Heading out of The Palace last night, one couldn't help but notice the large, moody harvest moon hanging ominously in the chill autumn night sky.
That moon was kind of like the guy who played The Palace Wednesday, Bob Dylan. They only come around about once a year, but they always manage to inspire awe and wonder.
If Bob Dylan is a harvest moon in the autumn of his life, then Joni Mitchell is like Halley's Comet - bright, luminous, majestic. And she doesn't come around very often.
It's been 15 years since the one-time Detroiter and one of folk-rock's leading lights hit the road. Slowed by the effects of childhood polio and her shrinking visibility in the pop music world she helped shape, Mitchell pulled to the side of the road, preferring to write, paint and record while the music business flew by.
Her return began in earnest earlier this year with a brief West Coast tour with Dylan and Van Morrison. Now, five days into an 11-city run of Midwestern and Northeastern arenas with Dylan, Mitchell seems slightly tentative and occasionally intimidated but very much the commanding performer she was always cracked up to be.
Sandwiched between opener Dave Alvin's rugged roots rock and Dylan's gloriously ragged raucous roll, Mitchell's lean, cerebral folk-rock was the perfect complement. It tasted great but was very filling.
In 17 songs stretched over 85 minutes, Mitchell showed the brilliant musical alchemy that has made her such an enduring, influential figure - and one who can't buy a hit. Songs about motion and transience dominated the set, which opened with a solo rendition of her "Big Yellow Taxi," an apropos opener given its themes of loss and disillusionment.
Trading in her acoustic for a Roland VG8 digital guitar, Mitchell plumbed the rhythmic depths of her music and proved herself a far more capable musician than she's been given credit for. With a jazzer's sense of space and spontaneity, the reserved Mitchell led her minimalist quartet through spare versions of classics such as "Hejira," "Free Man in Paris," "Harry's House - Centerpiece" and an encore of "Woodstock" (performed solo), while new songs like "Facelift," about a tiff with her mom, and "The Magdalene Laundries" add to Mitchell's legacy as a literate, probing lyricist.
While the crowd of middle-aged hippies-turned-yuppies and adolescent hippie wannabes grooved along, the performance ratcheted up a couple of notches when the Canadian-born Mitchell took off the guitar and focused on her exquisite vocals on a couple of numbers. She turned the Annie Ross-meets-Billie Holiday vocal of "Trouble Man" into an electric vocalese not unlike that of a trumpet or saxophone improv. Superb.
Dylan was no slouch himself. Rejuvenated by the Jerry Garcia-less Deadhead crowd and recharged by the success of last year's riveting "Time Out of Mind," which won the album of the year Grammy, Dylan has turned his concerts into celebrations of himself and his audience.
Fittingly, he opened with a revved up version of "Gotta Serve Somebody," the song that marked his short-lived conversion from Judaism to Christianity nearly 20 years ago, and served up one gem after another.
Dylan has found a comfort zone with his revamped band (guitarist Leroy Campbell and drummer Dave Kemper joined in the past two years) and constant touring, managing to tinker with the likes of "Tangled Up in Blue," "Masters of War," "Blowin' in the Wind" and a lovely "It Ain't Me, Babe," without rendering them unrecognizable, as he used to do.
Dylan is no longer running from his legacy; he's embracing it, on his own idiosyncratic terms, and his forever young audience seems more than happy to go along for the ride.
There aren't many celestial bodies in rock that shine more brightly than Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Here's hoping their paths cross in these parts again.