It seemed fitting that with Halloween only a night away the ghosts of the 60's arrived to haunt the Corel Centre last night. The question for the 6,000 in attendance was whether or not any zombies were going to climb on that stage as well.
Despite the fact that both Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have travelled many musical miles since they first appeared over three decades ago, the pair are living, breathing icons who continue the minstrel traditional they made such a mark with all those years ago.
Anyone who's been at a Dylan concert in Ottawa over the past few years knows full well that buying a ticket for his shows was a crap-shoot at best. In the past Dylan has been at best marginally understandable and at his worst he blathered through an evening at the NAC that was one of the most embarassing and uncomfortable events I've ever witnessed.
But whatever has happened to big Bob in the interim has to be viewed as a major step forward, because the man we saw last night emoted the kind of acoustic wanderlust and razor sharp lyrical bite that set him apart from the crowd and vaulted him to icon status. From the crack of the bat, the band kicked into a grinding groove on Gotta Serve Somebody, and it became obvious the skeletons in Dylan's closet tonight were all solid gold. And as the incense machine filled the arena with the palpable sensory amenities to recreate the mood of a time long gone, Dylan did his part in the usual unkempt but exhilerating jagged line that is folk/rock--and he did it better than we've seen in years.
The great feel we picked up from the opening continued as Bob and the band rolled out an urban-country feel and laced up classics like I Want You with a new vigor--an electric feel that actually reminded you why this man turned some fans into worshippers. In fact, the way they attacked All along The Watchtower with full-bore guitar fury was almost scary, the song had the urgency it was meant to have.
The evening was divided into moody fragments, wavering from the aforementioned wall of electric angst to gentle acoustic segments that brought the sensitivity factor to the forefront--with a more intimate feel up front as he poured out the grit on Masters Of War, or the jumpy new approach to Tangled Up In Blue--a feeling that gave the song a lot more oomph.
Although Dylan's set certainly didn't feel nostalgic, it was. But the hard-nosed approach the whole unit gave to benchmarks like Highway 61 Revisited was the divergence. It was old Dylan that sounded new just because of the freshness and energy that the tunes were given.
For those of us who believed so strongly in Dylan's musical magnetism in its infancy, it was an absolute shot in the arm to see that at 57, the man seems close to be reborn as a performer. He's once again able to inject his music with the required dosage of whatever magic he summons up for inside to grab us by the collective scruff of the neck and get that special charge that only a few performers can. Welcome back Bob we missed this side of you.
Like Dylan, Joni Mitchell has covered a lot of territory since her fresh-faced Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning signalled the arrival of Canada's first folk superstar. Rather than allowing the evening to be straightforward nostalgia, Mitchell brought to the table a nice little evolutionary package. The tone of her attack was instantaneous as she brought the screams of approval into play by launching into her classic Big Yellow Taxi.
However, as was to be the case all night, Mitchell gave the tune a slap on the butt with jazzy and even hip-hoppish tinges creeping in to the delivery. She moved freely into a second solo version of a song that's stood by her like an old friend - Just Like This Train - but again, taking a more soulful approach to the vocals. It was at this point that Mitchell brought out her stellar backup unit, and the whole focus moved into the king of slow, lusty bottom-driven jazzy groove that gave you the feeling you were in some smoky beatnik bar on the Left Bank.
And so it would be for the better part of the evening, with the romance of Night Ride Home, her newly recorded Crazy Cries of Love and the bouncy Court and Spark winner Free Man In Paris, and the drama of Harry's House, and Magdalene Laundries.
It was a refreshing sight to see an artist like Mitchell continue to work without dwelling too much on the past. She's become one of the most well-rounded of all the women who began as straight folk artists. The gentleness is still there, but when she approaches the tender feel of Amelia and Face Lift, the songs moved from a straight acoustic reading to something with a tad more soul--delivery is everything with Mitchell, and last night she was comfortable and it showed.
In fact, Mitchell seemed to be really enjoying herself, romping through the likes of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter with all the energy of a funky flower child. Especially when she comes out with the straight-ahead soul we hear on her version of Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man and evocative closer Comes Love. Her straight-ahead cat attack on Woodstock was a marvel. This was Mitchell at her jazzy best.
The evening was opened by a solid set from Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, who divided their short time up with a cross-section of rockin' blues-based countrified folk. It was one of those hurried little opening sets that showed these guys had something really intriguing to offer, with a sound that gave us a taste of what Dire Straits might have sounded like if they'd been from Austin, Texas, and Junior Brown was playing lead instead of Mark Knopfler. Very Cool.