Bob, Joni and Van Show Why They Pass the Greatness Test
The Mt. Rushmore Tour, as the untitled combination of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison might have been dubbed, ended its brief seven-night West Coast run Saturday at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim with the house lights on and a happy Dylan and his romping band admonishing the rollicking, near-capacity house that "everybody must get stoned."
Before launching that closing "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35," Dylan had announced, "Happy birthday, everybody," although when the last chord rang down on the 4 1/2-hour evening (with minimal time out for set changes), the clock was still a few ticks shy of Sunday, the singer's 57th birthday.
This was an occasion, all right--an especially good one for stepping back to assess what constitutes rock greatness. As a chance to measure active, functioning heroes of rock-era singing and songwriting, this was far better than ubiquitous, nostalgia-driven, soak-the-deep-pocketed-baby-boomers reunion tours by the likes of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Dylan, Mitchell and Morrison have never stopped chiseling away at their craft, and while Mitchell's live performances are rare, Dylan and Morrison both qualify as working musicians as well as Hall of Fame eminences.
The greatness rating should rest on three tests: quality of current creative output (are recent albums worthy of the legacy?); ability, in concert, to add new fond memories that measure up to the old ones longtime fans hold dear; and degree of influence on creative leaders of new pop generations.
Dylan continues to be one of the best influences possible; his most direct young heir is Beck (no, not son Jakob Dylan of the OK but unremarkable Wallflowers). Beck is one of the few '90s rock heroes who has emulated Dylan's foundation in blues and folk and carried on his tradition of high-impact lyrics (although Beck so far has drawn upon only Dylanesque verbal energy and is nowhere near achieving Dylan's striking lines, scenes, characterizations and depth of meaning).
Mitchell's influence? Every sweet, high-voiced star of Lilith Fair ought to be sending her a royalty check.
Morrison is off the influence chart. In fact, I consider him a bad influence, because those who try to emulate him almost invariably come up flat and foolish compared to Van the Man. Better to behold that wondrous, complex, many-hued voice, maybe become addicted to it, but leave it alone as the unique thing it is.
Morrison can seem sulky and sound gruffly offhanded on his uninspired nights. But, playing in the opening slot, his 100-minute set was one of those special performances when he works magic. Buffeted by an exquisitely warm and tight band, he pushed pop toward the sublime as only he can, singing of earthly pleasures and frustrations, but pushing, pushing, pushing beyond the pain and tawdriness invoked in some of his songs toward realms of solace and beauty.
He began with what amounted to a friendly hug: engaged, crowd-pleasing, just-like-the-record runs through "Domino" and "Jackie Wilson Said," two signature songs from his early-'70s commercial peak. Morrison's voice was strong and sharp, the manly, scuffed burr in it balanced by nasal, piercing, upper-range clarity.
He kept up the welcome with rippling R & B and coursing funk early on, singing of aspirations and joys. Then he dealt with the petty distractions that impede his path to higher things (namely the music business he hates with a bitter burn).
He sang of moving on through sorrows ("Sometimes We Cry," one of several fine songs from "The Healing Game," a strong 1997 album that was drastically underrated by most critics), and of attaining those magical moments of transcendence. "In the Garden," one of Morrison's finest evocations of a sensual, spiritual realm apart, crested in a barreling wave of full-band rhythm, with Morrison calling out above it, voicing his credo for personal spiritual striving: "No guru, no method, no teacher."
With his daughter, Sarah (sic), and the formerly annoying, now more circumspect and supportive Brian Kennedy singing backup, Morrison ended with "The Healing Game," a statement of purpose that his set fulfilled in full. Hearing Morrison on a peak night like this, singing a generous selection of nuggets (including "Tupelo Honey" and "Cypress Avenue") and worthy new songs, is salve for the spirit and manna for the ears.
Mitchell didn't try to represent what she once was; her attenuated voice can't recapture the soprano splendor of old. Instead, she played a 70-minute set given to the restless rhythms and wafting, uneventful melodies that have marked much of her work since the mid-'70s, when she gave up trying to please the masses as a sweet songbird.
The set reflected Mitchell's steely will and creative independence, but it was drab and out of place in an echoing arena. With the sound dominated by the austere bass she has long favored and by her own guitar, rigged for a ringing, echoing, unattractive sound that called to mind a joyless steel drum, Mitchell painted from a slim palette.
She was open about her intention not to play the bonbons from her past (the audience was dutifully respectful of that choice; Mitchell owns a lot of goodwill), but the hits "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" (the only number where that ghostly sounding guitar of hers was an asset) were clearly their favorites.
Though diminished, Mitchell is no burnout case: Her two '90s albums, with a third on the way in September, are worthwhile for their ideas and imagery, and for the occasional melody containing some pop pleasure. But if she can still command our minds, our ears echo with her sweetest strains from 30 or so years ago. The past is definitely behind her.
Always an enigma, Dylan is now a creative question mark. His critically hailed, commercially well-received latest album, "Time Out of Mind," is an excellent piece of modern blues music. But it contains none of the storytelling or kaleidoscopic spinning of characters and images that are his classic signature. It gives us a self-involved Dylan, so caught up in his bitterness and loss (the women who dump or disappoint him in the lyrics strike me as stand-ins for his no-longer-giving muse) that one questions whether he has any more interest in mining real and imaginary realms of starving farmers, imprisoned boxers, jokers and thieves and jingle-jangle mornings.
But there was no bitterness in Dylan the performer. Maybe the stage is where he can work out the demons stalking him on "Time Out of Mind." The best parts of his 70-minute set were the rockers in which he and his experienced, rough-riding roadhouse band kicked hard and kept many in the house dancing.
The acoustic segments had their problems. There was a rote take on "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and in "Forever Young," Dylan tried to do a Doc Watson on acoustic lead guitar but came up clunkier than Doc Martens.
Wearing a white suit that made it look as if he were auditioning to take over "Mark Twain Tonight" from Hal Holbrook, Dylan struck rocker poses, smiled a bit, addressed the audience briefly but cheerfully, sounded tender on the ballads (including "Lay Lady Lay") and energized on the rockers. It's not a bad way to keep on keepin' on.
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