They are storytellers who seem to draw from the same well of inspiration and yet they tell their stories to different rhythms.
Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison's historic triple bill last night at GM Place ostensibly placed three of the most influential songwriters of the past 35 years on the same stage, as if underlining their similarities and characterizing them as one sole expression of the culture that made them and they helped to shape.
Instead, the four-hour evening exposed their differences - or at least how they drew from that well of inspiration exactly what they wanted and used it to develop and modify what has since become wells of inspiration to those who've come along since.
Morrison, who began the evening (and who will perform two shows on his own this evening at the QET), hears his muse in the jazz and soul with which he began. With his eight-piece band putting down a fluid rolling rhythm over which the horns effortlessly floated, the dapper looking Irish soulman mined a rich seam that evoked Ben E. King and and gave everything away when he climaxed his set with James Brown's stunningly elegant blues ballad, It's a Man's World.
"It's payback time," he announced and, indeed, this four minute tribute showed that the muse is getting back as good as it gives. Joni Mitchell, by contrast, uses rhythm like an underlay, something that pushes along her narratives, which themselves move along like psychological travelogues.
With a rhythm section that included ex-husband Larry Klein on bass, plus multi-instrumentalist Greg Liesz playing off Mitchell's own liquid guitar tone to create a musical horizon befitting her Saskatchewan upbringing, she told stories that found their own accents and highlights in Mitchell's eye for detail. She dropped in a new song, the Crazy Cries of Love, transposing W.B. Yeats' The Second Coming as Slouching to Bethlehem and choosing some of her more esoteric songs. The overall effect was to create her own musical environment entirely her own, rather than to take her place as second in line in providing a cosy evening that hollowly revisited the past. She did, however, reward the sell out crowd for visiting this world with Big Yellow Taxi.
Who would have expected Silvio, a minor song in Bob Dylan's bulging bag of album toss-offs, to be a highlight of what was a highly charged and focused set of primal rural blues and country that started at the Rage the night before? Compared to the uptown rhythm and blues of Van Morrison and the blue sky ambience of Joni Mitchell, the swampy gumbo of Dylan cut raw and deep, the effect ragged but ineffably right on older songs such as Wednesday's highlight, Tangled Up In Blue and the troubled reflections of the newer Cold Irons Bound, Lovesick or Stone Walls and Steel Bars.
In the comparatively intimate setting of the Rage, Dylan was the most invigorated and animated he's been on a Vancouver stage in years. With a set list that changes from night to night but a band that seems to read him as well as anyone can, the Bob Dylan Vancouver witnessed this week showed that there are years of vital music in him yet.