With the wind at his back and the crowd in his thrall, Bob Dylan performed his best local concert in more than a decade Saturday night at The Gorge Amphitheatre.
Dressed in a black Civil War-era jacket and tie, tight black pants and black boots, the Grammy-winning folk-rock legend looked trim, youthful and deliciously sinister.
He clearly was enjoying himself, grinning gleefully and affectiing a kind of Eddie Cochran swagger as he danced and swayed as if on a fun-house floor. Perhaps last year's illness and near-death experience brought him a newfound zeal for performing.
Compared to the sleepwalking performances of the '80s, including a chaotic concert 10 years ago at the amphitheater near George, it was an exhilarating reaffirmation of one of rock's greatest talents, a baby boomer icon who easily connects with fans half his age through music that is inspiring and powerful.
Dylan's show would have been a triumph in itself, but the evening proved a triple treat. Sharing the bill with the 56-year-old rocker Saturday night and again Sunday night were fellow greats Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison.
Reunited for the first time since they were guest performers in "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorsese's 1976 film of The Band's farewell concert, the weekend shows were the trio's only outdoor dates in North America and two of only a handful of U.S. performances together.
The unusual triple bill was the reason The Gorge, which is operated by Universal Concerts, started its season two weeks early this year.
"This is such a special show," said Gorge general manager Bill Parsons.
Ten years ago, when Dylan performed at the amphitheater with Tracy Chapman, the venue was known as the Champs de Brionne Summer Music Theatre and was operated by a different company.
The amphitheater was relatively primitive then, with few of the amenities that concert-goers now enjoy - running water, paved walkways, food concessions, a carefully managed wine and beer garden and overnight camping.
Dylan's August 1988 concert was plagued by security snafus, excessive drinking and traffic problems. A 25-year-old man was stabbed while trying to direct traffic after the show and authorities arrested at least 12 people for drunken driving.
"That concert is known to people here as the show we all could learn from," Parsons said.
Much has changed at the venue since Universal took over. The Gorge was recently voted by Pollstar (a top concert-industry trade magazine) as North America's best outdoor amphitheater for the third year in a row.
"The first time they presented us with the award, a comedian at the ceremony made jokes about an outdoor venue in George, Washington," Parsons said.
"Now The Gorge is drawing a lot of acts and I think the industry is finally recognizing the Northwest."
The crowd of more than 18,000, which included teens as well as longtime Dylan, Mitchell and Morrison fans in their 40s, 50s and 60s, was filled with anticipation throughout the day.
Portland's Mark Cuddigan, a grizzled concert veteran in his 50s bought tickets for both shows at The Gorge. He estimated that he had seen Dylan perform about 15 times in the past three decades.
"I'm hoping he'll still be alive for tomorrow night's show," Cuddigan quipped Saturday.
Many concert-goers in their 20s had come over the night before to see the Dave Matthews Band perform the first show of the season Friday night. Some spent the entire weekend camping at The Gorge.
"It's just been an awesome weekend," said Susan Tinsley of Spokane.
Thick, moist clouds threatened rain on Saturday, but the weather was mercifully dry throughout the afternoon and evening. Even the nighttime breezes weren't overly chilly.
Perhaps feeling subdued by the less-than-summery weather, concert-goers were fairly mellow until Morrison and his nine-piece band took the stage shortly after 7 p.m.
Morrison, dressed in a trademark black suit and fedora and dark glasses, was backed by a superb nine-piece band that featured three horn players and a keyboardist on Hammond B-3 organ.
Morrison also played harmonica, and at one point sang through the instrument for a eerie vocal effect.
Morrison was cool, confident and fully in control of his voice, a mix of madcap yowl and smoky-smooth croon. "Moondance," "Days Like This" and an exuberant "That's Life," a nod to the late Frank Sinatra, were early favorites.
Especially sweet was "Tupelo Honey," which Morrison and his group performed late in the nearly 90-minute set.
Mitchell, backed by a trio (including bassist and "recent ex-husband" Larry Klein), was the evening's big surprise. Her voice was in top form and her guitar-playing first-rate.
Her set was a bit odd for its obscure selections, a couple of them from her upcoming album "Taming the Tiger." She made no apologies for not indulging the audience with some of her biggest hits.
"I kind of put a set together to please myself," said Mitchell, still fetching in her long blonde hair.
"It was a last-minute thing to come on this tour, so there's a big hole in my repertoire."
Her rich imagery came to the fore in such songs as "Black Crow" and "Amelia." But it was poet William Butler Yeats who provided many of the words for "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," a new song adapted from Yeats' famous apocalyptic poem, "The Second Coming."
Late in the set, Mitchell performed the still-delightful "Big Yellow Taxi," with its famous lyric: "They paved paradise/put up a parking lot."
Among her new songs, the best was "Facelift," with the humorous line, "Happiness is the best face lift."
For her encore, Mitchell performed her classic hippie anthem, "Woodstock." It was a song that concert-goers, young and old, responded to with hearty cheers and applause.
After impressive, satisfying sets by Morrison and Mitchell, Dylan's was a big-time bonus that put the concert over the top.
Dylan, backed by a sharp-shooting four-piece band, kicked off his set with selection of spirited songs, among them an exuberant "Absolutely Sweet Marie"; the wistful "If You See Her, Say Hello"; a tender, mournful "Simple Twist of Fate"; and a high-stepping, hard-rocking "Silvio."
The crowd loved the zany "Cocaine Blues" and longtime favorite "Tangled Up in Blue." But a still-resonant "The Times They Are a-Changin'" had a special magic that worked on concert-goers of all ages.
The show's defining moment came during an inspiring version of "I Shall Be Released." Morrison and Mitchell returned to the stage, each singing a verse - to the delight of the crowd.
When Dylan stepped forward to join Morrison in a cheek-to-cheek duet, he was beaming widely and looked utterly thrilled by the unrehearsed performance.
Dylan closed his set with a high-revving take on "Highway 61 Revisited," a signature tune that brought the audience to its feet.
The show was nearly five hours long when Dylan took a bow at 11:30 p.m. He returned shortly for a mellower, less angry version of "It Ain't Me Babe" than many fans remember from the '60s. "Love Sick," from his new album, "Time Out of Mind," followed.
The show came to a close at around midnight with a raucous crowd-pleasing "Subterranean Homesick Blues."