It takes a leap of faith for an artist to leave behind her songbook of hits
and ask an audience to join her on a different musical journey.
But that's what Joni Mitchell did Wednesday night at the MARS Music
Amphitheatre, trading her folk-pop aesthetic for a concert devoted to
romantic standards. In this case, however, that leap of faith seemed more an
act of self-indulgence.
It's not that Mitchell doesn't have the chops for this material. Her music
has always had a jazzy sensibility. And her voice, an instrument saturated in
smoke, recalls Billie Holiday in its best moments. She doesn't sing as much
as she coolly wraps herself around a song -- the musical equivalent of a cat
claiming your lap as a bed.
Even more to the point, Mitchell's latest album is devoted to this material
-- and it's a testament to her fertile imagination. As she describes it, the
recording traces "the arc of romantic love," from infatuation to
consummation. The material is classic: At Last, You've Changed, Sometimes I'm
Happy, Stormy Weather, etc., plus Mitchell's own A Case of You and Both Sides
Now lovingly rearranged for full orchestra.
But when Mitchell sang some of these same songs -- and others -- at MARS, it
didn't quite have the same effect. You could blame the orchestra, a group of
local musicians -- basically, an uncredited Boca Pops -- that didn't swing
with the requisite big-band flavor.
You could blame the venue: It was a crisp night made for music outdoors, but
this concert seemed conceived for the indoors (and given that it didn't draw
more than 5,000, why wasn't it at the Kravis Center?).
But the larger share of blame rested with Mitchell: It's OK to take chances,
but the attitude that emanated on stage was one of defiance to her loyal fan
base. Granted, the concert wasn't promoted as an evening of greatest hits,
but even when Mitchell stayed true to her concept, she rarely seemed into it.
By contrast, when Bruce Springsteen went off on a solo acoustic tour a few
years back -- a daring move for an artist who can fill stadiums -- he had a
whale of a time. And when Barry Manilow played MARS just a couple of months
ago, he showed how a pop star can use an orchestra to his advantage, even in
an outdoor setting.
Mitchell didn't find a way to gel with her audience -- or her band. The
result was a very long evening by a very great artist.