From the moment he cranked up "Absolutely Sweet Marie," Bob Dylan took command of the pop music summit with Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison on Tuesday at San Jose Arena.
Some big reputations were on the line as the three iconic musicians passed through town on a series of seven joint West Coast dates. A capacity crowd of almost 14,000 was on hand -- including Bruce Springsteen, in town visiting his mother.
After a stiff, almost perfunctory show by Morrison and an incomprehensible set by Mitchell, it was left to Dylan to salvage the evening.
And he did. In spades.
Wearing silver-studded black pants, black jacket and string tie, Dylan put his whole body into his music, turning his ankles, bending his knees, almost dancing in tiny steps. His ripping four-man band followed his every flinch as they blasted through a 70-minute set of pure gold.
These are heady days for Dylan. Once again he has battled his way back to the top, a long climb from the ignominy in which his career had settled by the beginning of the decade. But like some cagey Grand Ol' Opry veteran who lives on buses and grinds out 200 shows a year, Dylan wore the seasoned look of someone who has toured almost continuously for the past 10 years. And it's paid off.
Last year he released an album, "Time Out of Mind," his first set of new songs in more than six years, that not only swept this year's Grammy Awards but will stand among his best in what is one of the most distinguished careers in American music.
At San Jose Arena, Dylan pumped an urgency into material that spanned his career -- a molten "Cold Irons Bound" from the new album, a jacked-up acoustic "Tangled Up in Blue," a crunching "Silvio," a searing, acid "Masters of War" and a nearly all-instrumental deconstruction of ``Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35'' that brought the concert to a celebratory close.
Mitchell, who has not toured in well over 10 years, has by now veered so far down the path of her own deeply personal musical vision that she is virtually impossible to understand.
Radiant in a long, rust-colored dress and jacket, she sang wonderfully. But between the strange tunings, the offbeat time signatures, her heavi ly processed electric guitar and the intensely etched lyrics, she seemed lost in a world of her own creation.
She apologized for not performing many older songs, concentrating on both her lackluster 1994 release, "Turbulent Indigo," and a forthcoming album. But when she did trot out "Big Yellow Taxi," it ended up sounding like some dippy Jimmy Buffett song.
Morrison -- who can kill on a good night -- never cut loose and watched his backup vocalist, Brian Kennedy, blow him away on the set-closing James Brown number "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
His nine-piece band bristled, sharp and clean, when Morrison got out of its way, with organist John Allair injecting some greatly needed good humor into the sound.
But it was Dylan, who turns 58 this weekend, who supplied the tru ly heroic presence to this convergence of heavyweights. And he did it with the kind of ease and offhand command that comes with age and experience.