By Alix Cohen
“ The very first time I listened to a Joni Mitchell album, I was convinced she had written the soundtrack to my life. Her songs resonate within me on such a cellular level that it feels as if they existed inside me from the time I was born. That’s how it feels, for me, to sing her music—like it’s in my DNA, ready to be accessed and activated at any time.” Lauren Fox
Lauren Fox’s last three shows featured icons of the 1960s, all of them including Joni Mitchell. Illuminating research and personal sympathy has made her something of a contemporary spokesperson. As an actress, Fox brings gravitas to lyrics often dismissed as hippie as well as communicating unfettered joy for simple connections.
For a time, the artist stepped away from performance to pursue an ongoing personal journey. She returns to the stage inspired by David Yaffe’s new autobiographical Mitchell biography, Reckless Daughter. The author, an invited guest, intermittently reads excerpts, while Fox enacts others. Fact finding is thorough, assessment perceptive, text sensitive and sometimes fun. Alas, the author is a toneless reader.
One morning in 1967, Joni Mitchell played Al Cooper “Both Sides Now.” He ran to a phone waking Judy Collins at 3:00am to tell her he’d found the missing song for Wildflower. Collins, made a hit of it (and others by Mitchell) when its author was unknown. The songwriter’s reaction? “…There’s something lah-di- dah about her.” “Why,” Collins later asked David Crosby, “is she so mad at me?” “Joanie is mad at everyone,” he responded. The vocal prettily oscillates. Nostalgia rises.
It wasn’t until her own album that Mitchell reclaimed material made popular by others. “Chelsea Morning” emerges bright and stays there. It’s not just the lyric or notes. Fox is buoyant. “…and crystal beams will beckon…” she sings as arms extend back, fist in pleasure, then release. Her body sways. A last note floats.
When Mitchell was asked to play The Woodstock Music & Arts Festival with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, David Geffen talked her out of it concerned his client would miss an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Graham Nash said by the time we got back to the hotel, she’d written “Woodstock.”
“Joanie turned it into a dirge,” Yaffe tells us. “She sensed that something very bad would happen when the mud dried and kids went home.” Crosby felt Mitchell understood the occasion better than anyone who was there. Too young at the time, Fox has a preternatural impression of what it was like. She sings as if enduring rueful weight on her chest, stepping back from the microphone just before the song ends-as if to let memory settle.
Peter Calo and Ritt Henn offer vocal back-up and notable musical accompaniment. You couldn’t find more symbiotic understanding of mood and decade. The guitarist handles Mitchell’s endless tunings with five instruments. Henn plays fretless and uke bass, the latter adding immeasurably. Voices are subdued. Finely gauged music emerges organic.
“The Circle Game” was written for a very young Neil Young who thought it might all be over for him at 21. Mood in the club is campfire “Cumbayah.” Swaying, we all sing the chorus. “Blue” reflected a collection of broken promises pervasive to the era. Suddenly Mitchell was perceived as a woman, not a fae girl. At the time unsuccessful, the album grew increasingly important after the fact. Mitchell felt her vulnerability freaked men out.
Fox seems to perform without silence. Space between lyrics is filled not only by music, but echo of sentiment creating a bridge. Contralto bubbles up here in true folksinger tradition. The vocalist slip/slides notes without scratching. Geffen didn’t want Mitchell to release “A Free Man in Paris.” It seems the lyric is about liberating his sexual self. The then closeted homosexual feared it would out him. Audiences didn’t have a clue.
“Hejira” (escape with honor) arrived after Mitchell literally walked out on a tour, travelled, and got clean/sober. Melody has a bluesy feel, the precursor to real jazz into which she’d eventually dive deep. The prose poem must arrive with intelligence as ballast or lyrics make no sense. Fox has it firmly under control. Brow furrows without flinching. Calo’s head bobbles meditatively. Henn’s fretless bass sounds like a second voice. “I was using just the bridge pickup and running it through a chorus pedal,” he said.
Both Yaffe and Fox use Mitchell’s words to describe her later career. One phrase sticks: “The day after I won the Grammy, there was a newspaper column of singers then and now. I was in the then column.” Joanie was mad at everyone.
“After 10 years of draught, songs came pouring out. They were mostly environmental complaint,” Yaffe notes. Few but diehard fans are aware of these. From “Shine”: …Shine on good humor/Shine on good will/ Shine on lousy leadership/Licensed to kill/Shine on dying soldiers/In patriotic pain/Shine on mass destruction/In some God’s name!… Fox sings from the gut making the song hers. She listens as it tiptoes out. Are Mitchell and Fox asking for merciful grace or cynically mourning? (“Shine” Joni Mitchell/Frank Maroney/Jeff Anderson/ Sara West/Olivia Rudeen) We close with a rollicking “Carey.” A worthy, ruminative tribute.
Photos by David Rosen
Lauren Fox: The Evolution of Joni Mitchell
Guest: Mitchell Biographer David Yaffe- Reckless Daughter
Guitar: Peter Calo; Bass: Ritt Henn
Venue Calendar: https://54below.com/