Like many skeptics, I had my doubts about how effective a Joni Mitchell concert would be now that she is relying so heavily on jazz.
Well, she showed me and everybody else at the Greek Theatre last Friday that she is still one of the most interesting and outstanding artists in contemporary music with a show that was a sheer delight.
Mitchell has lost most of her commercial impact since turning to jazz after the biggest success of her career, "Court and Spark." Friday night she proved she could cross over musical styles and be just as compelling.
Backed by an outstanding four-piece jazz unit, Mitchell gave the sold-out house one of the musical highlights of the summer as she skated ever the various stages of her career in a 90- minute performance that reaffirmed her position as one of the finest singer-songwriters in the business.
Although Mitchell has a reputation for not liking the concert setting, the show was marvelously effective. She knows how to properly pace a set and the way she intermingled old favorites with her newer material with its strong jazz textures showed what kind of a performer she is.
Mitchell grabbed the audience right away with "Big Yellow Taxi," one of her first hits. Tastefully arranged, it set the tone for the evening.
She built slowly into the jazz-flavored songs, moving into "Just Like This Train" from "Court and Spark" and then into "In France They Kiss on Main Street," from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," the album which marked her departure from pop and folk styles.
From there on, Mitchell concentrated on "Hejira" and her latest work, "Mingus." While neither of these albums has been a solid commercial success, Mitchell held the audience spellbound with her readings of the songs.
The backing musicians, of course, helped. Jaco Pastorius on bass is one of the monsters in the business. His melodic bass lines were the foundation of the music and his use of fret harmonies and tone control added extra emphasis when needed.
Don Alias handled the drums and congas for the show. His work was steady if not flamboyant. He stood out the most with his conga work on the otherwise acapella performance of "Dreamland" from "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter."
"Amelia" and "Coyote," two of "Hejira's" finest songs, were among other highpoints. The latter featured just Mitchell and Pastorius, with Pastorius' harmonics accenting Mitchell's rhythm guitar strokes and her choppy vocal.
The material from "Mingus" was also effective. "God Must Be a Boogie Man" became an audience singalong and "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" showed Mitchell is becoming more and more comfortable with her jazz singing.
Like any good performer, Mitchell saved the best for the end of the show. A rousing version of "Raised on Robbery" drew the biggest audience reaction to that point.
Mitchell followed that with an exceptional rendering of "Shadow and Light" from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." Backed by a string synthesizer and the five-member vocal group, the Persuasions, who opened the show, it was both haunting and stimulating.
Two old-chestnuts followed as encores.
The first, "The Last Time I Saw Richard," was as lovely as ever with Mitchell seated behind the piano, regressing 10 years to her days as the lady of Laurel Canyon.
"Woodstock" closed the show at a high emotional level. Mitchell reworked the chorus to update this decade-old song about getting back to the basics that almost became an anthem for a generation.
Although the crowd pleaded for more it would have been anti-climatic to follow "Woodstock." Mitchell had proved that her music, whether folk or jazz flavored could still carry her thought- provoking lyrics.
And in doing so, she also proved that she is still one of our more valuable artistic resources.