But why this exceptionally talented lady is not some manner of mainstream musical deity is an unfathomable mystery, especially in light of Shout! Factory's fabulous DVD release of a quintessential Mitchell performance piece from 1983. Entitled Refuge of the Roads (named for a track on the Hejira album) it's a chance for us to see Joni at her very best, an opportunity to announce this important performer to a new audience and for an industry to meditate on why she's never been more of a beloved artistic presence in music.
"Wild Things Run Fast" – from the 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast
According to the liner notes provided by Shout! Factory on the DVD case, Refuge of the Roads was a very personal statement for Mitchell: an artistic expression of newfound romance, a visual tone poem to the concept of love and happiness. Filmed over the course of her 1983 tour, it celebrated her marriage to then new husband bassist Larry Klein. Along with the rest of her backing band, Mitchell wanted to take to the road and sing to the world her breathless statements of pristine emotional balance. She indeed looks happy and content as she moves through some of her more introspective and evocative songs. Fans of the reclusive artist – this critic included – know that there are really two divergent musical personalities constantly struggling within Mitchell and her musical canon. One is the pop chanteuse; the gal who penned such glorious anthemic examples of three-minute majesty as "Big Yellow Taxi", "Both Sides Now" and "Woodstock". Then there is the experimental jive jazz torch, a lady working out her complex internal issues in equally perplexing time-shifts and arcane chord changes. That both antagonist entities can work together so well over the course of nearly four decades is a miracle.
But there is also a bi-polar nature to the sound of Mitchell's songs that bears mentioning. On record, Joni can come across as overproduced and fastidiously detailed. It's almost as if producers, when faced with the challenging nature of her writing, believe that the only response is to craft equally exigent arrangements and soundscapes. This may explain why many of her more acclaimed LPs have failed to connect with record buyers. But a more obvious rationale for the rejection comes whenever Mitchell takes the stage, guitar in hand and strums out her sentiments, solo. Mitchell is magic in the "unplugged" approach, one of the rare cases where the sheer majesty of her music more than transcends all of the tricks and trappings she is usually situated in. If ever there was a need for an aural definition of ethereal, these acoustic and/or electric exchanges between the artist and her attentive audience more than illustrate the term. With the power of her poetry and the potency of her voice, Joni Mitchell is one of the few performers who can completely captivate her crowd, rendering them speechless with her inherent gifts.
It is this very component, the no-frills facets of her 1983 concert performances that make Refuge of the Roads so special. This is a soul stirring collection of Mitchell at her most miraculous and magnificent. As she moves through the first four songs in the set ("Wild Things Run Fast", "Raised on Robbery", "Refuge of the Roads" and "Sweet Bird of Youth") we are whisked away on the intricate shapes and epic open spaces she evokes with her words and musings. With a husky voice that suggests both wisdom and loss, ancient spirituality and a mellowing liqueur, Mitchell draws you into the cosmos she's calling to, helping you experience the immeasurable emotions her aural images paint. By the time she is stomping to "You're So Square" or bringing the bebop with the magnificent Mingus track "God Must Be a Boogie Man" she has completely won us over. She makes it all seem so effortless, like a natural extension of her core being, that anyone within ear and eye shot is drawn in like a moth to the fantastic, fascinating flame she is conjuring.
As the final tracks build in power to the sonorous solo reading of the classic "Woodstock" the outside world has vanished and Mitchell has moved us into a new realm of the spirit revived and the soul nourished. Sure, we fans miss the radio-friendly ramblings that made her, at one time, the queen of thought provoking folk pioneers (in many ways, she is the equivalent of a female Bob Dylan in poetry and passion). But well known tunes like "Free Man in Paris", "Help Me" or "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" would probably sound out of place on this set list. Mitchell is out to suggest a mood here, using specific songs to intone a timeless, tender quality. Along with the effective, understated play of her band (husband Klein bends his bass strings like a partner caressing a lover) Refuge of the Roads is not just a concert: it's a happening as an otherworldly state of being. It's the opening up of a long dormant heart and the unleashing of newly discovered interpersonal dimensions. While someone could misconstrue it as a self-indulgent love letter to her status as a happily married maiden, Ms. Mitchell is far more intelligent and generous than that. Refuge of the Roads is a testimonial to her life in 1983 – both pro and con – and the results are stunning and stirring.
But it's not just music that we are to focus on during Refuge of the Roads. Directed by Mitchell herself, in one of her first cinematic experiments, Joni's inner artistic tendencies help to create the incredible collage/montage moments that are used to enhance and explain the performances. Combining footage from famous films – Koyaannisqatsi, Woodstock itself - as well as home moves and other archival material to interweave and illustrate her enigmatic lyrics, the visuals are as alive as the music during the concert. Sometimes the statements are obvious (images of horses for "Wild Things" or the road for "Refuge"; shots of streetlights for the song featuring said item in its title). But more time than not, Mitchell captures the merest essence of the image with her visuals, allowing the picture plus the song to merge into a single entity of expression. While some who are drawn to performance pieces and concerts for their onstage interaction and chance to see favorite artists up close and crooning will be disappointed or distracted by the intercutting and inserting of non-show material and footage, this is one of the rare times when the two divergent elements meld perfectly. It is proof of Mitchell's skill as a filmmaker, and a visionary, that more times that not, there is a reciprocal relationship between the compositions and their depictions.
Indeed, though it is only 60 minutes long (we could definitely have done with more material here, Ms. Mitchell), it is an hour well spent. Refuge of the Roads is a transcendent experience in sound, vision and vibe. It showcases, for all who have complained of her complicated nature or shunned her work as being "outside" the mainstream how completely accessible and enigmatic Joni Mitchell and her music can really be. Is it pure pop for little pukes like Avril Lavigne or Ashley Simpson? Absolutely not. Is it the foundation for most of the female music making for the last quarter century? Definitely. With an influence that runs the gamut from the obvious (Natalie Merchant et. al.) to the obtuse (Prince has often said what a huge influence Mitchell has been on his music) there has perhaps been no more important voice in the genre of introspective singer songwriters. Joni Mitchell somehow missed her chance at being a grand dame of the girl group nation, choosing instead to follow her own philosophies. Thankfully, greatness like Refuge of the Roads is the result. It is an amazing reflection of a remarkable marriage, not only between Joni and her new beau, but Mitchell, her music and her sense of cinema.