Stand close to a painting, and colors explode, overwhelming the senses. Stand farther back and relationships develop that you were unable to see close up. Listen to Joni Mitchell's 1967 version of "Both Sides Now" and you hear a song written and performed by a young woman that's an admission: "I really don't know life at all," she sings, partly resigned to it, partly determined to learn more. Then turn to the version on her recent album, aptly titled "Both Sides Now," the simple guitar accompaniment is replaced by lush, slowly bowed strings. The pause between "life" and "at all" more pronounced, like a declaration of independence.
Which brings us to Mitchell's concert at the Greek Theatre on Friday night to promote the album that is mostly a collection of old standards like "At Last" and "Stormy Weather," which the singer/songwriter describes as "a journey through romantic love - from the smitten part to the broken heart."
Accompanied by a full orchestra against a starry backdrop (but a hazy Los Angeles sky), Mitchell in a sweeping puce dress took the stage and launched into "You're My Thrill." Her voice has taken on a huskiness, giving her singing an edge appropriate for this new torch-singer persona. Throughout the evening she usually kept her arms by her side with her elbows bent, her hands giving expression to the songs while her hips and shoulders swayed sensuously to the rhythms.
Though a performer for more than 30 years, Mitchell has never looked entirely comfortable on stage. But the rust that was evident two years ago when she appeared in L.A is gone. She joked with the audience and appeared relaxed, even if were the first night of an 11 city tour. Still it was evident that the music was the important thing, as she would often stand rock still before a song, concentrating as if she were a diver about to do a triple flip with a double twist.
And while Mitchell has ventured into world of jazz before, never in quite this way. She had some great backup, though. Besides the orchestral arrangements, which were beautiful when kept simple, jazz great Herbie Hancock joined her on piano for a few numbers, including "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "I Wish I were in Love Again" while trumpeter/composer Mark Isham was featured on "Comes Love" and "Don't go to Strangers" among others. And musical director Larry Klein played a scintillating bass on one of her encore numbers.
Still, the concert and the album beg the question: Is this a novelty or a new part of Mitchell's career. After all, her performances on these standards aren't likely to make us forget some exquisite versions of them by other singers. Her voice sometimes betrays her, not quite giving a note the fullness it deserves, and a few times she made some odd choices in her phrasing and emphasis.
Nevertheless, this did little to detract from the night. Each song was like another brushstroke, adding to the overall picture, and Mitchell grew more confident in her performance throughout the evening, creating the effect she wanted, whether it was with a standard or a reinterpretation of one of her old songs like "A Case of You." Like all artists, Mitchell as gone through different phases, exploring different forms of music. Some more successful than others. In this one she seems to have has freed herself from her past in order to examine it. Look at the self-portrait on the cover of "Both Side Now," it's not the Mitchell of "Big Yellow Taxi." We now have another side of Joni Mitchell, and Friday's show was an intriguing taste of it.
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