She was wearing a 1940-ish black suit with padded shoulders, her hair concealed under a wide-brimmed gangster hat. In her quasi-masculine garb, she looked and moved like a jazz singer, a stark image of chic decadence.
But, like the changing images in her songs, she shed the hat after six tunes, and later the suit coat, opening the concert experience to a spectrum of emotions.
This was Joni Mitchell — but certainly not the straight-haired, angelic-voiced folkie her oldest fans must now remember rather than expect.
Performing at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium Thursday, Joni showed that she is an evolving creature, reluctant to be saddled in one manner of expression.
For years, Joni was the darling of folk audiences — the vulnerable girl willing to confess sins as well as hopes in her poetic lyrics. “We love you, Joni,” people would yell at concerts.
There was little of that at Thursday’s sold-out performance.
Through most of her three hours on stage, she was backed by The LA Express — a powerful group — providing the jazzy pop sound that emerged in the COURT AND SPARK album three years ago.
Now in her early 30’s, Joni radiates a womanly maturity. Her choice of songs portrayed the sensuality and searching of a world-wise artist who now seeks to apply her personal experiences to more universal human conditions.
Songs from THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS, her first album of all-new material since 1973, marks this new direction.
Shades Of Scarlet Conquering, performed solo on the piano to a hushed audience, spoke of feminism, the “beauty and madness” of “a woman who must have everything.”
In Harry’s House-Centerpiece, Joni painted a classic image of the affluent, suburban husband caught up in his work, his wife pacified by materialism. She lyrically evoked praises of love from the husband, but shattered it with the lyric:
“I’m building my dreams around you… ‘Cause nothing is any good without you. Baby you’re my centerpiece.”
While Joni seems to be applying her art to a larger scale, her approach maintains its dual outlook — beauty and meaning in both the good and the evil, in joy and sadness.
When she performed For Free, an early work on the freedom of a street musician, she broke into a monologue, telling the audience how a street musician in New York had inspired the song when she saw him with his clarinet on Eight Street every day.
One day the musician showed up on the corner without his instrument, holding a tin cup and wearing a sign reading “I’m Blind,” she said. She learned that his instrument had been damaged, so “because he inspired the song,” she bought him a new clarinet and had a friend deliver it.
The musician never used it, opting instead to continue with the blind-man front.
“My friend told me,” Joni said, “that I was kind of naïve. So that’s the reality of the song and the story. Now you have the romance and the reality.”