Even before Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he fought to prove that he was as good a performer as he was a songwriter.
It was an uphill battle, considering his tremendous body of work and the mundane quality of his voice (the "voice that came from you and me," in the words of Don McLean's song).
Tuesday night at the San Jose Arena, the battle had been won. I've seen him more than a dozen times, including last week in Vancouver, but this was like seeing a new artist.
His 75-minute run-through of three new songs, seven classics (and a couple of others) and a bluegrass cover was sheer ecstasy, over in the blink of an eye.
It's funny: His live tour with the Grateful Dead was probably his worst, and theirs, too. But with a band that includes Jerry Garcia's former drummer, Dave Kemper, a lot of what Dylan played brought to mind the magic of the early Dead.
The meshing guitars of Dylan and Larry Campbell, Bucky Baxter's pedal steel, the spat-out vocals, the crunch of Tony Garnier's thunderous bass -- all this defined an electric music that has its roots in Appalachian porch jam sessions.
Highlights? Every one of the 13 songs. Surprises? Dylan's guitar licks carrying "Tangled Up in Blue"; the electricity of "Silvio," co-written with the Dead's Robert Hunter; the staying power of the 35-year-old anti-war song "Masters of War"; the fact that a new song, "Cold Irons Bound," was arguably the best performance of the night.
The rest? Joni Mitchell apologized for not playing her older hits, saying that she was playing songs she hadn't toured with. She added one hit -- "Woodstock" -- but many of her newer works, more poetry than song, were tedious.
Van Morrison was slick. He dropped early hits in favor of longer, mystical-tinged reveries, such as "See Me Through." As a bonus, he dedicated "That's Life" to Frank Sinatra and did it with a jazzy horn section.
Arena pluses and minuses: Could have used video and better lighting for folks in the upper reaches; the house lights should have been off for Morrison; having the music piped into the bathrooms is a nice touch.
San Jose Arena
525 West Santa Clara St., San Jose, CA 95113
$45, $75 (sold out)
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