Contributing Editor Frank Tortorici reports Joni Mitchell's once-breathless soprano has turned into a husky alto. To show off her mature voice, she's retired her guitar and piano and has begun covering jazz-pop standards. But as she showed Monday night at New York's Theater at Madison Square Garden, that doesn't mean she's letting her own material gather dust.
On the fifth show of a 12-city tour, the 56-year-old singer/songwriter performed her latest album, Both Sides Now, in sequence, in its entirety, backed by a 70-piece orchestra. The album features 10 remakes of songs popularized in the pre-rock era and two Mitchell originals transformed for full orchestra.
Though she is one of pop's most adventurous artists, having explored jazz, soul and rock, Mitchell's cult of fans stems mostly from her years as a folk-inspired singer/songwriter in the late '60s and early '70s. Monday's concert was another matter entirely. The concept of the evening was to document the arc of a romantic relationship — from exciting start to depressing end — through some of the 20th century's most vivid love songs.
Following a lengthy overture, conducted by Vince Mendoza, Mitchell entered, crooning "You're My Thrill" in a sultry, throaty purr. She clutched and pulled the sides of her flowing lavender dress continuously as she emoted.
"Some say romantic love died in the '80s with the coming of the punks," she told the audience. "Tonight, we're gonna take an old-fashioned journey into romantic love."
During "Comes Love," popularized by Billie Holiday, Mitchell bobbed her head back and forth and swiveled her hips suggestively to the twisting rhythm.
The two Mitchell originals on Both Sides Now — the oft-recorded title track (RealAudio excerpt) and the lovestruck "A Case of You" — were re-created precisely, and Mitchell seemed to be energized from singing her own lyrics. Her expressive face changed along with the latter song's intense, conflicted emotions.
"You're in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet, oh I could drink a case of you, darling, and still be on my feet," she sang, her large eyes alternately closing and looking up as if searching for divine intervention.
Mitchell handled the more upbeat numbers, including "Sometimes I'm Happy" and Rodgers and Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again," with equal aplomb. She sashayed in place as guest Herbie Hancock played the piano with speed and finesse.
The final portion of the evening featured Mitchell performing orchestral versions of some of her songs not included on the new album.
For the first time, fans heard the languid "Hejira" — the title track of her jazzy 1976 masterpiece — backed by a bevy of strings. Musical director (and Mitchell's ex-husband) Larry Klein replicated the drooping bass lines that late master Jaco Pastorius created on the album, and trumpeter Mark Isham peppered the moody tune with high notes. Though her attempt was admirable in its ambition, Mitchell ran into trouble on "Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)," her ode to Beethoven from the 1972 album For the Roses. On the album version, she employed her voice as an instrument, projecting her highest pitch to match the woodwinds that danced around the track. But in concert, with her now-limited range, she used the darker character and texture of her voice to emphasize the song's musical and emotional complexities. Lacking the simplicity and directness of the '40s-era standards, "Ludwig's Tune" came across with the exaggerated drama of a bad Broadway musical number.
Mitchell's breezy originals came off better, including the obscure "Be Cool," from her R&B-oriented 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast, as well as the encore, a take on Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man." During the last song of the second set, everything jelled beautifully.
"For the Roses," Mitchell's tale of dealing with the harsh realities of rock stardom, seemed more majestic, with the orchestra's strings and brass sections replacing the album's lone acoustic guitar. "They toss around your latest golden egg, speculation, well who's to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so," she sang. The lyrics seemed especially poignant now that Mitchell has put her much-lauded songwriting on hiatus.
Fans Show Mixed Reaction
Shouts of "Joni, I love you" and "You go, girl" showed that many fans are willing to follow Mitchell down whatever musical path she takes them. "Joni, your album rocks!" screamed a fan in the audience. "It swings, too," Mitchell answered from the stage.
Still for others, old memories die hard. "Joni is the greatest artist," said 43-year-old Jean Traina of New York. "But she should have encored with a couple of oldies," chimed in Traina's friend, Janice Blau, 43. The two, who had first seen Mitchell together at the University of Maryland in 1975, had waited 25 years to hear the old hits again.
Nancy Siegal, a 33-year-old New Yorker, shared a similar sentiment. "I've been listening to her since I was a little kid," she said after the concert. "I wish she came out with her guitar and played some old stuff."