As an avid and longtime collector of “bootlegs” (LPs, cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVD or now torrent files) I can tell you that the #1 major artist who it used to be difficult for me to find bootlegs of—especially video bootlegs, which is what I mainly look for—is Joni Mitchell. I used to religiously hit collectors fairs, record conventions, and the monthly “record collector” parking lot area at the Pasadena Flea Market (which used to be THE BEST) but I could never find any Joni Mitchell boots. As in nothing. Ever. I can’t help but to think that there was some level of sexism that saw the likes of Dylan, Zappa, Beatles, Dead, Stones, Zeppelin, Tull, etc, etc get bootlegged like crazy, when so little Joni Mitchell was making it into the video trading pipeline? Even on eBay there was next to nothing. What gives?
In any case, this imbalance naturally got redressed on YouTube and now there are many delightful examples of Mitchell singing live for her fans to enjoy. What I find especially noteworthy about clips of Joni Mitchell in her 60s/70s prime is how she could absolutely command an audience with just her voice and an acoustic guitar or piano. For such a seemingly frail young girl, she was an exceptionally powerful performer. Who of the current crop of female entertainers could do that? (Actually one does come to mind: Laura Marling, who killed it at Glastonbury this year, but she had a band, I suppose. Still, she deserves the comparison.).
One hallmark of any live Joni Mitchell live performance was the tuning up between songs. There was a reason for it. Again, I’m sorry to report that rock snobs and guitar aficionados of my gender—some not all—have never fully appreciated what a brilliant, world-beating guitarist Joni Mitchell really is. The reason she was always tuning up for so long between songs is that she was often completely re-tuning the guitar to an alternate tuning. She is known to have created at least 50 harmonically innovative open tuning patterns. Apparently, she required them to be able to physically play the music she heard in her head. Due to a bout of childhood polio, her hand became slightly palsied and she basically had to come up with her own way of playing guitar. Her style is completely original, keep all of this in mind as you watch some of these clips. (In 2003 Rolling Stone ranked Mitchell as the 72nd on their list “greatest guitarist of all time.” She was the was the highest-ranking female and she wuz robbed!). You can read more about her innovative tuning patterns here and here.
Below, a selection of some of the finest Joni Mitchell performances that YouTube has on offer…
A very young and VERY lovely Joni Mitchell sings “Urge for Going,” late 1966. The men seem absolutely stunned here. What man wouldn’t be?
“Big Yellow Taxi” at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970
A heartbreaking “Little Green” (about the pain of giving her infant daughter up for adoption):
A haunting rendition of “Woodstock” with an anecdote beforehand.
An amazing performance of “For Free” on the BBC In Concert series in 1970.
Court and Spark‘s “Help Me” with The L.A. Express, live in London, 1974
“The Long Black Veil,” a duet with Johnny Cash, on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show, 1969: