Rarely seen star has fun with other people's songs
LOS ANGELES - Joni Mitchell has performed so few concerts over the years that the only lasting image of her onstage dates to 1970, when she bombed at the massive Isle of Wight festival in England: As the film cameras rolled, the singer pleaded with the rowdy crowd to settle down and listen to her - and when it didn't, she burst into tears.
So her show Friday night at the Greek Theatre came as nothing less than a shock: Beaming and dancing and spinning jokes, Ms. Mitchell was the complete antithesis of the stage-shy recluse she's known for being.
Maybe she drew inspiration from the hero's welcome given to her by the capacity hometown crowd. The predominantly female audience practically dropped to its knees and worshiped her between songs. ("Joni - you are SO beautiful!" one fan blurted out.)
Yet Ms. Mitchell undoubtedly also found strength in numbers. Backed by an impeccably tight 50-piece orchestra, she strolled confidently on top of the band's gigantic wall of sound, and "Stormy Weather" and Rodgers and Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again" came out sounding less like pop standards than mystical overtures by Tchaikovsky.
Those two tunes are on Both Sides Now, her new album filled with symphonic versions of torch songs, jazz numbers and her own classics "Both Sides Now" and "A Case of You." She's launched a rare mini-tour to support the CD (no Dallas dates are expected), and she told the audience she had so much fun making the album she's going to record another one like it.
Hearing her work simple, dusky magic with 60-year-old love tunes like "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" and "Sometimes I'm Happy," it's easy to see why she's so comfortable with this music. Instead of trying to live up to her status as folk-rock goddess and singer-songwriter icon, she's now free to simply be a singer.
And at age 56, she remains a dazzling vocalist. Back in the '60s, while folk colleagues such as Joan Baez were trying to bellow like Kate Smith, Ms. Mitchell was busy studying the jazzy nuances of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and her homework paid off Friday. Her husky, playful voice was a perfect match for an orchestra that constantly switched from jazz to classical styles and back. And Ms. Mitchell showed an uncanny knack for knowing just when to grab a note and lift it slowly to the stars.
"I didn't know if you guys would be able to handle this much classicism," she told the crowd near the end of the concert. As long as she sounds as inspired as she did Friday night, we'll handle as much classicism as she wants to give us.