The trio of rock legends teams up to create an inspiring blend of classic folk-rock and ageless musical impressions.
As she has done so masterfully, so consistently throughout her career, Joni Mitchell summed up a moment otherwise hard to define in a few beautifully arranged words.
And she may not have even been aware of it.
"Once in a while," she sang, "in a big blue moon, there comes a night like this."
After sauntering onstage, the first lady of folk-rock fell into this opening line from the song "Night Ride Home" as if she were remarking on the evening before it even started. And as her crystalline voice blended with the cool night air Saturday, the phrase seemed to set the mood for her performance as well as the entire concert to come.
"To see Dylan in a setting like this with [Mitchell and Morrison] is awesome." -- MaryEllen DiGennaro, 27, a fan.
It was, in fact, one of those nights when inspiring artists, their songs and a gorgeous setting conspire to make magical musical moments.
Mitchell and her male contemporaries Bob Dylan and Van Morrison came to the Gorge, a natural amphitheater set in rolling mountains along the Columbia River, to play the music that has defined them and -- in a real sense -- much of rock 'n' roll of the past three decades. There to see the trio play the same stage in a rare billing were new and old fans.
Jeannine Weisner, 37, an assistant district attorney from Salem, Ore., spent more than five hours driving through intense rain to get to the remote venue. All the while, she wasn't even sure that the show would go on. "I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to see three legendary performers at the same time," she said.
Morrison hit the stage with "Domino," followed closely by "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)." Though the billing of this seven-date tour will change from night to night, Morrison eagerly played the part of opening act by stuffing the hits up front and then pushing the nine-piece band through an inspired cross-section of his career. Dressed in a preacher's outfit of a black suit and black hat, he even left the stage for an extended period as the band improvised over the melody to his classic hit "Moondance."
In a touching moment, part-way through the set, Morrison paid tribute to Frank Sinatra, who died Thursday, with a letter-perfect version of the master's musical signature "That's Life."
While faithful to the original, Morrison stamped the tune with his trademark vocals that teeter between joy and sorrow. After an extended version of "Tupelo Honey," he slammed his set closed with "The Burning Ground." Anyone short of living-legend status would probably find this act difficult to follow.
Of course, that "anyone" was Joni Mitchell.
On her first large-arena tour in more than a decade, Mitchell followed with a set as distinctive as that of the bard from Northern Ireland. In contrast to her counterparts -- who maintained a distance from the crowd -- Mitchell spoke often to her listeners. At one point, she apologized for her set list, saying, "I tried to put together a set to please myself. I hope it pleases you."
She unveiled several new songs, most notably a glum piece called "Happiness is the Best Facelift." There were three consecutive selections from Hejira as well as several lesser-known selections. While the golden-haired California singer/songwriter seemed to shy away from the commercial, she got the biggest kick out of a spirited rendition of her bouncy hit "Big Yellow Taxi". Apparently having a better time with the song than she might have expected, Mitchell repeated the final verse three times, the second in a spry, Dylanesque vocal.
In one of the concert's more transcendent moments, Mitchell dismissed her band (which included ex-husband Larry Klein on bass) for a solo reading of "Just Like This Train." Stripping the richly textured original down to the bare bones, she still brought forth all of its nuances. As she played, a sliver of sunset was etched across the back of the stage.
A more perfect moment would be hard to come by.
Dylan's presence -- he being the legend among these legends -- seemed oddly commonplace. As he has increasingly toured in recent years, it is precisely that visibility that has somewhat deflated his onstage currency. At this show, however, his appearance did not have the same frisson of rarity as did those of the more reclusive Morrison and Mitchell.
While his classically atonal voice has stubbornly refused to improve over the years, instrumentally Dylan's power has grown, evolving into a pure rock-'n'-roll force. As he and his music have matured with the passage of time, Dylan has tended to strip down and reassemble his repertoire. At this show, he focused on Blood on the Tracks, reconstituting "A Simple Twist of Fate" and "If You See Her, Say Hello."
In an acoustic format, Dylan made his political anthem "The Times They Are A- Changin' " sound as if it belonged on Nashville Skyline, stripping the song of its anger and urgency -- even while the message itself remained undiluted. He then swung into a long, mandolin-driven section.
Dylan followed this with a similar version of one of his best songs, "Tangled Up In Blue," which, judging from its jangly sound, may as well have been renamed "Tangled Up In Bluegrass."
Somewhere in the midst of the Dylan set list, below a starry night sky, Morrison and Mitchell joined Dylan in a version of "I Shall Be Released." The perfunctory cross-pollination was a disappointment, saved only by Mitchell's refusal to take the whole thing seriously. She even mangled her verse, singing, "I see my own reflection/ right above the mighty beast."
Coming, as it did, in the middle of Dylan's set, this "all-star jam" fooled many into thinking that the show was over. Instead, Dylan came charging back with a slam-bang mini-set of "Highway 61 Revisited," "It Ain't Me Babe" (done bluegrass style), "Love Sick" and "Rainy Day Women, 12 & 35."
"This is the best I've ever seen him," said MaryEllen DiGennaro, a 27-year-old student from Seattle who last saw Dylan perform at his star-driven 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. "It's like he's back from the dead. And to see him in a setting like this with those two is awesome."
Or, as Mitchell put it, "Once in a while, in a big blue moon, there comes a night like this."