A Revelatory Joni Mitchell Film, a CD from Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, and More
Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 captures the singer performing many of her most celebrated early numbers before a huge audience—as many as 600,000 people. The Blu-ray’s title, borrowed from one of Mitchell’s best-known songs, is fitting, because the movie also shows both sides of the conflict that unfolded at the festival. On one side are the performers and promoters who are trying to maintain the peace and keep the event on track; on the other are the radicals who insist that the musicians either play for free or pack up and go home.
The film—by the late Murray Lerner, who made several other movies about this festival and also one about Bob Dylan’s early performances at Newport—suggests that it was August 1969’s peaceful Woodstock, not the violent Altamont festival later that year, that was a bit of a fluke. Unlike Altamont, the 1970 Isle of Wight event was not the scene of any deaths; but it did witness bad acid trips, violence, and more than a few ugly confrontations with protesters.
By the time the then 26-year-old Mitchell takes the stage on the fourth of the festival’s five days, the situation has spiraled out of control. Audience members are smashing down fences, repeatedly interrupting the singer, and shouting obscenities at her. One man gets on stage, grabs a mike, and starts ranting about how the concert should be free before he can be dragged away.
During the first four songs in her solo set, the vulnerable-looking Mitchell appears shaken and angry; but then she stops, admonishes the crowd, and asks for some respect. She gets it. The audience begins listening attentively; and by the time they call her back for an encore, she is smiling broadly, having won over her listeners.
The film cuts back and forth between Mitchell’s performance and a 2003 interview in which she recalls the event and gives her side of the story. She remembers wanting to flee the stage but explains how she managed to stand her ground and triumph.
If you’re interested in sixties counterculture and the reasons for its demise, you’ll find this movie illuminating. But even if you’re not, you’ll likely enjoy Mitchell’s affecting 11-song performance. Accompanying herself on piano, guitar, and harpsichord, she offers consistently strong versions of such classics as “Chelsea Morning,” “The Gallery,” and “Both Sides Now” from 1969’s Clouds; “Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and the particularly appropriate “For Free” from the then recently released Ladies of the Canyon; and “My Old Man,” “California,” and “A Case of You” from Blue, which would not come out until the summer after the Isle of Wight Festival.
A restoration team has done impressive work with the nearly half-century-old footage in Both Sides Now; the DTS-HD Master sound and widescreen video are terrific. And once you’ve seen the whole film, you can use an onscreen menu to skip the interview segments and play just the music, which leaves no doubt about the size of Mitchell’s talent.
Swans, Soundtracks for the Blind. If your tastes lean toward the mainstream, leave this paragraph immediately: Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind, the 1996 last studio album from the group before they reunited in 2010, is about as far from the hit parade as Earth is from the Andromeda Galaxy. This three-CD reissue—which includes a disc that contains a German-language version of the album and some other extras—mixes the group’s keyboard and guitar work with assorted found sonic elements that, according to Swans leader Michael Gira, have been “reassembled, looped, mangled, and in many cases overdubbed.” Some of this material was recorded by the band shortly before the album’s original release but much of it was patched together from “whole trunks full of decomposing, moldy cassettes and discs with samples and sounds.” I could do without the occasional spoken parts, which are often as weird as anything on early Mothers of Invention LPs but generally less clever; some of the instrumental sections, meanwhile, are as discordant as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music while others (such as “I Love You This Much”) recall the final minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Star Gate sequence. That said, there’s still much to like in this package, which is more cohesive than you’d expect; indeed, many of the tracks are almost as hypnotic and atmospheric as, say, Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965–1969. Bluegrass pioneers Alice Gerrard and the late Hazel Dickens recorded these recently unearthed tracks in Dickens’s living room in the late 1960s. The set, which includes only one previously released number, reflects the duo’s diverse influences. There’s lots of traditional bluegrass and country, such as A.P. Carter’s “Little Darling Pal of Mine,” Jimmie Rodgers’s “No Hard Times,” Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride,” and Ira and Charlie Louvin’s “Are You All Alone”; but the 19-track program also makes room for contemporary hits like Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Bye Bye Love” (Everly Brothers), Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” and Dolly Parton’s “In the Good Old Days.” These recordings sound like the rehearsal tapes that they are. There are occasional rough edges, and there are no backup musicians, no overdubs, and no producers—just Dickens and Gerrard at home with a reel-to-reel. But it turns out that that’s enough.
Ever More Nest, The Place That You Call Home. Ever More Nest is a band led by New Orleans-based singer/songwriter Kelcy Mae, who sings lead throughout this album and wrote all of its songs. You’d probably classify her music as folk or Americana, but there’s a fair amount of rock guitar here and even some rock influence in the lyrics. (The song “Major Tom” seems to refer to the David Bowie number of the same name.) Throughout, the poetic lyrics and atmospheric music impress; but this CD’s biggest strength may be Kelcy’s vocals. On “Gimme That,” she sounds reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s “Container” (theme song for Showtime’s The Affair), and just as captivating. Elsewhere, on moody ballads like “Paper Dolls,” her emotive vocals are redolent of Nanci Griffith.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.