She may have changed her act a bit, but fans embraced her like she was singing old favorites.
"You've changed," Joni Mitchell sang Saturday night at the Chronicle Pavilion at Concord.
Look who's talking. The Mitchell who took the Pavilion stage that night was almost completely different musically from the Mitchell who first made her mark on popular music more than 30 years ago.
First there was the voice. The ethereal, loop-de-loop soprano has been replaced by a rich, earthy alto.
Then there was the accompaniment. Instead of a single, spare guitar line there was a full orchestra. And in case that wasn't enough firepower, several songs featured Herbie Hancock on piano and Mark Isham on trumpet.
Finally, there were the songs. A singer/songwriter famous for her idiosyncratic and highly personal folk-pop songs was content to spend most of the evening singing the songs of others, songs that have become standards because of their universal sweep.
The one thing that hasn't changed is the subject matter: love. Love in all its stages, from blissful discovery to obsessive fear to total heartbreak. Mitchell got a kick out of reminding her audience that the songs were going to start out rosy and quickly turn thorny. She took the crowd through a brutal arc that began with "You're My Thrill" and hit bottom in a screaming nose-dive just three songs later with "You've Changed."
She did it with a devilish glee that nearly made her crack up at the beginning of that last one. Mitchell was clearly having a good time, and she seemed totally at ease on stage. As well she should have been: It was a triumphant performance.
Mitchell proved herself capable of doing the chanteuse thing on classics from "Don't Go to Strangers" to "Stormy Weather." She played them all entirely straight, borrowing from a long torch-song tradition rather than trying to mold them into Joni songs. And she showed evidence of her long love affair with jazz on swinging numbers like "Sometimes I'm Happy," which had a light and breezy air in no small part thanks to Herbie Hancock's guest appearance at the piano.
It was especially interesting to see her reinvent her own classics. The arrangement of "Case of You" suggested the kind of pieces Samuel Barber might have come up with if he'd been a pop-song writer. Misty, mournful cathedral strings carried the song along, with Mitchell's crystalline vocals glimmering through. Rearranged for orchestra, the song had the abstract shape of Mitchell's later music.
So did "Both Sides Now," which was the emotional climax of the concert even though a number of songs followed. Mitchell's original version got much of its power from its starkness. The new one allowed the lushness of the orchestra to buoy it aloft on a cloud of sad, tender feeling. Mark Isham's trumpet was perfect here, adding just a few subtle brushstrokes of steely wistfulness.
The song ended in a standing ovation that went on and on and on. Mitchell may have changed, but her fans were ready to accept and enjoy the new person she's become. Now that's love.