Both Sides Now: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It was an impossible gig.
Joni Mitchell was told to perform — solo and acoustic — before her scheduled time, in front of hundreds of thousands of rowdy rock fans, many there to see The Who later in the day, in an event that was larger than the previous year’s Woodstock. To make matters worse, her hour-long set was interrupted halfway through by an on-stage heckler who railed against the commercialism of the festival, as others tore down and/or defaced the metal fencing that circled the concert site.
Somehow, Mitchell not only persevered but won over the crowd, even though she looks to be on the verge of tears and is clearly shaken by members of the aggressive audience. She starts, then abandons the second song “Chelsea Morning” about halfway through saying she “doesn’t feel like singing that song so much.” After admonishing the throng to “give the performers some respect,” the overall vibe changed drastically, as did Mitchell’s mood. By the end of her set, she gets a standing ovation and is called back for an encore.
All this is captured by late film maker Murray Lerner (he passed in 2017) whose documentaries of sets from The Who, The Doors, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix from the same festival have already been released. Why it has taken so long for this one to see the light of day on DVD and Blu-ray is unclear, but it captures a vibrant, sometimes nerve-wracking, moment in Joni Mitchell’s early career that fans and music historians will find irreplaceable.
Mitchell, who looks resplendent in her sunshine yellow dress, is in beautifully clear trilling voice throughout, despite the extreme conditions. This shows how well she responded to conditions that would have felled lesser artists. Interviews with her from 2003 where she comments in depth on the experience — and the distinctive chords used in her songwriting — are interspersed. That footage is fascinating too, both for her insight into the younger, 27-year-old Mitchell’s mind during the event, and as a rare self-examination into her craft.
Her performance includes nine songs — most from her first three albums and three that would later be released on 1971’s Blue — with “A Case of You” that oddly wasn’t filmed but is reproduced on audio over the closing credits. She plays guitar, piano and dulcimer and although not exactly a riveting presence, there is a confidence, drama and intensity here that holds your attention.
Lerner’s camera work is quite good, especially considering the less than ideal conditions, with some extraordinarily revealing close ups of Mitchell’s face while singing. Both the video and audio have been restored. Additionally, there is the option of watching Mitchell’s show without the interview segments and shots of other goings-on at the fest.
It may not have been the finest 55 minutes of Joni Mitchell’s still-fledgling career, but it was a historic one and having it commercially available is a dream come true for any folk music fan.