Joni Mitchell was received like royalty by a sold out audience at the fleet boston pavilion sunday, and she deserved every ounce of adulation - not only for being the musical poet laureate of a generation, but for the uncompromising, adventurous spirit that has taken her away from the singer-songwriter masterpieces for which she is beloved, and deeper and deeper into the world of jazz.
Jazz flavors can be traced all the way back to 1974's "court and spark" and mitchell's next studio album, "the hissing of summer lawns", was a bold turn toward avant-garde-inspired experimentation. since then, she's collaborated predominantly with jazz players. so it's no great surprise that mitchell's new album, "both sides now", is a full embrace of 20th century jazz standards (plus a pair of originals). she performed the entire album in order, backed by a shimmering 70-piece orchestra, and for good reason. the songs trace the arc of a modern romantic relationship, from flirtation (you're my thrill) through consummation (at last) to disillusionment (you've changed) despair (don't go to strangers) and finally, a semblance of philosophical perspective, crystallized in heartbreaking shades of real life grays on the singer's own classic, "both sides now".
At 56, Mitchell is an innate jazz singer. her technical range is narrow, but her sense of feel and phrasing flows from pure intuition , and years of smoking, has left her with a deep, dusky instrument that seems made for the langorous ballads that dominated her set. in fact, the one strike against the two hour show (including an intermission) was its pace, which was in perpetual low gear. but mitchell, ever the iconoclast, would be the last to ascribe to a conventional notion of dynamic pacing. showmanship has never been the point. so with her fingers fluttering and wrapped head to toe in resplendent hues of apricot and red, mitchell simply sang the songs in the deep, knowing tones of a seasoned romantic.
and she made us feel, which was always the point. while the orchestra summoned both the lush emotion and delicate nuance of the songs' poetry, mitchell's still bright timbre lit up the joyous and melancholy words - among the few that rival her own for sheer poignance and savvy - her ravaged vibrato the punctuation to every phrase.
she transformed the album's two original compositions from quiet folk anthems to luminous epics. "a case of you" - the familiar dulcimer strains changed to ethereal strings, a mournful clarinet, and swirling brushes on a drum - fit into the romance cycle roughly midway throught the disillusionment phase when, as mitchell put it: "tender entreaties have failed and it's time to head for the bar." "both sides now", the sage, bittersweet finish to the song cycle, was a revelation: a timeless meditation that's as true and telling today as it was 31 years ago. but the real beauty was in how the song - like mitchell, like the rest of us - has grown up, textured now with haunting new harmonies and rich, complex swells.
Mitchell's "good friend and ex husband" larry klein, also her producer and musical director, came out to play stunning bass parts during the encore numbers: a playful "be cool", which will be on the upcoming follow up to both sides now, imperially moody reworkings of "judgement of the moon and stars", and "for the roses", both indictments of the music business - a densely layered read on "hejira" and finally, marvin gayes own industry kiss off, "trouble man".
fans were understandably thrilled to hear the older songs. but it was equally thrilling to realize - witnessing the transliteration of mitchell's songs from the simple alphabet of a gentle lullabye to the dazzling language of a symphony - how magnificent these songs always were, and how gifted a musician mitchell continues to be.