Bob Dylan banned photographers from his set but Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell didn’t mind cameras during Tuesday’s San Jose show.
It's time to stop calling Bob Dylan a legend.
That honorific might have worked a decade or two ago. But the geezer’s turning 57 this week, and he’s still on the road long after many of his contemporaries had the sense to go home and spend the rest of their days signing royalty checks. So let’s think of something else to call the poor old boy this late in his career.
How about, "a force of nature"?
Dylan began the ’90s by returning to something many thought he’d given up: putting on good concerts. Then last year, he released "Time Out of Mind," which was embraced as one of the best albums of 1997. Tuesday night in San Jose, he proved he’s still capable of putting on a fiery arena show.
Dylan was the headliner at a kind of fogey-palooza at the San Jose Arena that featured fellow greats Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. Both, especially Morrison, gave memorable performances. But Dylan owned the evening.
It was a terrific performance. Three songs into it, he and his four-man band whipped out "Cold Irons Bound," a primal, spooky song off his new album that rocked so hard you’d swear it was the Next Big Thing up on stage and not the Eternal Big Thing. The band smoked. It stomped. It practically breathed fire.
There was an intensity about the whole show one would expect from a guy trying to prove himself, not from a man who doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone ever again.
Dylan’s voice, clear throughout the show, ached on a sparkling "Just Like a Woman." The song sounded so fresh it might have been written that morning. He revisited "Masters of War" as a finely etched old folk ballad brimming over with righteous wrath. "Tangled Up in Blue" was a bounding bluegrass rocker. He even brought fire to the country-rocking flash of "Silvio," one of Robert Hunter’s more lifeless songs. The guy is as eccentric as ever. He performed dressed in a black Southwestern period costume that made him look like a Mexican patrón welcoming you to his ranchero. Maybe that’s why he forbade news photographers from taking his picture at the show. He was the only artist of the three who made that demand.
Dylan closed down the hour-long set with a pulverizing "Highway 61 Revisited" that found him, as on so many numbers before it, jamming on his guitar and shimmying about the stage. Yep, Dylan was so into his music that he was practically dancing.
He came back for an earnest and optimistic "Forever Young," a shattering "Love Sick" and a blues-rocking "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." From a benediction to despair to a celebration in three songs. Not bad.
Van Morrison concentrated on the bright side of the road during his hour-plus set, but the sunny mood infused a range of styles that veered from soul to gospel to jazz to R&B. Morrison was backed by a nine-member band that brought out the riches of Morrison’s music with arrangements that were both powerful and nicely understated.
Morrison is reported to be painfully shy and plagued by stage fright, and he seemed to hide himself in his black suit, black hat and dark sunglasses. But his polished and enormously entertaining performance radiated confidence.
His voice may be rougher than it used to be, but it’s still a mighty brass instrument. It roared on "Cleaning Windows." And it’s still nimble enough to go from a tent revival shout to lullaby whisper, sometimes within the same song, as with "Whenever God Shines His Light." A soothing "Have I Told You Lately" showcased his masterly phrasing.
Most of Morrison’s set concentrated on lesser known numbers (not including his horn-fueled big-band tribute to Frank Sinatra, "That’s Life").
The same was true of Joni Mitchell’s 1¼-hour set, which was sandwiched between the other two. She knew some had come to hear her old stuff, but she said she was going to concentrate instead on more recent material.
"I apologize to those who find it necessary that I apologize for that," she told the audience with a chuckle.
Perhaps rusty from too much time off the road, Mitchell, dressed in a red jacket, top and wraparound skirt, flubbed the beginning of several songs. She handled the mistakes gracefully, and nobody cared. One has to give Mitchell credit for her ongoing refusal to pander to her audience. She and her trio played long, ruminative numbers that stretched the limits of the pop song, straying into jazz territory, often with only the barest of hooks. Sometimes the result was lovely, as on the lazy, gently swinging "The Crazy Cries of Love."
But the contemplative mood of many of the numbers was so similar, with Mitchell plucking out sharp glimmering notes from the same electric guitar throughout the show, that one song began to blur into the next. That included a new, soon-to-be-released number, "Happiness is the Best Facelift."
Songs of social protest like "Sex Kills" and "The Magdalene Laundries" came across a bit strident. But Mitchell was not above tossing in friendlier tunes and having fun with them. She wheeled out "Big Yellow Taxi," adding an extra chorus she sang in a Dylan-imitating nasal twang. And she played an encore of "Woodstock" as a slow, jazzy number.
Those who lost track of Mitchell sometime after "Court and Spark" might be startled by the transformation of her voice, which has gone from an ethereal soprano to an alto as rich as red wine. She sounds like a completely different person, but still a person very much worth listening to.