“She’s a total original. She’s as significant in many ways as Coltrane or Charlie Parker”Bonnie Raitt
With a stunning and overwhelming gift, Joni Mitchell has become arguably the greatest singer-songwriter of the last half of the 20th-century. From the 1960s to the present day, she has taken pen to paper and poured out her heart, soul, and raw emotion to create some of the most moving and essential popular music. Her voice is idiosyncratic and distinct – high, raw, with the capability of shifting in tones and warmth, a lyrical instrument that perfectly tells her unique stories.
The second in her Archives period, Joni Mitchell Archives Vol 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971), takes stock of her time on the Reprise label. It represents a period in her career that includes the landmark record Blue (1971), one of the most important studio LPs of all time. This collection contains over five hours of rare recordings, including home, studio, and live recordings, creating a sprawling, yet definitive, portrait of a more esoteric Joni Mitchell. These recordings – some of which are either outtakes, concert performances, or shelved material give listeners a fascinating peek into the span of her talent and journey to superstardom and legendary status. Though the expansive collection only covers about three years, it’s a shockingly and creatively fertile period in her musical life.
Given that we’re looking at such a brief period in Mitchell’s career, the breadth and diversity of this collection are profound. Mostly comprised of demos or outtakes, a big sell for completists is the inclusion of her Carnegie Hall show from 1969, her appearances on the BBC, her spots on The Dick Cavett Show, and her performance at the Paris Theatre in London with fellow troubadour, James Taylor. These various and divergent tracks show an artist fully possessing her talent, even so early in her career.
The acoustic moments, away from the studio and in their initial forms, show a captivating glimpse into the early genesis of songs that would become milestones of American popular music. For example, though “Both Sides Now” was released on Mitchell’s second album, Clouds (1969), it was written back in 1966, so we’re gifted with a demo when the song was a potential track for her 1968 debut Song to a Seagull. We hear other songs meant for that beguiling first album, including “Jeremy” and “The Gift of the Magi”, tunes left off that album.
Other demos or shelved cuts for her first batch of Reprise albums are included, as well, including most significantly, work for her Blue album, including an absolutely gorgeous recording of her Christmas carol, “River”, with an ethereal solo for French horns that closes the song with an abstract medley of Christmas tunes melodies.
A big draw for the album will be the various concert appearances. Captured at the beginning of her ascendance as a superstar, the live tracks chronicle a young, gifted performer who simultaneously possesses a knowing knack for working an audience yet is unspoiled by fame and adoration. The second disc is the soundtrack to her show at Le Hibou Coffee House, the legendary Ottawa institution that hosted some of the brightest and best acts of folk, rock, jazz, and blues. Accompanied by a guitar, the performance focuses on Mitchell’s trilling vocals and poetry, and it’s a beautiful experience. We’re also gifted with early performance for the BBC, highlighted with a particularly affecting version of “Chelsea Morning”. Introduced by John Peele to his audiences (as the ‘yang’ to Bob Dylan’s yin), Mitchell – with the John Cameron Group – strides briskly through the candid tune with a verve and vigor.
Mitchell’s performance at the hallowed Carnegie Hall is also included. Despite her youth (she was 25 when she graced the stage of the legendary theater), she displays the confidence and poise of a veteran. Because the concert was staged in February, we’re treated to a nice bit (a touch alienating because we can’t see) in which Mitchell is gifted with a sweet Valentine from a fan. It’s a charming touch that is endearing and seemingly spontaneous. The concert supported the first album, Song to Seagull, and it’s a testament to her brilliance and the record’s instant classic status that such a new artist was able to perform at Carnegie.
The other show of note in this fantastic anthology is the 1970 concert with fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor at the Paris Theatre in London. The two singers share lovely, warm chemistry that translates wonderfully to vinyl. Their voices join together, producing lilting and heartwarming harmonies that beautifully reflect their friendship. Captured by the BBC for Peele’s radio show, the show also included some of Mitchell’s best live vocals from this period of her career. Along with her work with Taylor, there are some choice solo moments, including a definitive reading of “Carey”, one of her best compositions.
After the years covered on this collection, Mitchell’s career was still studded with moments of brilliance, but the three years captured the artist at her best. So, this is not only a treasure trove for Mitchell completists, but it’s also a definitive chronicle of the ascent of the greatest artist of the singer-songwriter genre. It’s a credit to her talent that none of the tracks – even outtakes and alternate versions of memorable songs – feel superfluous. The live tunes are especially poignant and captivating because we’re privy to an artist growing into her talents and gifts.
Because Joni Mitchell is so singular a talent and force in late 20th-century pop music, her reputation may feel heavy and cumbersome – as if the expectation of her greatness outweighs her actual greatness. Artists like Mitchell are often entombed in legend status, their work seemingly untouchable and unimpeachable. That’s why this collection is critical in understanding and appreciating her talent: we’re lucky enough to see the artist’s growth and development.