She showcases her singing in classy renditions of pop standards while hinting at a new approach to her own material.
"What a thrill!" Joni Mitchell declared Friday at the Greek Theatre, referring to the chance to sing live with a 70-piece orchestra--and the reaction of her fans was surely mutual. Starting a brief U.S. tour, Mitchell gave a two-hour performance that was both classy and revealing.
For more than a quarter century, Mitchell has not been seen by music observers as just a singer-songwriter, but perhaps the singer-songwriter; an artist whose sense of craft has been rivaled in the pop-rock spectrum only by Bob Dylan.
While her singing has always been lauded, the acclaim has mainly centered on her songwriting, which combines a commanding feel for both lyrics and melody with penetrating insight into relationships and social rites.
So it's fitting that Mitchell titled her latest album "Both Sides Now." The title isn't just the name of one of her best-known numbers, it also serves to underscore the fact that the album showcases the other side of Mitchell's art: her singing.
On the album, Mitchell turns to a series of pop standards, some dating back to the '20s and '30s, to mirror the common ups and downs of a romantic journey--or, as she said from the stage Friday, to tell the story from the "smitten" part to the "heartbreak end."
Her voice is much deeper now, of course, than in the '70s, when she was turning out such richly detailed and compellingly personal albums as "Blue" and "Court and Spark." Instead of the frequent falsetto edges, her voice is coated with the raspy feel of experience--all of which gives her aggressive, jazz-accented interpretations an extra sense of authenticity.
After an opening overture, Mitchell performed the entire new album in sequence. The tunes--many associated over the years with such stylists as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday--ranged from the giddy exuberance of Sidney Clare and Jay Gorney's "You're My Thrill" to the dark undercurrents of Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" to the renewed anticipation of Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers' "I Wish I Were in Love Again."
Despite the potential for opening-night rough spots, Mitchell and the orchestra, led by arranger-conductor Vince Mendoza, negotiated the songs' emotional twists and turns much like a race car hugs the road on a high-speed curve.
As you'd expect from someone with Mitchell's artistic independence, the music was far more edgy than most of the conservative pop reexaminations we've seen in recent years. The music gained even greater personality when pianist Herbie Hancock, trumpeter Mark Isham and bassist Larry Klein (who is also the tour's musical director) joined her separately on a few numbers.
Still, there was a sense at times that the whole show was really a warmup for what promises to be an even more exciting concert experience: orchestral versions of her own songs, which generally have a greater sense of emotional complexity than many of the songs in "Both Sides Now."
Mitchell even gave a teasing preview Friday of what that show might be like. After the album sequence, she performed four of her own songs--most notably, inspired renditions of "Hijera," an exquisite tale of guarded emotions, and "For the Roses," a look at the loss of innocence. If Mitchell follows through on recording an album in that style, we will see the "singer" and "songwriter" truly joined. It would be a pop dream come true.