Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock" (1970)


Joni Mitchell was not actually at Woodstock, as either performer or attendee. Reports say she had already committed to a Dick Cavett TV appearance that weekend. But like so many she was obviously impressed by the scope of the event and in the aftermath wrote this song—which, in the US, became a #11 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and then a #23 hit for Matthews' Southern Comfort. Joni Mitchell's version lives on the Ladies of the Canyon album, which took me some time to understand is actually one of her best. For "Woodstock"—which I judge about in the middle of the pack in terms of song quality on that album—she is in Joni at the piano keyboard mode, sounding pensive, resentful, and slightly adenoidal, as if crying recently (the next album Blue would serve up the largest portions of this). She's capable of pealing out with some big notes, but not always where you would expect them. I like how that undercuts the cosmic business and/or the triumphalism in the lyrics—"child of God," "stardust," "half a million strong," etc. The other element that sets this apart, of course, is the studio-bound production featuring multi-tracking of Mitchell on all the background vocals, which produces a weirdly beautiful and cerebral effect that at once personalizes and impersonalizes the song—more undercutting, as if afraid to actually commit to the vision (reflected as well in her increasing hesitation to play festival gigs). The various misgivings were more or less elided by the boys covering it, who happily (or willfully) failed to notice in favor of the rapturous notes. But gads this version by Joni Mitchell is lovely and alien. I think that's the main reason it's by far the most musically interesting of them.

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