Photo: Bill King
Photo: Bill King

Joni Mitchell – A Portrait in Song (June 18, 2013, Massey Hall)

Early this week, the Globe & Mail arts reporter Brad Wheeler posted a short list of music questions, from favourite recording to best concert, and asked for responses. This got me scouring memory for a ‘best moment’—my favourite concert. A no-go. There are just too many. From Miles to Tom Petty?

June 18, 2013, marked a night sponsored by Slaight Music: Joni: A Portrait in Song—A Birthday Happening Live at Massey Hall. Performers included Rufus Wainwright, Glen Hansard, Lizz Wright, Kathleen Edwards, Bill Frisell, Cold Specks, and Liam Titcomb. Music direction—Brian Blade.

October 25, 1968, is forever etched in my memory as the night I slipped into the Bitter End in Greenwich Village and heard an angelic and unrestrained voice doing the unimaginable. Then I was told she was Canadian. Dressed in gypsy prints, a six-string in her lap and a twelve-string nearby, long straight golden hair made her even more exotic and that she wasn’t one of us. Welcome, Joni Mitchell!

The celebration at Massey Hall reminded me of those crowded streets filled with tourists, hippies, and musicians where Dylan was supposed to perform at the Gaslight, Mingus was close by, and the Mothers of Invention residency was at the Café Au Go Go across the street.

I’m not nostalgic by nature, but I allowed myself this momentary luxury.

I got word from soundman Bob Mitchell. Mitchell would sing near the end of the night and covered my camera bag. Nothing hinted or foretold such an occurrence from the beginning. One of those better be prepared occasions.

The rules for photography at Massey Hall back then arrived from another era—archaic, out of touch and prohibitive. In fact, the treatment of professional photographers bordered on insulting. I firmly avoided most times. Kristine and I know the drill—we also know that if you let moments as such pass, one will agonize an eternity over a missed opportunity.

It's the job of reviewers to delve into the critical aspects of the night, which I won't do. The intention was to fully embrace the occasion and eagerly capture the last possible departing images without any thought of reviewing.

Then it happened. Through a night of very capable singers, a band made up of the most sublime players, we arrived at that moment.

Mitchell takes centre stage. The applause, the adulation, the body chills. Recites Rain, a transcendent experience, much like the follow-up song, Furry Sings the Blues. It’s that rhythmic slam of a beat poet – the rap most top shelve rappers employ. Dialogue that spits and bites – dances, embraces, lets go - all the while striking all sides of the beat. As good as those who stood on stage were and they sang their hearts out – Mitchell’s voice moved about, soared above, and hovered like a mystery cloud. The body stepped to an unbroken rhythm, as if tethered to a world clock - rooted in life-giving soil – the natural heartbeat of the universe. A pulse that danced, tapping into every soul in attendance - unpredictable.

Everything revolved around the phrasing. How a word drops in partnership with its neighbour. The colour and tone of that note. The cigarette shading and delivery. Oh, did we pay attention? Close attention?

I enjoy browsing through Mitchell’s deep catalogue. From the downbeat to decades forward.

Hearing Chelsea Morning blare from turntables throughout the West Village in the late ‘60s. Crossing the humid summer streets past record stores, speakers blasting, ten cents in the pocket, a smile in the heart. A ‘60s morning sun shone brilliantly on a generation of believers, achievers, and wanderers imagining the Chelsea décor of her apartment, recognizing the spirit of a young woman, paint can, brush, and an empty wall. We embraced.

It’s been fifty-five years between the Village and now, and plenty of music to fill the spaces, yet none has surpassed or gained traction or compared to the prose sheltered in Mitchell’s mind and nostalgia of that Massey Hall occasion. Glorious!

June 18, 2013, was a night to cling to and share with others. Cheers Gary and Derrick. You did good!

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