Sheppard on alto sax. But there are still lyrics. On the album notes contained inside, Mitchell describes the song as coming after a day of sitting on the beach all day outside her house, then going inside to find "that night the piano beckoned me for the first time in ten years. My fingers found these patterns which express what words could not." In these "lyrics," she goes on to describe writing the song while a bear rummaged through her garbage.
Of what lyrics Mitchell does write, much of the tone is political.
On "If I Had A Heart," she writes "Holy War, Genocide, Suicide, Hate and Cruelty, How can this be holy?, If I had a heart, I'd cry." On "Strong And Wrong," she laments "Men love war, Is that what God is for? Just a rabbit's foot, Just a lucky paw, For shock and awe?" On "Bad Dreams" she seems to wander aloud, "Who will come to save the day? Mighty Mouse? Superman?," before concluding that "bad dreams are good in the great plan." And on "Hana," she warns, "Don't get me wrong, this is no simple Sunday song, where God or Jesus comes along and they save ya."
As if to lighten the heavy mood of some of the lyrics though, Mitchell also offers up a newly revamped version of her biggest hit "Big Yellow Taxi." On this version, Mitchell's voice is multi-tracked to create an effect lying somewhere in between doo-wop and the a capella gospel specialized in by groups like the Persuasions (who actually opened up for Joni back on that tour I saw in the seventies).
Throughout all this, it is Joni Mitchell's voice which both lilts and glides in and around the often spare and uncluttered, but ultra clean arrangements of her new songs. Like the album's title, the recording here shines with the sort of sheen worthy of repeated listens on a very high-end system. It's really no wonder why so many Steely Dan fans are also Joni Mitchell fans.
Shine is everything you'd come to expect from a Joni Mitchell album at this late stage of the game. It is poetic lyrically, challenging artistically, and exquisite musically.
Most of all it is a welcome return where one of music's greatest lights indeed shines very bright once again.