It was hard to tell whether the print ads for Sunday's United Center show by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were tweaking nostalgia in imitating a '60s-style concert poster or trying out a fresh-scrubbed strategy to attract young fans. "2 Great Bands," indeed.
But if there was confusion in the selling of this lofty pairing of singer-songwriters, a certainty bordering on obsessiveness defined their performances. Even when tossing out crumbs for their hit-minded followers, Dylan and Mitchell extracted up-to-the-moment meaning from their songs by altering their phrasing and instrumentation and making timely adjustments in that crucial thing called attitude.
Dylan was in such an uncommonly jolly state, his songs would have sounded newly dressed, no matter what creative changes he made. Leading a versatile no-name band, he opened with purposeful raggedness, shaking songs such as Gotta Serve Somebody and Cold Irons Bound from their moorings with off-kilter vocals and staggered rhythms.
With a glowing, upbeat reading of Just Like A Woman, which he introduced with a long, lyrical harmonica solo, he changed gears. In interesting contrast to the legendary 1966 concert (finally available on CD) in which he caused a scandal by going electric, this show squeezed out its most memorable sparks when he unplugged.
On It Ain't Me Babe, which he acted out in three different voices, the unified strumming of Dylan, guitarist Larry Campbell and mandolin player Bucky Baxter built to stirring, mellifluous effect.
When the band went electric again, it attained a locked-down authority. Highway 61, rejuvenated, soared with a streamlined power reminiscent of Dylan's great interpreters, the Byrds.
In the end, his well-being deprived the performance of intensity. His confession of being "sick of love" didn't approach the raw despair of the version on his latest recording. But there's something to be said for the buoyancy imparted through his playful knee bends, duck-steps and guitar poses. Let his ability to renew himself, again and again, be a lesson to the young go-getters who think they have a monopoly on relevance.
Mindful of time restraints in preceding Dylan, Mitchell sacrificed her usual conversational rapport with the audience. But sustaining a low-key intensity, she effectively updated the atmospheric jazz-pop sound she has called her own since trading in the folk melodies of her early stardom.
Mitchell is right in saying she hasn't received enough credit for introducing the cross-generic textures so evident in the work of contemporary artists like Cassandra Wilson. With pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz and trumpeter Chris Botti cooling the air with their spare, curling notes, and bassist Larry Klein pushing melody lines through Mitchell's odd, chiming chords on guitar, the music was both spacious and assertive.
As ever, Amelia stood out with its haunting, clear-eyed beauty. And notwithstanding lines such as Happiness is the best face-lift," Mitchell 's new material flowed seamlessly from the old. The most pleasant surprise was her alluring reading of Comes Love, a jazz classic associated with Billie Holiday. Free and easy, it made up for Mitchell 's stilted Billie-isms on Herbie Hancock's new Gershwin tribute album.
Opening the show, veteran roots-rocker Dave Alvin and band made the most of the rare opportunity to perform in a large venue with a hard-edged set.