Rock messiahs don't often share the same bill. But Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan — the two most literate musicians of the last 40 years — are following up a series of West Coast shows in the spring with a Northeast swing that brought them to the Garden on Nov. 1.
While Dylan trucks through New York every year, Mitchell has made as many appearances here as the comet Kohoutek. In fact, the Garden show represented her first official Manhattan performance since the '70s. No wonder the audience's opening ovation communicated as much surprise as appreciation.
She rewarded them with a better-paced, more finely sung and more varied performance than earlier shows in L.A. or Woodstock.
Like any artist committed to constant evolution, Mitchell has cast her earlier work in a new light. Her backup band, corralling drums, bass, pedal steel and trumpet, used classic songs as fresh canvases, comprised of small, wet strokes. In Mitchell's skewering of striving materialists, "Harry's House," the trumpet of Chris Botti sketched a dark sky, while Larry Klein's bass rumbled out the shape of a dangerous landscape.
Mitchell's voice has also changed. It's earthier, with more burgundy tones, but still flexible enough to manage the wild terrain of three songs from her epic "Hejira." Mitchell added more upbeat material than usual, including "Free Man in Paris" and "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," which the band whipped into a major rave-up.
She bookended the 15-song set with two 1970 hits, "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock," the latter turned inside out to become a song of botched opportunities. Extending her interest in jazz, Mitchell gave a take on Billie Holiday's "Comes Love," bringing out its full shrugging wit.
Really, the woman should get out more often.
While Dylan hardly ever stays home, Nov. 1's show broke significantly with patterns of his recent live performances. Dylan has been on a roll for most of this decade by playing the most aggressive rock of his career. At the Garden, the band took a far more low-key route, stressing acoustic numbers and more graceful intonations. In "I Want You," he excised the original's sprightly rhythm and played up the gorgeous tune. In "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," he sucked out the sarcasm to go for something strikingly direct.
Dylan's also assumed nearly all the lead-guitar playing, which had force on its side if hardly the technical finesse of head axman Larry Campbell.
But, then, Dylan's uncommonly giddy mood seemed to define this event. He smiled and chatted often and took pains to sing with more care, especially in a surprise cover of Charles Aznavour's "The Times We've Known." A warm and fuzzy messiah? Consider it yet another side of Bob Dylan.