Mitchell gives torch songs a new glow at MSG concert
It had to happen: The boomer generation's bard of love, Joni Mitchell, had to tackle torch-song classics.
Now she has.
Mitchell's new album, named for her old hit "Both Sides Now," centers on love standards, mainly from the '30s, '40s and '50s. She performed those pieces, and some classics of her own, at the Theater in Madison Square Garden Monday and Tuesday joined by a tight jazz combo (featuring Herbie Hancock and Mark Isham) and surrounded by a 71-piece orchestra.
Mitchell's unique approach to croonable hits has not been easy to warm up to. It took this critic no fewer than 10 hard listens to fall for the LP. Too bad I reviewed it, with sorrowful disappointment, five listens in. Luckily, late-arriving love can cut the deepest, and I swooned for her display on Monday.
Appearing in a billowing magenta gown, the 56-year-old Mitchell made the most of her technically narrowing instrument. As a lifelong smoker, every cigarette she ever puffed has left its mark on her voice. Of course, there's a long history of older singers using their flaws to highlight the richness of their experiences. Late-period Billie Holiday leaps to mind. Similarly, at the Garden theater, Mitchell's shorter breath and huskier throat brought the audience closer and made her seem even more the battered authority on love's risks and rewards.
The show, divided into two 55-minute segments, found Mitchell first performing every song from the new album â€” in order. She had to do it that way. The 12 songs off "Both Sides Now" trace the arc of a romance, moving from infatuation to rejection to healing. Tellingly, only the first two songs found the singer happy.
After a long orchestral introduction full of foreboding and intrigue, Mitchell crooned "You're My Thrill" with resilient wonder. She expressed relief in "At Last." Mitchell next communicated all the witty doom of "Comes Love," a song made famous by Holiday and treating love as an incurable illness. Just four songs in, Mitchell declared "You've Changed."
In every song, the singer drew on her long infatuation with jazz inflections. She also performed two numbers she wrote and included on the new CD. Mitchell turned "A Case Of You" from a soaring folk piece into a woozy jazz ballad. In the song "Both Sides Now," which completed the album portion of the program, she exuded an unsettling wisdom.
Mitchell sang six pieces not included on the CD. She proved she could be playful in her '80s jazz swing piece "Be Cool." Otherwise, she kept the mood yearning or troubled. Her performance of "Hejira" used Larry Klein's questioning bass to put a fire under the orchestra. She made even grander use of the players in "Judgment of the Moon and Stars," her stirring song of support to uncompromising souls.
With typical defiance, Mitchell ended the evening with "For the Roses," one of her best kiss-offs to the music business. Through its radical rearrangement, Mitchell proved yet again her commitment to challenge and change - the two things she values as highly as love.
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