"Tonight, my roots are showing," Joni Mitchell told the small but enthusiastic crowd at Camden's Waterfront Entertainment Centre Friday night.
She wasn’t talking hair color. Though Mitchell is known for her exacting accounts of the raptures and agonies of love, she’s always been a student of jazz and classic torch song, and has allowed those languages to enrich her compositions. After winding through the languid opener “You’re My Thrill” with a 70-piece orchestra, she explained that on her most recent album, Both Sides Now, and this tour, her idea was to use standards, and several of her own songs, to trace the arc of a relationship from first flicker to final ember.
Complaining that “science has reduced romance to a trick of nature,” Mitchell told the crowd that her goal was to reclaim love’s mysteries. She then introduced the second song, “At Last,” by setting the scene: “Now we’re smitten, and we celebrate that fact.”
At first these explanatory riffs were welcome. But pretty soon they became tedious - a little like hearing Mitchell give a Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra lecture on love songs. By describing the emotional landscapes, and explaining precisely where in the narrative arc she was each time, she put romance under a different kind of microscope, and at times diminished the nuances and contradictory undercurrents of the songs:Where others have interpreted “You’ve Changed” as a generalized lament, for her it describes a clear turning point.
Still, Mitchell’s treatment of “You’ve Changed” was a magnificent study in contrasts. Some phrases arrived in a deep and enveloping Billie Holiday blue, others were marked by pencil-sketch precision. Sometimes she articulated the half steps of the melodies cleanly, other times she smeared them together in grand glassandos.
And where many pop singers have approached torch songs with an intent to dazzle, Mitchell played everything cool. She thought lots about what not to sing, and as a result her phrases were elegant miniatures, triumphs of understatement that sometimes rode atop the orchestra’s crescendos and sometimes existed in a separate universe.
Mitchell was about halfway through her second set when she finished with the love-song cycle. She then turned her attention to what she called her “obscure and difficult material,” and this offered several surprises, including the encore, a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” and a gorgeous treatment of the intricate title track from Hejira. This surging tone poem utilized the colors of the orchestra brilliantly, and suggested that should Mitchell want to explore the large-canvas approach further, she’s got plenty of material that’s well suited to it.