If you're like many music fans I know, you're probably of two minds about reading after-the-fact concert reviews. Or, as former Seattle Supersonics coach George Karl so eloquently stated after his team was knocked out of the NBA playoffs, "There's a dichotomy and a hypocrisy of feelings."
On the one hand, you want somebody to tell you about a great show ahead of time so you can at least try to get tickets. On the other, because of your passion for music, you want to know what happened. And, if you did attend the concert, how can you resist butting heads, or at least critical opinions, with Joel Selvin and other reviewers.
Take the May 19 baby boomer blowout of old fogey folk-rock legends at the San Jose Arena. The 14,000 bazillion tickets sold out faster than you could say "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine; I'm on the pavement thinking 'bout the government." So only a small fraction of those who wanted to be there actually were. That makes reviews essential. Most of the people I read or talked to (except for an old friend who's worked in the music industry for years and seems to hold a personal grudge against him) agreed that Bob Dylan delivered a knockout performance. He seemed to have a grand time playing the toreador-rocker, and his band rattled the hall with the kind of volume and bravado you expect from the Rolling Stones.
Opinions were mixed about Van Morrison, whose amazingly tight band is certainly more suited to a theater than a hockey palace, but who pulled out a few wonderful surprises -- a rendition of "That's Life" in tribute to the recently departed Frank Sinatra, and a cover of James Brown's "It's A Man's World," which he referred to as "The Bible, King James version."
But neither Van the Man, who opened the show with "Burning Ground," nor Emperor Bob, who slammed it shut with a blistering run through "Rainy Day Women #13 & 35," generated as much puzzlement and controversy as Joni Mitchell.
Joining her slightly younger (Van) and slightly older (Bob) peers for her first string of concerts in more than a decade, Mitchell aroused what George Karl might call "a quandary of emotion." In her hour and 20 minutes on stage, Mitchell, resplendently attired and strumming a beautiful custom electric guitar, was obviously nervous. She suffered a couple false starts and played more within her intimately arranged band on the oversized stage than to the audience. She sang magnificently, and her superb accompanists -- Larry Klein on bass, Brian Blade on drums, and Greg Leisz on pedal steel and electric guitar -- created a consistently gorgeous sound -- all shimmers, chimes, blurs, subtle harmonies and colors.
But neither her pure voice nor the band's silvery swells moved the customers in the upper echelons of arena, and there was much chatter throughout her set. Moreover, except for solo acoustic versions of "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" (the encore), Mitchell refused to give the people what they wanted -- golden oldies. Instead, she performed two new songs, three each from the Hejira and Turbulent Indigo albums, and two from Night Ride Home -- songs with amorphous structures, strange guitar tunings, and often oblique lyrics. Hardly her most accessible work.
Still, from my perspective (in great seats for a hockey game, half-decent for a concert), just seeing (albeit with binoculars) Mitchell on stage again felt like a blessing. And when I could ignore the conversations around me and concentrate my full awareness on her voice and her music, I was transported into that realm of watercolor sound and dreamlike images that she can create like no other singer-songwriter in pop.
A medley of some of the songs Mitchell performed during her short tour with Dylan and Morrison is available in the Real Audio listening lounge to your right. Likewise for the music of Iva Bittova, who performed the next night, May 20, at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley. Not that you asked, but you're forgiven if you've never heard of the Czech violinist and singer. She's been big in European avant-garde circles for nearly two decades, but had her first U.S. CD released only late last year. Plus, her standing-room-only Freight appearance -- eagerly anticipated by knowledgeable world and improvised music freaks and fiddlers of every stripe -- received very little advance attention in the local media, and even less in terms of reviews.