It was a gutsy move in the '70s for Joni Mitchell to shrug off her folk-pop crown to delve into jazz, painting and whatever artistic avenue she chose.
It's gutsier still to take the concert stage nearly a quarter-century later and do something even more unexpected at age 56.
Mitchell may have won her devoted fans and her place in history with her deft and introspective lyrics. But her current album and tour, although named after one of her oldest and best-known songs, "Both Sides Now," actually is a salute to romantic standards of the 20th century.
In her elegant, often stunning show at the SNET Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on Saturday - her first Connecticut appearance in decades - Mitchell explored what she called the story of a relationship, from its giddy first days, to confusion and finally retreat. To do so, she used some great songs from the repertoires of Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and, in a couple of instances, Joni Mitchell.
It's startling at first, but unsurprising on reflection, to discover what's happened to Mitchell's voice over the years - and after cases of cigarettes. No longer a high and clear trill, it's low and dusky, reflecting a wealth of experience to inform the songs. Her whole role on stage had changed, from folk waif to wizened woman - her cheekbones bespeaking Lauren Bacall, and with the wiggle and odd allure of Marlene Dietrich. Her reincarnation as interpretive singer would work well with just a small jazz combo, and indeed it did when her traveling musicians stepped forward. But the immense orchestra on stage added a deeper and richer coloration. Hardly ever did it seem to drown out the singer, as it sometimes does on the recording.
The liveliest arrangements of Connecticut-born Vince Mendoza, who also conducted, added a Nelson Riddle pizazz similar to the in-studio orchestral work of Sinatra in the '60s. (It sort of looked like a studio, too, with each instrument individually miked).
Hats off to the Connecticut audience, which was hip to the format and didn't keep shouting for "Woodstock." Audience members applauded the nervy reinterpretations of Holiday's "You've Changed," but saved their warmest appreciation for Mitchell's own songs.
"A Case of You" carried a newfound pang of regret; "Both Sides Now" a depth of consideration only hinted in the original. And the four Mitchell songs near the end of the show - including such high-water marks as "Hejira" (with Larry Klein doing the Jaco Pastorius bass parts) and "For the Roses" should have satisfied fans starving for more of her own material.
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