Whether it was 1968, '78 or '98, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell demanded that we pay attention to their music. It's not simply because they are pillars in pop music's pantheon, but because they are restless adventurers who refuse to rest on their lofty laurels. What would they do next? They've always kept us guessing, and occasionally they would paint another masterpiece. Oblivious to the patterns and pressures of the music business, they have remained artists on a journey, not stars on a pedestal. They constantly have strived to challenge themselves and their listeners -- for better or worse.
Mitchell, who hasn't toured since 1983, and Dylan, who is forever on tour, teamed up Friday night at Target Center. Graying baby boomers and baggy-pants Gen Xers witnessed a challenging and ultimately remarkable concert by two artists who reinvented themselves and their songs. Dylan was energetic, animated and even smiley. Mitchell's music and performance was more introverted, but eventually she reached out and rewarded the 12,000 concertgoers.
Following a passionate set of Americana rock by Dave Alvin, Mitchell took the stage with just her electric guitar and jazzed up "Big Yellow Taxi," her biggest hit. For many listeners, it might have seemed like Jazzy Joni gone self-indulgent instead of an old friend putting up a pop paradise. Of course, her nasally impression of Dylan on one of the verses showed that she does have a sense of humor about this revered double billing.
Joined by her quartet, Mitchell, who hadn't appeared in Minnesota since 1979, then challenged the faithful with an intimate sound in a huge venue. Using a unique electric guitar programmed with various tunings, she made music like an impressionistic painter, splashing washes of sound all over her canvas. She found a hip-shaking groove on the revamped 1974 hit "Free Man in Paris." She did a spaced-out swing, occasionally found a rhythmic groove but mostly avoided anything that would have been considered pop or folk music.
Though her voice no longer reaches those clarion high notes, Mitchell's singing was about nuance, not emotion. She made "Amelia" into a spare, eloquent, beautiful discussion of dreams and false alarms. She converted Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" into a hushed blues rendered with the instincts of a jazz singer, including some scat. The highlight of her 80-minute set was the closer, Billie Holiday's "Comes Love," a lazy, sexy, cool sloooow blues featuring a muted trumpet solo that evoked Miles Davis.
The 54-year-old singer combined wisdom and humor on the new "Face Lift," the key line of which was "happiness is the best face lift." And, despite all this jazz, she hasn't lost her political touch, as she dedicated her 1994 tune "Sex Kills" to President Clinton.
Dylan always combines the political and the personal. On Friday, he did stirring versions of the '60s political commentaries "Masters of War" and "Blowin' in the Wind" as well a glowingly warm version of "To Make You Feel My Love," after which he said, "That's a song I wrote for Garth Brooks. He did it so well that I had to do it myself." That was the only comment that he made all night. But his 105-minute performance spoke volumes.
The tireless troubadour, 57, was a dancing fool, doing a sprightly jig here, a quick lock-step there, striking enigmatic (and fun) rock-star poses. He did a bit of Chuck Berry-style duck walk with his guitar. And while holding a harmonica in his hands (no rack this time), he danced like he was forever young.
The highlights were the rocking encores of "Highway 61 Revisited," "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "Love Sick" as well as the acoustic set featuring "It Ain't Me Babe," "My Back Pages" and "Tangled Up in Blue" (during which he ad-libbed a verse that sounded like he was questioning Clinton about what he was doing, and also changed "carpenter's wives" to "president's wives"). Dylan, like Mitchell, demanded that we listen carefully once again.