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JONI MITCHELL: SHADOWS AND LIGHT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Band:  Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker, Don Alias, The Persuasions
Director:  Joni Mitchell
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Sony Music
Features:  Photo Gallery
Length:  75 Minutes
Release Date:  July 15, 2003

“Do you wanna dance?”

Film ***

Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light is a doubly terrific treat for music lovers.  For her fans, of course, it’s a legendary 1979 concert showcasing the singer/songwriter in full artistic glory.  And for modern jazz lovers, it marks the chance to see a band of musicians that can be called nothing less than a supergroup.  

I have to admit, I fell into the latter category.  Not that I didn’t like Joni Mitchell, per se…more that she just flew under my radar.  I was familiar with a few of her songs, and had seen my share of vintage performance footage of the smoky-voiced folk singer who mesmerized crowds with six strings and two vocal chords.  But when I saw that this title was coming out, I knew I had to have it anyway.  She wasn’t the main attraction for me.  It was her band.

Pat Metheny on the guitar, Lyle Mays on the keys, Don Alias on the drums, and Michael Brecker on the sax is the kind of group that could headline themselves instead of just being a superstar’s backup band.  And that’s without mentioning the best treat of all:  Jaco Pastorius on bass, in what could possibly be the only commercially available film of his live playing (at least I haven’t found anything else yet).

It’s a dream band, but Ms. Mitchell is no slouch as leader.  Her jazzy, breezy tunes are well crafted, suited to her voice, and made into rich audio experiences by her boys.  She’s no slouch on the guitar herself, and her rhythms provide the foundation while Pat, Jaco, Lyle, Michael and Don build wondrous arrangements around it.

Starting with “In France They Kiss on Main Street”, the music is instantly warm and vibrant, and soon the songlist soars through tunes that are restrained like “Edith and the Kingpin”, energetic like “Coyote” or “Free Man in Paris”, or enchanting like “Black Crow”.  The disc also features a pair of her lyrical arrangements for classic Charles Mingus tunes, including the slinky “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and one of my favorites, the funny revved-up “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines”.

The show’s true song highlight is just that…a piece Joni performs alone to her own guitar, “Amelia”.  With wistful lyrics and a haunting melody, this is about as good as the craft of songwriting can get.

But her band gets showcases of their own…the lovely “Amelia” fades into a colorful, soaring magic carpet ride of a solo by Pat Metheny with Lyle Mays playing underneath.  When he wants to, nobody plays the electric guitar as beautifully as Pat.  Jaco gets his turn in the spotlight too, breaking out with a thunderous rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” by creating layers of sound with his digital delay before tearing into an overdriven assault of machine gun harmonics that might leave most aspiring bassists in tears.

For the last two numbers, Joni sings a cappella with The Persuasions.  “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” is charming, but I’m not sure she has quite the right voice for doo-wop.  The finale is sadly a bit of a drag.  “Shadows and Light” goes on for a bit too long, and is a let down energy-wise from the music that preceded it.

Still, the concert is a wonderful listen.  It would have earned a higher film rating except for one thing:  the constant interruption of ridiculous filmed footage that frequently runs in place of the band performing.  Starting with a clip or two from the 50s like Chuck Berry and Rebel Without a Cause, it continues on through many of the songs.  It’s a rather annoying waste.  When I buy a concert video, I want to see singers singing and musicians playing…call me kooky.

As director, Joni Mitchell gets the blame.  I guess she thought she was being artistic, but her strange and intrusive visions actually took a little something away from the magic she and her band was creating on the stage.

That quibble aside, Shadows and Light is still an indelible concert experience.  Joni fronts a supergroup of modern jazz legends and makes plenty of enchantment…all music fans are likely to appreciate it.

This review is dedicated to the late, great Jaco Pastorius, who left a void nearly 15 years ago in the music world that still hasn’t been filled.

Video **

"Every picture has its shadows and light..."

The show was taped in 1979, so I didn’t expect a great deal from the video department.  It looks perfectly watchable; for the most part colors are pretty good, but videotaped images are almost always inherently soft, and the age doesn’t do much to bring out the definition or clean out the occasional haziness against monochromatic backgrounds.  This one’s about par for the course; nothing more or less.

Audio ***

"Rolling, rolling, rock and rolling..."

The 5.1 remix is a real treat.  The music is good and loud, with a solid bottom end to keep your subwoofer busy, courtesy of Jaco and Don.  The front stage opens up nicely for a full stereo effect, while crowd and ambient noises tend to stay behind you.  Dynamic range is strong, and the sounds are clean and clear.

Features *

"It was just a false alarm..."

Not much in this department, but some tour photographs of Joni and the boys are a nice addition.

Summary:

Shadows and Light is a very enjoyable live music experience.  Buy it for Joni Mitchell if you love her.  Buy it for Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker and Don Alias if you love jazz.  If neither one, buy it and enjoy discovering both for the first time.