AFTER a lifetime on stage, Bob Dylan, the private man in a very public world, seems to have come to terms with his enormous stardom. At Madison Square Garden for a one-night engagement, Dylan was as close to being as totally at ease as he's ever been in front of a New York audience.
Although this rock god's recent, very excellent performances have helped him begin to lose his reputation as an uneven, unpredictable concert act, in his set at the Garden he occasionally relied on the greatness of the song rather than how he was singing it to carry the moment.
But then there were other songs, when Bob, his band and his fans aligned so perfectly that everyone at the Sunday night show - from the ushers to Dylan himself - must have felt lucky to be there.
Dylan is one of the most mischievous performers in music - it's probably the way he keeps things interesting for everyone, including himself. To that end, he opened the much-anticipated concert with a fast, edgy version of Gotta Serve Somebody. The cautionary message of the spiritual tune found Dylan's vocals akin to a bleating sheep that knows it's about to be sacrificed.
In spite of the unusually mercurial rock edge on Serve and the sloppy vocals, the tune managed to rally the house. Yet it wasn't until the third number, Don't Think Twice, that Mr. Bob had everyone where he wanted them: on their feet, dancing and singing along.
For that one, Bob slipped off his electric six-string and fronted his five-man band playing his big-bodied Gibson acoustic. In turn, the bassist flipped over to the stand-up double bass, the drums were whacked with brushes, and long, tall, pedal-steel man Bucky Baxter grabbed his tiny mandolin for the accent notes.
If Dylan's stage presence was slightly mopey, and his vocals unintelligible during Serve, Don't Think Twice was the milepost where the show clicked and remained mostly in the realm of goodness for the rest of the two-hour concert.
Since seats were sold behind the stage, Dylan played with his back to about a fifth of the crowd for most of the evening. Those back-gazing fans got their biggest treat during Don't Think Twice, when Dylan delivered his sole harmonica solo in which he hunched up and blew some blues harp that was uncharacteristically crisp. The fan appreciation from the forgotten fifth registered among the evening's loudest.
With the fans on their feet, panting, pumping fists in the air, leaning forward to get just an inch closer to the music icon, Dylan didn't relax his assault. An acoustic yet powerful rendering of Masters of War followed Don't Think Twice, and the night hit its early high on another acoustic masterpiece, Tangled Up in Blue.
Bob and company let their grip slip from the tiger's tail when they played a lackluster version of Joey. As he sang the ode to the gunned-down mobster, the fans fell back into their seats - watching rather than participating in the show. At the quick conclusion of Joey, stoic Dylan - hardly known for any stage patter more extensive than Thank you - offered the fans a grin that was nearly a grimace and spewed out, We don't play it that often. We won't play it again. Not only did he talk, he made a funny!
And if that wasn't enough to shoot this MSG concert into one of his most memorable New York appearances, a razor-sharp rendition of Highway 61, a terrific reggae-blues translation of Love Sick (off of Time Out of Mind) and encore sing-along songs such as the everybody must get stoned-refrained Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35 and Blowin' in the Wind were.
At 57, Dylan is at full charge and continues to be one of those performers who should never be missed when you have any opportunity to see him.
Joni Mitchell, who acted as Dylan's opener, was OK, especially on her older material, such as Big Yellow Taxi and Free Man in Paris (each played very early in her set). But her jazz noodlings didn't fare as well in the vast confines of MSG.
She has an excellent band, which would have been riveting in a snug club. But in the Garden, there was many a stifled yawn as J.M. plowed through her material.
Her's was hardly an energized performance, yet the fans showed Mitchell loads of appreciation. In fact, the applause was loud enough at the close of her set (when she did the Porky Pig Th-tha-that's all, folks sign-off) that she returned for a very forgettable version of Woodstock.