Joni Mitchell chose not to release a greatest hits album like everyone else does. No, she opted four years ago to release two career-skimming volumes; "Hits," a collection of treasured classics such as "Court and Spark" and "Yellow Taxi," and "Misses," which rounded up ones that got away, like "Dog Eat Dog" and "Hejira."
She's doing it again, touring with a 70-piece orchestra to perform the two originals and nine standards that comprise her new album, "Both Sides Now," a song cycle about love from the first blush to the last goodbye.
Wednesday's performance at Pine Knob Music Theatre, the penultimate stop on her 12-city "Both Sides Now" tour, was hit and miss.
There were some obvious reasons for this, the most glaring being that the performance, advertised to start at 8 p.m., didn't get underway with her until around 9:30. Her late arrival was blamed by the announcer on a flight delay from Chicago. Must have been stormy weather.
Add to that a voice made husky not so much by years of smoking cigarettes, but on what she called "a rough day."
That rough day took some of the power and edge off a voice as distinctive as a Wynton Marsalis trumpet solo, a voice capable of so much dynamic expression. She couldn't really cut loose, and there were more than a few times when the orchestra, recruited mostly from the Detroit area, simply overpowered her.
The hoarseness, she said, bothered her. So much so, apparently, that she cut the performance short, limiting the second "half" to a mere four songs, no encore. The concert was scheduled to run two hours, plus intermission, but was over after an hour and 40 minutes (plus intermission).
It would seem that when a crowd of about 7,500 shells out $55 and $75 for the privilege of hearing one of their heroes (heck, a folk legend with ties to Detroit), she'd at least gut it out for a couple more songs.
Despite all these drawbacks, Mitchell, conductor/arranger Vince Mendoza and a band that included trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Bob Sheppard (soon to join the Steely Dan tour), drummer Peter Erskine and her producer and former husband, bassist Larry Klein, managed to work occasional magic on a crowd of mostly 40- and 50-somethings who traded in their VWs buses for SUVs.
Though her renditions of pop standards from the '20s through '50s, such as "Stormy Weather" and "You're My Thrill" were polite and elegant, Mitchell seemed to draw the most inspiration from her own work. The prosaic wordplay of her "A Case of You" made it abundantly clear how gifted a lyricist Mitchell really is. A subdued, jazz-flavored reworking of "Both Sides Now" turned a song made treacly years ago by Judy Collins into a wisened, bittersweet reflection.
"Hejira" was hardly the most impressively sung piece, but it energized Mitchell, who wiggled around unselfconsciously.
"For the Roses" and its dramatic plea for art over commerce, ended the concert on a dramatic note, with Mitchell slipping out of the spotlight, as per the song's last lyric, and leaving the stage.
And that was it. Maybe Joni didn't want to be late to her last gig. Maybe the throat bothered her more than she let on. It's unfortunate, because as strong as the performance was at times, it wasn't what it could have been.
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