It was a little startling to hear Joni Mitchell - one of pop music's most iconic and
stubborn free spirits - announce from the stage of the Theater at Madison Square
Garden on Monday night that she was about to take the audience on "an old-fashioned journey through romantic love." Not that she hasn't written about all kinds of romantic love before in her own onrushing imagistic way or that she doesn't have a right to be old-fashioned;, it was the presentation.
You have to picture her saying it while standing in a very un-bohemian purple dress in front of an enormous string orchestra.
Ms. Mitchell's music comes in two packages: the gnarled, original harmonies and instrumentation of all her past albums and, now, the expensive, lush orchestral music heard on her newest record, "Both Sides Now" (Reprise/WEA). The album is a good-taste songbook of unassailable jazz and pop standards from midcentury, with a few of her own older pieces mixed in; taken together, they form a narrative arc about a love affair.
But at their best, the songs, with Vince Mendoza's pleasant, unobtrusive, 1950's-sounding arrangements, become secondary to what Ms. Mitchell as a singer does to them. By lifting her voice out of the matrix of her usual complex arrangements for guitar and keyboards, the record allows you to hear her gifts as a singer more starklyeven if it took a 90-piece studio orchestra to accomplish it.
Monday's concert, which began with the orchestra playing Debussy's "Nuages" by way of a prologue, replicated the album track by track, and then proceeded with a few more songs from a forthcoming album projectorchestral, againof Ms. Mitchell's own work. In the "Both Sides Now" portion, Ms. Mitchell commandeered a highly organized, powerful performance, creating confident new readings of old songs.
With the thicker, breathier voice of her recent years, Ms. Mitchell especially owned the slow ballads: in "You're My Thrill," making contrary seesaw motions with her hips and shoulders as she sang, she seemed imperious and deeply comfortable; in "Comes Love," with a line like "Don't try hiding, 'cause it isn't any use," the first and last words contained dramatic slidings of pitch, and her rhythmic phrasing, as personal and eccentric as it gets, gave the song a near rewriting. She didn't scat, but she swung the lyrics vehemently, and given the song's association with Billie Holiday, one could say that Ms. Mitchell has suddenly emerged as a great jazz singer.
But that limits the point: the way she sang these songs transcends jazz the way Willie Nelson transcends country. The upbeat or faster songs did not quite reach the same mark as the ballads. "Sometimes I'm Happy," with Herbie Hancock sitting in for a piano solo, felt a little too brisk for the size of the band. Finished with the album portion of the concert, Ms. Mitchell went into her own catalog, performing songs that included "Hejira," "Be Cool" and "Judgment of the Moon and Stars."
The show's subtext reverted to the cantankerous Joni Mitchell again: this was the distemperate portion of her show, in which she talked about the difficulty of adapting art to business, mentioned that her heroes, Beethoven and Picasso, were troublemakers, and slipped a hostile lyric about copycat artists into her old antimusic industry song, "For the Roses."
Though the level of Ms. Mitchell's own performance did not waver, something of the concert's conceptual elegance was lost by the end. There were some train wrecks between the orchestra, the bassist Larry Klein and the jazz quintet at the back of the stage in the effort to give the songs a jazz feel. To the Mitchell fans who vociferously pledged their love all the way through, it didn't matter; the house had already long been torn down.