On Joni Mitchell's first headlining tour in decades, they're yelling for "California," for "Help Me." They're not getting it.
On the 13-city orchestral tour that stops at the SNET Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford Saturday, Mitchell, at 56, is sticking to the formal presentation of her album of romantic standards from the 20th Century, "Both Sides Now," which includes only a couple of her own songs.
It's difficult enough to fulfil requests when there is a 70-piece orchestra to consider.
What's more, the rarely touring Mitchell says she doesn't like much to revisit her older songs - classics that have become part of the American pop landscape.
"First of all, my voice has changed," she told the Austin Chronicle in 1998. "Secondly, the way I played guitar then is completely foreign to me. I have no idea how I did it."
"I never wanted to be a human jukebox," she said. "I think more like a film or dramatic actress and a playwright. Those plays are more suitable to me. I feel miscast in my early songs. They are ingenue roles."
Under the Influence of Joni
Joni Mitchell cast such a long shadow over pop music in the last part of the 20th Century that it would be tough to imagine the careers of the artists pictured here (Fiona Apple, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan and Prince), or even Lilith Fair itself, if it weren't for her early albums.
Lilith organiser Sarah McLachlan used to play "River" early in her career, the kind of piano and introspection she continued through her most recent platinum material. Fiona Apple's music tends to echo old Joni Mitchell as well, especially when she is playing her revealing, lyric songs on piano.
Jewel, with her blond hair and folk guitar, is the very picture of female folk singer that Mitchell struck in the early sixties. Like Mitchell, Jewel began in clubs, expanded her style and acquired a devoted roster of fans.
But Mitchell has bristled at any comparisons with the artists. "I've had girls come up to me and say how influenced they are by me, and then the get up and play, and they sound like the Indigo Girls!" she exclaimed to England's MOJO magazine in 1994. On the title track to her 1998 "Taming the Tiger" album, she sings of "formula music, girlie guile, genuine junk food for juveniles.."
"I'm honoured to he an influence," she said elsewhere. "But I'm less likely to be influence by a tributary of myself."
Prince has always claimed Mitchell as a main influence as well.
"He sent me a song once called 'You are my Emotional Pump, you make my Body Jump.' I called him up and said, 'I can't sing this.'" Mitchell told MOJO. "He's a strange little duck, but I like him."
That said, her presentation of American standards on the recent album and current tour put her in a kind of acting role as well. "As a singer, if you separate all these things, just forget Joni the writer, because I write these kinds of soliloquies which take more dramatic skills than vocal skills," she says. "You have to enact them, like an actress, as opposed to just singing a mood piece. So I need a break from my own music."
If she has been taking a break, she was fully reacquainted with her music last month when she was honoured in a televised tribute during which stars Elton John, James Taylor, k.d. lang and others sang old songs like "River," "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris." But gracious as she was in that show, mostly in the audience, Mitchell has always been one to doggedly follow her own course, no matter what fans or the marketplace demand.
The first hint of her doing cover songs came in 1998 at a Don Henley benefit for Walden Woods in Los Angeles, where she sang "Stormy Weather" and Marvin Gaye's "Trouble man," backed by a full orchestra. She sand two standards, "The Man I love" and "Summertime," on the Grammy-winning Herbie Hancock album "Gershwin's World."
And rediscovering Billie Holiday, she adapted "Comes Love" into the 1998 tour she played with Bob Dylan, and, one the West Coast, with Van Morrison.
If long-time Mitchell fans were looking for nuggets from the past, incidentally, those were the shows to see. With a lower vocal range and a jazzier approach, these were not note perfect reproductions of the classics so many loved. But the material was there nonetheless, from "Big Yellow Taxi" to open and "Woodstock" to close, with gems like "Free Man in Paris" and "Amelia" in between.
The tour had a rocky start out West, when she was also battling with illness. But, she said in press materials, "It was so liberating just to be a singer standing there with the band and not have to worry about anything else. Dylan approached me later and said, 'Where'd you get that new voice?' I didn't realise it sounded so different, but that's what the genre does. It's a different style melodically, with a simpler spirit than my own songs, which sometimes aren't so much about singing as telling a story well."
"Comes Love" didn't end up on the orchestral album (…yes it did - Ed), but three other songs Holiday crooned so memorably did: "You're my Thrill," "You've Changed" and "Stormy Weather."
The songs appear in that order on the album to help track what Mitchell calls the "romantic arc" of a single relationship.
"I've always used my albums as a way to tell a story, to take the listener on a trip." Mitchell says in press materials that accompany the album. "I wanted this one to develop sequentially, with a beginning, middle and an end, telling the story of what two people in love take each other through."
The telling of the rise and fall of a relationship includes a stop at the bar midway to take stock during "A Case of You." Instead of hearing her sing it solo with the dulcimer on her lap, though, this song is backed by full orchestral force, something that carries her on.
"Singing my own material, I often worked on not being a showy singer," Mitchell says. "The point was to deliver the text with emotional honesty, and because of the density of the lyrics there was no room for embellishing. But this music allows the voice to string out like fishing line and ride the curves like a surfer. And when you're singing with and orchestra, and all that brass swells up, you've got no choice but to let it carry you, to sing louder and brighter and do things you maybe never did before. Most pop music is very compressed and even, but when you're out there in front of all those instruments and you hear that huge sound coming at you, it's a thrilling Big Kahuna moment."
The big swell begins with the opening moments of the concert. The overture, conducted by Connecticut-born arranger Vince Mendoza, is Debussy's "Nuages." ("Clouds," get it?)
And when the 12 song set from the album is over, Mitchell switches gears from what she had been calling an "old-fashioned romance" to her screed against the music industry. The good news for fans is that it is taken from most of her own catalogue - "Be Cool" from 1991 "Wild Things Run Fast"; "Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)2 and title track from the 1972 "For the Roses"; the title track of her 1976 album "Hejira"; as well as another cover of Gaye's "Trouble Man."
Continuing to use the orchestra, although a jazz ensemble moves up to be featured here and there, the entire approach is a quarter century away from the still-folkie approach she had last time Mitchell played these parts - nearly 25 years ago as member of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, with a half dozen stops within an hour from Hartford in a six week period in late 1975. Mitchell, fresh from her "Hissing of Summer Lawns" album, was among a cast that included Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and Ramblin' Jack Elliot.
Yet, "Both Sides Now," the song that not only serves as the cap to the album and its title, is one of her best known old songs, which takes on a greater meaning.
"I wrote it when I was 21 and was really steeped in the classics of the genre," Mitchell says. "It's a kind of philosophical song that rounds out the cloudscape."