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Mitchell and Dylan Among Friends   Print

by Ben Ratliff
New York Times
November 3, 1998

NEW YORK -- Bob Dylan is at that stage of cuddly sainthood that Jerry Garcia reached in the 1980s: When he's having fun, the audience is having fun. Dylan looked modestly happy as he surveyed the Madison Square Garden audience through his deeply sunken eyes on Sunday night, and he talked to the crowd a little more than usual. He dug extensively into his lead-guitar playing, his recent ploy to change his group sound, and he danced gingerly, with self- conscious awkwardness, like an eccentric grandfather doing his impression of Chuck Berry to entertain children.

It was a well-received performance, but uninspired. Dylan's greatest-hits set, part of a short double-feature tour that pairs him with Joni Mitchell, too often had the innocuous groove of a Grateful Dead sound-alike band. You know you're in a pretty bland zone when the mentioning of New York City in a lyric (as Dylan did in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues") supplies the set's greatest crowd thrill.

With the exception of three clearly enunciated songs -- his new "Love Sick"; a Charles Aznavour ballad, "The Times We Have Known," and a truly rehydrated version of "Blowin' in the Wind" that marked the set's best moment -- Dylan's delivery was characteristically bizarre. He ran together several lines in single breath, came close to rapping at times, and generally sounded as if he could be singing in any language.

"I usually play these songs all by myself," he said, as he introduced the Aznavour. "But I feel all by myself now." If only he could have better projected that feeling.

His latest album, "Time Out of Mind" (Columbia), uses a band that hangs several sizes too loose on him; the album portrays him effectively as a solitary, grief-wasted figure. Here, still with his castaway's croak and wheeze, he played the gregarious rocker, and it undermined his peculiar eminence. Besides providing a clunky, punky counterweight to the second guitarist Larry Campbell's session-musician proficiency, Dylan's amateur lead- guitar playing just tried one's patience.

Ms. Mitchell satisfied the full range of her audience, playing what was mostly a fan's set with tremendous communicative clarity. She began with "Big Yellow Taxi," which Janet Jackson bowdlerized last year for her own hit. Ms. Mitchell's encore was a revamped "Woodstock."

But between those warhorses, she performed some of her loveliest lesser- known work: "Hejira," "Amelia," "Harry's House," "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," "The Magdalene Laundries." The songs emphasized Ms. Mitchell's brilliance with harmony. What one remembers most in her performances is the total arrangement, with her voice as the most important instrument.

She was pushed by her rhythm section -- drummer Brian Blade, whose fills gave minute attention to the curves of the work, and bassist Larry Klein -- as well a steel-guitar player and a trumpeter who mostly got out of the way of her harmony and lent the music lush surfaces.

In the middle was Ms. Mitchell with her guitar, which she sometimes just strummed but more often played orchestrally, letting bass notes ring over her teasing of idiosyncratically tuned strings.

Most of the performance lit up familiar strengths, but what audiences have learned recently is how good a jazz singer Ms. Mitchell can be. Putting down her guitar and lighting a cigarette, she turned to a plainer style to sing "Comes Love," made famous by Billie Holiday. Without the sudden rushes of phrasing and Ms. Mitchell's signature chords wrapped around it, the song made the most of her natural voice, its bright, cutting vowels and its new depths, a gift of age. It took her into a completely new context.

 

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