Joni Mitchell sings mainly two kinds of love songs and star songs. She does them both very well.
In Tuesday night's concert at the Dane County Coliseum, she stayed close to her recorded repertoire of insights into the fleeting and slippery qualities of romance and anecdotes of her reluctance to being a pop star. Performing for close to two hours before about 6,100 enraptured fans, she sang a selective retrospective of her tunes from "Woodstock" to "Raised on Robbery" which is now played on top 40 stations.
She was in good voice, and duplicated her recent recordings with accuracy and energy. To the older tunes, she added vocal embellishments and occasionally some reflective lyrics to place the songs in historical perspective.
If it weren't for some substantial saving graces, Joni Mitchell might just be another sentimental folksinger. Her name has that ring to it- makes you think of a sort of Barbi-doll with long blond hair, a guitar, and an oversimplified social conscience.
Part of her salvation is the way she tests the limits of her voice, dropping within a line from a quasi-falsetto down to her lowest register, then vaulting back up there in the next phrase and expanding the resonance. This odd, but compelling style is coupled with the most distinctive patterns of phrasing in use by probably any singer-songwriter today. The accents never fall where you expect them to. The line often starts early and slurs past the emphasis you expect to a sudden ringing high note, like breathless, almost delirious speech.
The origins aren't clear. She seems to embrace old English or early American balladry and nuances of the current of the current phrasing of jazz improvisations. The jazz undertone is obvious in her backup band, Tom Scott and "L.A. Express" who opened the show with a series of improvisational instrumentals, including John Coltrane's "Dahomey Dance."
Although Scott and the band used a heavy rock.n.roll beat, all of the ensemble work and their solos on guitar, keyboards or any of Scott's various reed or woodwind instruments were out of blues or jazz traditions. Mitchell has also taken to closing her songs with Scott's solos on saxophone, clarinet or manzello.
Joni Mitchell's other great asset is that she is one of the very few songwriters writing lines that can pass for poetry. Her pure romanticism of a few years ago is now giving way to a tougher, disillusioned, although still romantic set of perceptions.
She now follows patly sentimental lines like: "Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine, You taste so bitter and so sweet" with "I could drink a case of you darling and I would still be on my feet."
The best received songs of the show were "Big Yellow Taxi," a genuinely coherent social comment, and "Raised on Robbery," her current hit, which used the entire band at a volume and energy level heard nowhere else in the concert.
For most of the second half the band was idle and Joni accompanied herself on guitar, dulcimer or piano with Scott contributing only a few solos from offstage.
For one encore, Ms. Mitchell sang one song she had not written - "Twisted," a jazz standard recorded by Annie Ross in about 1960. The insertion of that song and her increasing use of a jazz-oriented backup band may suggest the direction her music is taking.
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