Linda Ronstadt might yet turn out to be one of the most underestimated pop artists of her time.
Aside from influencing an entire generation of female country singers and bravely recording Spanish-language songs two decades before Ry Cooder reconvened the Buena Vista Social Club, it was Ronstadt who taught the remedial class in the Great American Songbook.
Changing the game
In the early '80s, with punk and funk rendering California hippiness and prog-rock pretension, even the revered Joni Mitchell struggled to retain artistic credibility and relevance. While Mitchell attempted to impose her literate romantic riskiness on the blinded-by-science diagrams of such new wave posers as Thomas Dolby, Ronstadt made a bolder move.
Hooking up with Sinatra's most sympathetic arranger, Nelson Riddle, she recorded albums of the very songs rock 'n' roll had buried in the old folks' home.
No one with an ear could argue that Ronstadt's readings of "What's New" and "Little Boy Blue" improved on versions by such big band singers as Anita O'Day or Rosemary Clooney, much less great interpreters as Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Yet the familiarity of her voice, beautiful in its limited way, and the undeniable brilliance of the compositions had subtle impact.
Making a score
Two decades later, everyone's on standard time. Everybody from country cowpokes to opera divas has cozied up to Cole Porter and rendezvoused with Richard Rodgers, so Mitchell's belated dip in the well earlier this year with "Both Sides Now" appeared an afterthought. Only the ornateness of the orchestrations, and the presence of second-generation jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, argued for its significance.
Mitchell is supporting "Both Sides Now" with an undoubtedly expensive tour that stops at Pine Knob on Wednesday. She will be accompanied by a 70-piece orchestra, which would impress even Sinatra and might have thrown Billie Holiday, whose late-period, vulnerable-but-embraceable tone Mitchell emulates on "Both Sides Now," into a full-blown anxiety attack.
What finally separates "Both Sides Now" from Ronstadt's rediscoveries of the greatest songs of the greatest generation is not only Mitchell's lovelorn, lived-in huskiness or her understanding devotion to the mature sentiment of a song.
It's the fact that her most-recorded composition, "Both Sides Now" (which even Sinatra covered), and the even better "A Case of You" turn out to be the best things on Mitchell's standards album.
She's not just revisiting a romantic past; she's invested in its future.
Contact TERRY LAWSON at 313-223-4524.
8 p.m. Wednesday
$55, $75 pavilion only