Only Bob Dylan, of the three headliners at the Gorge last weekend, has played a show in Seattle during the '90s. Joni Mitchell hasn't toured the West Coast since 1983, and Van Morrison's last Seattle appearance was with the Chieftains in 1986. Yet the crowd's anticipation was obviously for Dylan; because of his recent histoplasmosis scare; because of the tremendous popularity of his 1997 record _Time Out Of Mind_ (his first top-10 record in nearly 20 years); but mostly, it seemed, because he's _Dylan_.
The performers are reportedly rotating the opening, middle and headlining slots for this tour. Last Saturday, Morrison, dressed head-to-toe in black, opened for the show. He had the evening's most elaborate band, including a trumpeter, two saxophone players, a conga player, and longtime Morrison backing vocalist Brian Kennedy.
Morrison's set was steeped in good-time feelings, as the audience sang along to extended versions of well-loved hits "Domino," "Moondance," and "Tupelo Honey." He even sang "That's Life," in tribute to Frank Sinatra, who had died two nights before. The sound -- especially considering the band's three horns -- was exceptional, and Morrison's gruff blues-based vocals were all there.
Next up was Mitchell. Her thoughtful, jazzy songs were greeted with surprising attentiveness after Morrison's show-biz flash, but backed by only three musicians (including her ex-husband Larry Klein on bass), she suffered the evenings's worst sound mix, a major disappointment for those wanting to hear her unique guitar playing live.
Mitchell alternated between smooth songs like _Court and Spark_'s "Just Like This Train" and somber ones like "The Magdalene Laundries" (a first-person account of an unwed mother). She gave the evening's most intimate performance, often discussing the song she was about to play; she introduced "Amelia" by saying jokingly, "I'm having too much fun -- I've gotta go into drama mode now." Like Morrison, she paid tribute to Sinatra, inserting his name for Benny Goodman's in a line from "Hejira."
When the audience yelled out requests, Mitchell noted, "I put this set together to please myself," but she did play a bouncy solo version of "Big Yellow Taxi" that included a funny Dylan imitation on the titular line ("Last night I heard the screen door slam, a big yellow taxi came and took away my old man"), which he wrote. She encored with her '60s tale "Woodstock," which became a huge hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Played as a quiet solo, so different from CSN&Y's anthemic version, the song became a requiem, plunging the crowed into reflective silence.
The audience's anticipation was tangible by the time the black-clad Dylan took the stage, a few minutes before 10:30, with "Absolutely Sweet Marie," a frequent opener. It seems that this icon is finally comfortable in the role, and the set proceeded -- a bit disappointingly -- like clockwork. Dyland did his own tilted, bent-knee version of dancing during guitar solos on more rock-oriented tracks like "Silvio," and even pulled out his harmonica for "Tangled Up in Blue." Pedal-steel guitarist Bucky Baxter and bassist Tony Garnier, who played stand-up bass at certain points, gave many of the songs a country-western feel, including "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which, like Mitchell's "Woodstock," means something different now than it did when it was written. Sung by someone on the other side of 50, "Times" becomes a resigned lament, and lines like "Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/ Your old road is/Rapidly aging" have the poignancy of a dying campfire.