Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974)

Well who am I to comment on Joni Mitchell now after all these years and after all the plaudits? She’s had near universal acclaim from the critics and her peers and following generations. One would be a fool – and wasting one’s time – to not just genuflect at the altar.

But you know, for years there was a coin in my head with Joni Mitchell’s face on it and it wouldn’t drop over the edge and it wouldn’t go away. I kind of felt like I SHOULD get her but somehow I didn’t.

I had two of her albums, and they are both regarded as amongst her very best and fell in her seventies purple patch, so I decided to give it a serious, deliberate go during commute time when there was little to distract me. But there’s a problem there too – if the penny dropped would it mean that ANY penny could drop if you shoved it often enough? Yowzer! With a bit of time and patience I could turn myself into a fan of just about anybody.

Maybe. Or maybe you’ll find yourself tuned into signals you’d missed previously.

Anyway, here’s what I eventually found. Feel free to say “doh”…

She’s a very good singer. She doesn’t make it easy for herself with unusual melodies and some metrically tricky lyrics, but she carries it all with style. There’s a purity to her voice, alongside control, range and great timing. “Carey” is a fine example and a great performance.

I’m intrigued by the independence that she enjoyed. There’s not even a co-producer on those records. We can assume that she was allowed to make all the calls herself. In the absence of any other credits we can assume that she not only writes, but also arranges, calls in the session players and generally makes all the artistic calls. That would be unusual even now for a woman signed to a major label. Contemporary heavyweights such as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and even Dylan always had somebody producing. Joni was allowed to do it all herself.

Blue is the earlier of the two and more sparsely arranged., The guests are all at least notable and mostly Laurel Canyon royalty – James Taylor, Stephen Stills, David Crosby – but often it’s just her on guitar or piano. The guitars sound like they’re often in slack key tunings and she makes pleasing use of open string drones. I think she’s a bit under regarded as a guitar player. There’s some neat finger picking full of interesting details (including a well used vibrato) and her rhythm playing is rock solid.

Lyrically it’s pretty intense, pretty… naked at times. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea. Conventional wisdom is that she was one of the pioneers of the confessional singer-songwriter mode that dominated in the seventies. I figure that anybody’s entitled to lay their lives out, and Loudon Waineright, whose song writing I adore, has often let it all out (lots of songs about his divorces, his mother, his father and even one about smacking his daughter for heaven’s sake) but the interesting thing about Wainwright is the way he can turn the personal into the universal and find something that you recognise in your own miserable existence. With Joni it’s sometimes just the personal emotion. But very well expressed, and her lyrics, like her playing are full of telling detail.

I’ve mentioned “Carey” before. It’s the stand out here – with a great guest performance from Steven Stills (who is too often overlooked when people muse about the great players of the sixties). She uses her feel for timing very well, and Stills lays down great guitar and bass parts to give the song a joyous groove. The lyrics deal in part with location and travelling – themes that run through the album.

The opening “All I Want” presents an idealistic but also complete and detailed vision of love (“I want to talk to you, want to shampoo you”), a mood that much of what follows questions.

“This Flight Tonight” has her travelling, but also unsure whether she should be coming or going and brilliantly captures the duality that can lurk in a love affair.

Court and Spark came three years and two albums later. Apparently it was her best seller and it received fulsome praise, even judged by the critical reception she got throughout the seventies.

It’s richer, more complex and more ambitious than Blue. Rock/ pop artists overreaching themselves was a not uncommon thing in the seventies, but Mitchell is both capable and confident. The arrangements are fuller, and several LA session heavyweights feature. Often they’re players with a jazz background – Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, John Guerin, Larry Carlton – and they’re all good and all necessary on material that stretches the players a lot more. She often sings at a lower pitch, but this is not an early manifestation of the vocal problems that beset her later on (smoking is really not good for the voice) as she demonstrates with occasional ventures into the higher register she used on Blue and the verse ending sustained notes that are prominent on both albums.

“Car On The Hill” is a wrenching portrayal of a character who doesn’t yet realise she’s been dumped. “Help Me” and “Free Man In Paris” are great sophisticated pop, and “Raised On Robbery” (with fine guitar work by Robbie Robertson) seems to owe a lot to the contemporary Rolling Stones sound (including a Keith-ish rhythm part). The structures are sometimes unusual and non-linear (“People’s Parties” is all verses, no choruses), but she’s very assured with it. Production wise she crafts a very seductive sonic landscape. It’s smooth, but not overly so, and not so highly polished that the edge and the details are lost.

I enjoyed these albums a lot more than I’ve enjoyed anything by Joni Mitchell in the past (though judging by what others have written I did myself no favours by picking albums she cut after her form started dropping off in the early 80s – and when she started working with producers again).

And I’m satisfied that I didn’t just beat something into my head and could have done the same with anything. It’s redundant to say it, but there’s a lot of very fine craftsmanship on these albums, a lot to listen to (even though they were both single albums back then and thus short by modern standards). Sometimes pennies just take a long time to drop.

One last thing. I don’t find to her be “folk” at all. Certainly not on these albums and despite her background. She’s clearly informed by it, but even on Blue the greater ambition, not to mention the ability to be sophisticated and pop at the same time, is in place. Folk music was really just a jumping off point.

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The Soul Brothers – Kings of Mbaqanga – Live in Johannesburg (2005)

If I had to deliver a list of the best live shows I ever witnessed then Bruce Springsteen in Harare would be on there. So would be Bright Blue at Wits University. I actually can’t remember the year (but it was late 80s, after “Weeping” had been a hit for them) but I remember the show well.

A trap with writing about, talking about or listening to music is to get too intellectual and concerned with artistic merit. We can forget that one of the points, especially of popular music, is just to get in the groove and have a good time. Which was what happened at the Bright Blue show as along with the political comment in their lyrics they served up a big helping of irresistible rhythms and grooves.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Bright Blue were a South African rock band who had some success in the 80s with a couple of hit singles and a sound that borrowed heavily from the Mbaqanga music of the townships and especially from the organ-powered groove of the Soul Brothers. Amazingly they were the first South African act to top the official (IE “white”) pop charts in South Africa, and with a song that featured a not too disguised metaphor for PW Botha and the state of emergency in the lyrics and a not disguised at all quote from the then banned “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” in the music, Like so many before them they were white boys who had been listening to and loving black music, but instead of the blues they chose or happened upon something closer to home.

The Soul Brothers were for decades the biggest name in Mbaqanga with a big reputation as a live act and who sold records in large quantities in the township market (which was bigger by far than the local white pop and rock markets) throughout the 70s and 80s. Their trademark sound, over the more usual distinctive bass and guitar components of Mbaqanga, are the quavering tenor vocals of David Masondo and the syncopated organ parts of Moses Ngwenya.

What I hadn’t realised until I listened to this album was the debt that Bright Blue owed to the Soul Brothers. I am not, by the way, suggesting plagiarism here. Nobody makes that accusation against, for example, Eric Clapton even though he is so obviously influenced by American bluesmen and especially Albert King (whose influence seems to be very pervasive). It’s about inspiration, not imitation. But the tricks and licks of the inspiring artists are present, and like Clapton they always acknowledged their influences.

So here is the source, the inspiration for the great grooves that Bright Blue could lay down. And a genuinely, uniquely South African groove which made Bright Blue so much more interesting and fun than if they’d decided to pay homage to BB King or Muddy Waters instead.

The lyrics are in Zulu. I have no idea what the songs are about (thought the opening “Mama Wami” is clearly a tribute to somebody’s mother, or everybody’s mother). The attraction here, once you get past the oddly countryish first track, is the inimitable brand of energy this band can still serve up after so many years. Masondo and Ngwenya are the only two original members left but really they to all intents and purposes were the Soul Brothers. As late as 2005, as this live recording reveals, they still had their powers intact and could deliver the crowd pleasing numbers without phoning it in.

And they could still kick up a really strong, lively, hard to resist dance groove.

I couldn’t listen to this solidly every day for a week as I do with some records I report on here. It’s not that kind of record that offers a deep and introverted listening experience. But it is massive fun, and I can see how that small gang of Cape Town boys could fall in love with this music.

In the meantime if your curiosity is piqued there are elements of Mbaqanga, enough so you can get an idea, on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Notably on the tracks “I Know What I Know” and “Gumboots”. But if that floats your boat maybe you want to drink from the font.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Left Of Cool (1998)

Having enjoyed the Fleck albums that I have (all of them acoustic) and been impressed by his guest spots on other people’s albums I decided to give his long running pop/jazz band the Flecktones a try. I must have done some googling but I can’t quite remember how I settled on this particular album. Maybe it was their best seller on iTunes. Maybe it was a good review from Wilson and Alroy.

I’m not sure I’m surprised by the album. It’s not particularly similar to other things I’ve heard from him (and hardly similar at all to the duet album) but it was also clear to me from what I had heard that Fleck is another of these nominally bluegrass (or “newgrass”) musicians with a broad musical vision and the chops to pull it all off. So maybe I was expecting the unexpected. After all, this is a banjo player who has performed Bach pieces (and not as a gimmick) on the same disc as a Miles Davis composition (also rendered in a gimmick free way).

What is very quickly clear is that the players on this disc, and especially Fleck and bass player Victor Wooton, are all very skilled. Bluegrass / acoustic / country fans will know Fleck. Rockers and jazzers will, I suspect, know Wooton (famous in his own right as one of the contemporary giants of bass guitar). So if you know Wooton then Fleck is right up there with him, and if you know Fleck then Wooton is right up there with him. The band is rounded off by Future Man (that’s what it says in the liner notes), who is actually Victor Wooton’s brother, on percussion, vocals and various electronics, and sax player Jeff Coffin.

The first couple of times around this disc I was convinced I had a work of genius. Then round about turn five or so I wasn’t so sure. I started to think that the problem is the compositions. Especially those on which Future Man songs. Not that he’s a rubbish singer – far from it – but the lyrics are on the sappy side and the songs seem more generic. I’d thought that maybe it was the Wootons doing the writing, but Fleck is at least co-writer on every track here bar one and generally writes the lyrics, so it’s all his fault.

And whilst the compositions do vary in quality, the musicianship is of a very high standard throughout, some of Fleck’s solos are jaw dropping and even the not so good numbers are not so bad. Fleck reveals the breadth of influence (or interest) that I’d expected, but the other players hardly seem thrown by this at all – coping with elements of bluegrass (“Showdown at the Hoedown”, “Trouble and Strife”), celtic folk (“Big Country”), Indian music (“Shanti”) or Middle Eastern music (“Oddity”). Wooton in particular repeatedly comes up with parts that are engaging and inventive.

I’m not always sure whether or not to take them seriously – whilst recognising that there is more room for musical humour in jazz than there is in rock. In particular I don’t know whether to regard “Sojourn of Arjuna” with it’s hippy-ish spoken vocal that expresses ideas from the Baghavad Gita as a hilarious piss take or deadly serious. Maybe the ambiguity is part of the point, and the underlying musical motif is infectious and the playing – from which we are often distracted by the vocal – is full of fine detail. I also suspect there’s a joke somewhere in the instrumental “Trane to Connemara” but it escapes me. Jazz fundis may catch the joke, or it may not actually be there.

At it’s best – usually instrumental tracks with Fleck painting from his broad palette of roots music styles – the album offers memorable melodies and clever hooks. Always there is very fine playing. Fleck, and this too little, too late, too obvious and damning him with faint praise, is clearly a musician with boith the inclination and ability to operate in a wide range of styles and who always brings something interesting and enjoyable to whatever party he’s playing at.

It’s almost beyond the point that he’s a banjo player. It’s more the case that he’s an exceptional musician – composer and player – who just happens to use the banjo.