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A sublime start to a noisy season   Print

by Tom Moon
Philadelphia Inquirer
May 30, 2000

The summer lawns will hiss. The humidity will cast its sticky spell. And the weeks will be filled with sweltering ballgames and poolside romances, road trips thrown together over morning coffee, and music enhanced by the glow of a multicolored sunset.

This year, the mad season has a perfect starting point: Joni Mitchell at the Waterfront Entertainment Centre on Friday. With orchestra. Playing songs from her current standards collection, Both Sides Now, and reimagining some of her long-overlooked gems. Ushering in summer with blue moans and torchy whispers and moments of suspended animation that demand attention.

You know that subtlety won't last. Soon enough will come the headbangers and teen balladeers, Michael Bolton doing unspeakable harm to the already tedious Andrew Lloyd Webber, and double shots of classic rockers. (Of particular note is the relay race of the Who on July 7 and Jimmy Page/the Black Crowes on July 8, both at the E-Centre. The tours are traveling the United States in tandem, sharing a stage to reduce production costs while filling their three or four weekly "down" days with expensive room service meals.)

But first comes Joni, on the only serious tour she has attempted in more than a decade. Offering a gentle reminder that love, the mushiest of pop topics, can be rendered with grace and intelligence.

The prototypical singer-songwriter is the rare original whose contributions are so broad as to be taken for granted. Her love songs have characterized men as untameable wild coyotes and women as prisoners in elaborate mind games of their own design. She has described obsession in unsparing detail, articulated Los Angeles' false conviviality, sketched the promise of love and its sour aftertaste with the precision of a great novelist. She has adapted W.B. Yeats and romanticized Lester Young. Over and over, she has astutely observed modern life - from "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot" to the scolding truths of "Sex Kills."

In addition to serving as a beacon for several generations of confessional singers, Mitchell looms as affirmation that it is possible to sustain creative growth in an industry increasingly obsessed with overnight returns. After having pretty much defined acoustic pop-folk, she began, with her 1974 landmark Court and Spark, to investigate more elaborate jazz harmonies and thicker instrumental and vocal textures. The album, which contains "Free Man In Paris" and remains her biggest commercial success, was followed by a string of daring, downright quirky projects: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which confounded critics as too "avant garde" in 1975; the gorgeously spare 1976 Hejira; the frenetic jazz and world rhythms of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in 1977.

Mitchell doesn't seem to worry whether her audience followed along. And from her creative zenith in the late '70s through her ambitious 1979 collaboration with bassist Charles Mingus (and subsequent tour with Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorious, captured on the brilliant live set Shadows and Light) and into her pointedly political '80s writing, she has pursued increasingly iconoclastic modes of storytelling.

Now, after elevating this songcraft to high art, she has changed course, demanding reconsideration as a singer with an album of standards. Structured to emulate the arc of a relationship from flirtation through disillusionment, Both Sides Now showcases a different Joni Mitchell - a vocalist whose repertoire of swoops and mewling (sic) phrases fall into a freesprited Billie Holiday tradition.

Though the lush orchestration sometimes crowds her, Mitchell doesn't merely spritz up old songs with new perkiness, as Linda Ronstadt and other would-be torch singers have. Hers is an author's interpretation: She gets right inside the ache of "You've Changed" and "Stormy Weather," shading the lines with a faint hint of bitterness, using little embellishments and anguished ad-libs to completely rewrite the songs. Even if she doesn't manage to do that live, just to hear her reedy, keening voice will be a rare treat.

Mitchell promises the most sublime prospects of summer, but other artists also hold out tantalizing promise as the season gets under way.

(The article continues, as it talks about other artists, such as The Stone Coyotes and Joao Gilberto)

 

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