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Uneven evening with Joni Mitchell   Print

by Philip Elwood
San Francisco Examiner
May 15, 2000

TITLED "Both Sides Now," as is her new CD, composer-singer Joni Mitchell's musical road show presentation Saturday at Concord's Chronicle Pavilion prompted one to wonder whether the intention was to present both sides of Mitchell's career -- which is actually multifaceted in the extreme -- or was that title, her most popular song (from 1968) employed to lure 21st century pop music fans, old and young, into what her musical director Larry Klein has called "the focal point of (Joni's) work -- an inquiry into the nature of modern love."

Whatever, Saturday night at 8:40 when Mitchell finally arrived on stage -- following a long, lush, innocuous overture by the 80-piece (mostly string) orchestra -- she reflected, in her typical meandering way, on "the arc of a modern romantic relationship" and then began to follow that arc in vintage pop songs, nine of them in all.

A half-dozen of these, from "You're My Thrill" to "A Case of You" (her only original in this sequence) traced the "romantic arc" through the relationship Mitchell then followed with "Don't Go to Strangers," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," and "Don't Worry 'Bout Me," at which point she strolled off stage; following her was conductor Vince Mendoza, pianist Herbie Hancock -- who played occasionally -- and the ridiculously large orchestra.

Three more songs from this arc-of-an-affair began the evening's second set -- "Stormy Weather," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," and "Both Sides Now," the last exquisitely phrased, and newly rearranged; it was received, from the first notes, with shrieks, cheers and howls of joy by a good portion of the nearly 6,00 in the audience,

Mitchell first came on stage to cheers, but as she wended her way, after "You're My Thrill," sung in a Billie Holiday manner (Mitchell's range is as narrow as Billie's), "At Last," "Comes Love," with Mark Isham on trumpet, and "You've Changed," another Billie Holiday-influenced rendition, the crowd's enthusiasm waned.

As became obvious after the agonizing, plaintive "Answer Me, My Love" -- with fine sax interludes by Bob Sheppard -- when Mitchell commented, "By now, it's time for a drink," then launched into her fine original, "A Case of You," the audience had come to hear her stuff, not swing-era oldies.

The hundreds of Joni cultists in the crowd went berserk during "A Case of You," cooled off considerably until "Both Sides Now" and had a field-day of enthusiasm for the rest of the evening as she sang, or narrated through quite a few oldies in the "Case of You," "Urge For Going" "Crazy Ride Home" style; missing, sadly, was "The Circle Game."

Throughout the evening, the amplified mix of voice and orchestra was imbalanced; on most selections Mitchell's lyric articulation was submerged in the sea of strings, to say nothing of bassoons, French horns, and miscellaneous percussion -- Peter Erskine was on drums, Chuck Berghofer on bass.

Mitchell's performance style and her open-ended poetic lines -- sung non-melodically over a flowing, modal, accompaniment -- create a mystical atmosphere; those who cheered her every number as the show climaxed had known her old LPs' words, by heart, for years.

Others in the crowd, caught up in the rally-like enthusiasm of the super fans, sensed the mood of Mitchell's poetic lyric lines but lost most them in the audio overkill .

Although the "Both Sides Now" CD features overblown orchestral arrangements, they're well balanced with Mitchell's voice. This tour, which has just begun, might well replace the full orchestral backing of her older songs with a smaller, lighter, backup instrumental group.

 

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