Chastain Park Amphitheater, Atlanta, GA May 19, 2000
by David Whited
The weather could not have been better. It was slightly cloudy and the temperature was in the mid-60s. A faint aroma of vanilla candles and jasmine incense wafted through the amphitheater on an ever-so-slight breeze while crystal goblets clinked and Yuppies with their coolers on rollers traversed the narrow aisles.
Chastain Park is a favorite haunt of the wine-and-cheese crowd. Candelabras are not a rare sight at this venue. This particular crowd was a pretty diverse mix of old hippies, the well-heeled, as well as a few Gen X-ers. The crowds at Chastain Park can sometimes tend toward the "tony," or the "see and be seen" groups, so, occasionally, the productions at the tables down front can sometimes rival those on stage, and have been known to detract from the shows at times.
The announcer came on right at the printed showtime to inform us that Joni would be taking the stage in 15 minutes and it was her wish that the audience be through with their dining by the start of the show so as to not disrupt the performance - which was probably a good idea, as a few of these people sometimes need to be reminded what they came for.
On this tour, Joni is carrying her own conductor, a musical director (in the form of Larry Klein - her ex-husband, who also handles electric bass duties as required) and approximately 10 of her own musicians, which includes special-guest musician Herbie Hancock on the New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles stops of this tour. She is picking up the remainder of the 47 pieces from amongst the local symphony musicians. This was a big production, and it took a good 10 minutes for the orchestra to be seated.
Toward the end of an extended version of the intro to the new album, Joni glided across the stage wearing a knowing grin and looking younger and happier than any picture that I've seen of her in years.
This being my very first Joni experience, I was very pleasantly surprised by her demeanor. From all that I have read about her disdain for "the Industry" and the mixing of art and business, I actually expected a drier attitude. She was very charming. She seemed genuinely happy to be here sharing her art. She made it a point to personally thank a couple that had sent her a bouquet of flowers, and she responded to nearly every call from the audience. She even detoured from her final exit to take time to sign some autographs from the edge of he stage - a gesture that is nearly unheard of amongst performers on her level. All in all, it was as an intimate an evening as you'll get with performers of her caliber.
While Joni was totally charming to her audience, she certainly cut the record company executives no slack. The primary theme of the show was love, with her songs and the classic covers she did mapping all of its wonderful (and sometimes tragic) ups and downs, but there was no doubt that the subtext was definitely all about how art and business just simply do not mix. She even gave us all a short music-history lesson, using Beethoven for an example, to show that this conflict has existed since long before TV and radio ever existed. She made it clear through her several comments that there is no love lost between her and the "suits" at her record company. She let no opportunity to take a dig at them slip by her, making me wonder for a moment whether she chose to include her incredibly brilliant cover of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" because it suited her style or because of the subject matter. When the hair on my arms stood at attention, I realized it was both.
With this tour, and with her new Both Sides Now release, Joni seems to be intent on re-defining herself. Not that she has really changed stylistically - she's still the same old Joni - but she's grown up some and turned loose of the need to do it all. The focus this round is on "Joni the Jazz-Vocalist," rather than "Joni the Songwriter." She's always been an exceptional interpreter, and she could hold her own with some of the best, but this angle is too often glossed-over in reviews of her work. Her long-time fans might sometimes be disappointed that they do not find a new "Circle Game" or "Both Sides Now" on each and every new album, while at the same time overlooking the fact that she has always continued to grow in other areas of her art. Joni did cover a number of her own classics this time, but the bulk of the show was purposefully dedicated to her exceptional covers of the standards. Judging by some of the new material she introduced during this show, it seems that she really likes what she's doing, as she has already started on a similar follow-up album that may include some classic R&B in the mix. I'm really looking forward to it.