Joni Mitchell (General Introduction)

Joni Mitchell In The 70s

Joni Mitchell In The '70s

The music industry can dent anybody’s enthusiasm and willingness to make art. But a true artist always keeps at it, not only because it is the only valid form of expression he knows, but because he realizes there comes a point his public needs him to articulate how they feel. It becomes something wholly reciprocal; they need each other, they feed off each other and they motivate each other to do their best.

That is the true moral that arises from Joni Mitchell’s career – a career that has seen wild commercial up and downs, but that has had Joni true to herself and to every single one of us.

Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan in Fort MacLeod (Canada). The year was 1943. She showed a precocious interest in music, studying first the piano and then the guitar. Yet, at age nine she was stricken with polio. That made playing the guitar difficult from that point onwards, and that was one of the reasons Joni developed the unique tunings she would be renowned for in her career.

She has defined herself as a “rebellious teenager”, and upon growing up she intended to attend art school in Calgary. She attended classes only for one year there before moving to Toronto, where she met a cabaret jazz singer named Chuck Mitchell that would become her husband in 1966. Together, they headed for the US to seek their fortunes as musicians. The marriage fell apart in 1967, and Joni went to New York City to launch her solo career in earnest.

Before ever releasing her debut album, other artists began recording her songs – Tom Rush sang the very first song she ever wrote, “Urge For Going”, and Judy Collins made the poignant “Both Sides Now” popular long before Joni did.

Joni’s big break came when she was discovered by David Crosby, who convinced his record company (Reprise Records) to sign her up. They did, and Joni’s first album (known as either “Joni Mitchell” or “Song For A Seagull”) was recorded and issued. Public interest began picking up, and a heavy schedule in support of both her debut and the follow-up record (“Clouds”, 1969) made the press take notice as well.

“Ladies Of The Canyon” was issued in 1970. It became her first gold record on the strength of “Big Yellow Taxi” (a top 30 hit) and her own version of “The Circle Game” (the song had been recorded long before by both by Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie). Continue reading

The Band (Album Review)

The Band's Eponymous Record Is Also Known As "The Brown Album"

The Band's Eponymous Record Is Also Known As "The Brown Album"

One year after releasing a debut album that made them the talk among musicians everywhere, The Band was to release an album that would also made them the talk among the buying public. The year was 1969, and their eponymous disc was to produce their only top 30 hit in the US (“Up On Cripple Creek”), while the record also featured the successful European single “Rag Mama Rag”.

It is easy to see what the hoopla was all about. The group had crafted a quasi-conceptual album about Americana in which different characters came alive in songs where the history of the country was revised time and again, and a clear debt was paid to genres like ragtime, blues, gospel and (most of all) country.

That was specially palpable in compositions such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” centered on the end of the Civil War, and its aftermath was seen through the eyes of different characters. A verse that mentioned Abraham Lincoln was not used – Robertson (the composer of the song) was advised to leave that out by Helm, the one American member of the band and a southerner at that – he hailed from Arkansas.  I already posted the best live version of the song available as part of The Band’s general introduction, and what I would like to share with you now is the most famous cover of the song. The artist is no other than Joan Baez. Here you have the video:

Sharing this video is important since it truly brought the song to a wider audience in the same way that Smith’s cover of “The Weight” (featured on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack) became as popular as the original version itself. Continue reading

The Band – General Introduction

The Band: Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson & Rick Danko

The Band: Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson & Rick Danko

There were not that many performers whose beginning was as shrouded in mystery as that of The Band. They were known as Bob Dylan’s backing group during his early electric tours, and they were in fact the ones backing the master onstage during the infamous “Judas!” incident. They issued their first album in 1968 (“Music From Big Pink”), and the cover illustration was actually done by Dylan. After the album was issued, they gave no interviews. And a twist of fate dictated that they were not to perform live for some time since one of their members (Rick Danko) was involved in a car accident that left him out of business for a couple of months.

One of their most popular songs, from “Music From Big Pink”:

Gradually, the mystery was lifted and what we found was an ensemble of musicians that redefined the concept of collectiveness, and the idea of a performing unit taken as a whole. Their second, eponymous album was a major step forward. Released in 1969, it is now regarded as a seminal work in the history of Rock & Roll.

Upon its release, everybody knew who they were and the way they operated. The names of the five members of The Band were on the lips of everybody within the scene and the industry: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. With the exception of Robertson, everybody could play multiple instruments. Three members also handled lead vocals: Manuel, Danko and Helm. Still, Manuel is traditionally considered “the” lead singer of the group.

Epochal songs dealing with American themes (like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) constituted the backbone of that breakthrough album, and that was all the more remarkable since all of them (except for Helm) were Canadians.

The albums that succeeded had The Band gradually expanding their sound by approaching producers like Todd Rundgren, and working on elaborate arrangements with New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint among others. And their penultimate record together (“Northern Lights – Southern Cross”) offered a truly updated sound thanks to the addition of synthesizers into the mix.

The Band Performing Live At "The Last Waltz" Concert

The Band Performing Live At "The Last Waltz" Concert

As good as they were, those albums began showcasing some strains and rivalries within the group, as Robertson emerged as an authoritative figure – he took the credit for most of their compositions, and that caused serious problems in the long run, with other members accusing him of claiming authorship of what was essentially a collective effort. Robertson would be the first member to quit – his last performance with The Band was on the famed concert movie “The Last Waltz” in 1978. Continue reading

Closer – The Best Of Sarah McLachlan (Compilation Album)

"Closer" Compiles Together Sarah Mc Lachlan's Greatest Hits Up To The Year 2008

"Closer" Compiles Together Sarah Mc Lachlan's Greatest Hits Up To The Year 2008

This one took a little to sink in, and it didn’t sink in completely. But the bits that managed to do it are ones I now treasure indeed. Sarah Mclachlan is a Canadian artist that began her career in 1988 with the album “Touch”, in which her trademark mixture of folk and pop was already fully manifested. That record included the hit single “Vox”, and that is the one song which starts this 16-track compilation which was first issued in 2008.

I think I don’t have to tell you it is one of the tracks that I truly treasure from it. The other two that I deem as exemplary songs are “Possession” and “Building A Mystery”. Both were quite successful in terms of chart performance – “Building A Mystery” topped the Canadian charts and almost hit the top 10 in the US. For its part, “Possession” garnered a lot of publicity since it dealt with a famous stalker that even filed a lawsuit against McLachlan – he was to eventually commit suicide before the trial started.

Some might find it startling that songs dealing with such negative realities turn out to be such compelling listens – just look at Elvis Costello’s “High Fidelity” or The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. But when songs like that are successful, I don’t think that means people are “evil”– quite the opposite. It just showcases that “normal” people are naturally attracted to what happens on the other side. The more people who are keen on songs like these, then, the more representative sample we have of people’s saneness. Continue reading