There are only a few artists who, at some point in their career, take on the responsibility of becoming such a legend in their time that their performance almost takes a back seat to their presence.
It was like that with Bob Dylan in '73 and like that with Joni Mitchell in '79.
She appeared like a mirage Wednesday night, strutting in from the wings and onto the Greek Theater stage, with an electric guitar slung over her shoulder to perform her anthem to ecology, "Big Yellow Taxi." Her rendition was somewhat blasé; an obligatory handling of a song that she must have felt was needed to get the sold-out audience's attention.
BUT…Ms. Mitchell was just getting warmed up. Drawing from a gigantic repertoire, she selected the sultry "Just Like this Train" from her "Court and Spark" album. She followed with more of the popular songs from recent albums. They were tunes that were meant to calm the people who might have been a little leery of her dedicating the entire evening to material from her latest project with Charlie Mingus. She got into that later.
In the meantime, Ms. Mitchell performed an intense, though instrumentally sparse version of "Coyote," a beautiful "Edith and the Kingpin" and a vibrant "Free Man in Paris."
The material from the "Mingus" album was more delightful live than it is on vinyl. She performed two songs from the album, both co-written with Mingus. "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and the witty "Dry Cleaner from Des Moines." Sandwiched between the tunes was an impressive and surprisingly entertaining bass solo by Jaco Pastorius (who, with the extraordinary guitarist Pat Metheny was the cornerstone of Ms. Mitchell's five-piece backup band).
"AMELIA," performed about midway through her two-hour set, was the highlight of the evening with Ms. Mitchell singing one of her prettiest songs in a voice that was just right.
The concert took a momentary downhill run after that. Ms. Mitchell performed an inane, percussion-laden "Dreamland," the kind of song that compelled her erstwhile fans to leap off her bandwagon in droves with the release of her strange "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" LP. She then plodded through a relentlessly slow version of "Furry Sings the Blues" before returning to the "Mingus" album for "God Must Be a Boogie Man."
She closed the set on a couple of very good notes. First, a rousing rock 'n' roll rendition of "Raised on Robbery." The Persuasions, who opened for her Wednesday night, joined Ms. Mitchell to close her set with a haunting a capella version of "Shadows and Light," a song that could replace "Amazing Grace" as the perennial show stopper.
For her encores, Ms. Mitchell chose her near-perfect tear-jerker, "The Last Time I Saw Richard," a camp handling (again joined by the Persuasions) of the old rocker, "Why do Fools Fall in Love?," and, in a tribute to the event's 10th anniversary, a nostalgic performance of "Woodstock."
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