Joni Mitchell Archives – Vol. 1 is both a time machine and an almanac for Mitchell fans before the world got hip to her genius.

By Hilary Hughes
October 30, 2020 at 01:24 PM EDT
Joni Mitchellu2019s Personal Archive
| Credit: Joni Mitchell’s Personal Archive

Three versions of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” are included in Joni Mitchell Archives – Vol 1: (1963-1967), but track 53, in particular, distills the spirit of this sprawling collection of early demos and live recordings. 

Taped during a 1967 gig at Philadelphia’s Second Fret nightclub, Mitchell's performance begins with an exchange of requests. The host of the evening, Gene Shay, notes that several members of the audience want to hear the song. She, in turn, asks the modest crowd for their help: “If I sing this song, does anybody want to sing with me?” She proceeds to pull people from the room into her makeshift choir (“Vincent can sing it with me! Donda, do you know the chorus at all? Do you want to take a chance on it, and just pick up lines when you get it? C’mon Steve, get in on this!”). She tunes her guitar, plucks the opening chords, and soon Vincent, Donda, Steve, and anyone else who felt like joining in are bellowing the bittersweet, nostalgic hook that would become one of her signatures. The last note rings out. Mitchell giggles. 

“That’s going to be a classic,” Shay says. “It probably is already a classic. I can’t understand why more people haven’t recorded it, but I imagine they’ll get hip to it pretty soon.”

Joni Mitchell Archives is both a time machine and an almanac of sorts for Mitchell fans, before the world got hip to her genius. The five-disc compilation, which the singer-songwriter curated herself, transports the listener back to the Canadian folk icon’s earliest gigs, leading up to her 1968 debut, Song to a Seagull. The first four years of Mitchell’s professional career are represented here, with six hours of unreleased concert reels; early radio performances, like her rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” which she played for listeners at Saskatoon’s CFCQ AM; and batches of home recordings, featuring traditional folk songs taped at her parents’ home.

If the studio versions of “The Circle Game,” “Both Sides Now,” “Chelsea Morning,” and other Mitchell standards are finished portraits, consider the treasure trove of Archives to be the first drafts — the brushstrokes, sketches, and outlines that eventually soundtracked her career. The collection offers multiple versions of various songs, which allow the listener to burrow into the nuance of her singing, playing, and storytelling in different degrees. “Eastern Rain” and “Chelsea Morning” shine as live recordings and radio sessions alike, as does “Both Sides Now,” with three different yet equally gorgeous takes on the tune revealing its original shades before Judy Collins recorded the version that eventually hit Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. There are also never-before-heard recordings of unreleased tracks like “Born to Take the Highway," as well as her interpretation of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain" (Young's original inspired Mitchell to write "The Circle Game," as a response.)

Paired with family photos, childhood drawings, early reviews, and Cameron Crowe’s lovingly written liner notes — along with an intimate conversation between him and Mitchell that connects the dots between these precious recordings and the stories that shaped them — Archives Vol. 1 is both a testament of and tribute to Mitchell’s music. Rarely do we get to hear a song become a classic, but this collection gives us just that, along with the privilege of witnessing an artist as she becomes a legend. A

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