Nobody sings Joni Mitchell like Joni Mitchell.
Unfortunately, Joni Mitchell didn't sing much Joni Mitchell at her concert Saturday at the Chronicle Pavilion in Concord.
Most of the program was devoted to a song-by-song recital of her entire new album of pop standards, "Both Sides Now," backed by a full symphony orchestra. Drawing from the songbooks of classic vocalists such as Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, singer-songwriter Mitchell took the chanteuse inside her out for a ride in front of an audience of more than 8,000 fervid fans who ponied up big bucks to see their diva.
Walking out in a glamorous floor-length soft pink silk gown, Mitchell looked resplendent, her trademark long blond hair hanging over her shoulders. When the orchestra launched the full crescendo behind her at the end of the first refrain of "You're My Thrill,' a song associated with the redoubtable Holiday, there was a dizzying whoosh as the strings and brass combined in that extraordinary lift-off that only a symphony orchestra can provide. Inspired by a performance with other famous female vocalists two years ago, arranged by the Eagles' Don Henley to benefit his Walden Woods Project, Mitchell went into the studio to produce an entire album of standards sung with a full orchestra. It must be heady stuff for the adventurous former folksinger whose forays into jazz and other artistic experiments have endeared her to her most devoted fans as much as they have alienated her from the mainstream public.
On Saturday, she worked hard at stitching nuance and detail into her first few vocals, although the burnished consonants and little filigree on the end of notes ultimately came across more as quirk than style. She toyed with time, spitting out phrases like trumpet runs behind the beat. She practically smothered the songs with technique.
A lot of women in rock have tried this gambit -- notably Linda Ronstadt, whose three albums with famous arranger Nelson Riddle revived her sagging commercial fortunes in the mid-'80s -- but, sadly, Mitchell isn't even as good at this as Toni Tennille.
Mitchell's high-concept premise was that the songs she selected moved through the stages of the life and death of a love affair, a context so flimsy and ridiculous that even Mitchell broke character and dissolved into giggles introducing one of Holiday's most desolate numbers, "You've Changed.' Just singing the old-fashioned pop songs probably would have been concept enough.
Most of the songs slogged along at the same elegiac tempo. Many were in the same key. The orchestra sounded fabulous -- illuminated not insubstantially by trumpeter Mark Isham doing his muted Miles Davis thing, and a swinging rhythm section of drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Larry Klein, Mitchell's longtime musical director and ex-husband. Pianist Herbie Hancock turned up for a couple of splashy solos.
The dreary sameness of her standards was made all the more evident by the four Mitchell songs she gave the orchestral treatment after bringing her performance of the new album to a close with its unquestioned highlight, the symphonic treatment of Mitchell's own best-known composition, "Both Sides Now.'
After that, she dragged out the playful "Be Cool' and gave it a kind of hip insolence. She swathed her Beethoven metaphor, "Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune),' in a kind of Kurt Weill wash and let Klein pump propulsive electric bass into a daring reworking of her "Hejira' before closing with an equally intense version of "For the Roses.' Her encore was a superficial take on Marvin Gaye's subversive soul, "Trouble Man.'
But the final four songs pointed to the reasons Mitchell's fans have followed her wherever she's gone. She knows the emotional interior of her own songs so well, she can wring them out under any conditions -- solo on acoustic guitar or in front of a symphony. Her point of view is so specific and so unique to her writing that she is not only her own best interpreter but also best when singing her own material.