Three years ago, the incomparable Joni Mitchell appeared at a unique benefit concert for Don Henley's Thoreau Institute at Los Angeles' Wiltern Theater. Dubbed Stormy Weather, the one-off event featured a top-notch roster of novelles chanteuses, from Steve Nicks and Natalie Cole to Gwen Stefani and Bjork, delivering robust rethinkings of pop standards.
The reclusive Mitchell closed the show -- and, shockingly, offered the least memorable performance.
Given how ill-suited the material was to her increasingly esoteric, anti-verse-chorus-verse style, it's somewhat surprising to hear Mitchell in rare form on "Both Sides Now," an elegant and often moving 12-track collection of jazz-era greats.
Clearly some of the success has to do with the selections: "You're My Thrill," "You've Changed," "Don't Worry 'Bout Me," the infinitely transmutable "Stormy Weahter" -- these are moodly, forlorn numbers that all but howl for Joni's now-cigarette-husky seductiveness.
Where once she might have approached these tracks with chirpy confidence, now she sidles up to them with a ruminative voice that has gone to the other side of regret and come back to share details.
None of her choices here is upbeat, and even the obvious ones (Etta James' signature tune "At Last," for instance) are reworked so that their foreboding nature is as front and center as their timeless melodies. And in two remarkable instances, Mitchell toys with two of her own classics '' "A Case of You," from 1971's "Blue," whose lyrics still read like a latter-day Cole Porter, and the title track, that '60s war-horse that Judy Collins made famous.
It's on "Both Sides Now," slowed to a haunting dirge tempo, its transitions enriched with melancholy strings, that Mitchell proves she can take a vanity concept and wring some magic out of it.
This is deeply engaging listening, no doubt. It's just not as daring as we've come to expect from Joni Mitchell.