Maybe because Joni Mitchell is one of the most important songwriters of her generation, it's a little disappointing that her latest career move is dusting off cabaret standards and love songs.
At the Theater at Madison Square Garden Monday for the first of a two-night engagement, Mitchell's performance ranged from pretty to pretty boring.
She is a songwriter and a singer, but not a great stylist or interpreter. You don't have to look beyond her own career to realize that the best-known versions of her own songs - including the title track to her new album "Both Sides Now"- are by other artists.
Making matters worse was Vince Mendoza, whose heavy-handed conducting and saccharine string treatments for the 70-piece backup band often overpowered Mitchell and the jazz group, which was also on stage through the evening.
When you consider the jazz ensemble was a powerhouse, including pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Chuck Berghofer, drummer Peter Erskine and trumpet ace Mark Isham, one has to wonder why Mitchell needed the orchestra at all.
Mendoza and company were musically flaccid, dead weight that crushed Mitchell's performance and made no real room for any of these jazz greats to be great.
The reason to hear performers such as Mitchell and Hancock is because they are thinkers who are able to move within the music, improvise and make it all seem effortless.
For them to appear in this symphonic formation must have been incredibly restricting.
And, as if she were singing along to a pre-recorded track, it seemed as if Mitchell had to pursue the band to keep up. The night's rendition of "Stormy Weather" was a good example of this.
The orchestra worked the classic according to the sheet music, yet when Mitchell attempted to interject a bluer mood through variations in the tempo, her efforts were thwarted.
The fans loved "Stormy Weather" anyway and rewarded it with some of the evening's biggest applause. What wasn't clear was if the cheers were because of the major song-recognition factor or Mitchell's delivery.
But no tune during this event - including her own "A Case of You" and "Both Sides Now," two of the night's better moments - ever raised goosebumps.
"I'm glad I saw this," one Mitchell fan said while leaving the theater. "I don't think I'd want to see it again."
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Added to Library on June 13, 2000. (7447)
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