Three legends, one show, no concessions.
Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison played for 18,000 baby boomers, aging hippies (reformed and orthodox) and their offspring Saturday at the sold-out second stop on their West Coast mini-tour (4 stars out of four). They could've coasted on their crowd-pleasers; instead, they triumphed (not for the first time) by doing the unexpected.
Morrison, attired as an Amish gangster and backed by an eight-piece band plus longtime vocal foil Brian Kennedy, stuck to his standard soul-revue format, though his 16-song opening set largely steered clear of his classics.
One of rock's consummate singers, Morrison can do this kind of show in his sleep; fortunately, he chose not to, displaying unusual animation and occasional whimsy. Highlights included an exuberant Not Feeling It Anymore and a heartfelt Frank Sinatra tribute - a fingerpopping hipster's swing through That's Life.
Early in her 14-song set, Mitchell cited a first-night review chiding her for avoiding older material - then played a mix of tracks from her less-acclaimed '80s/'90s albums, songs from her forthcoming Tame the Tiger album, and a few obscure tunes from the late '70s (Harry's House from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a hypnotic Amelia and the title track from Hejira).
Her only nods to audience expectations were a tossed-off Big Yellow Taxi (one verse sung Dylan-style) and a rapturously greeted encore of Woodstock.
Playing electric guitar in her usual otherworldly tunings, backed by bass, drums, and pedal steel guitar, she was spellbinding; she hasn't lost a step, and she still writes rings around the new generation of angst-strumming female pretenders.
Dylan came out with guitars blazing: In the course of a revelatory 14-song headlining set (Morrison headlined the following evening), he elongated familiar songs with protracted electric jams, striking guitar-hero poses in his natty mariachi cardsharp Western outfit and projecting his sheer joy in playing. With a four-piece band, he transformed If You See Her, Say Hello into a Creedence-style scorcher, while the pedestrian '80s track Silvio became a raging riff monster. A mid-show acoustic set ranged from a faithful version of the Rev. Gary Davis/Dave Van Ronk folk standard Cocaine Blues to a Tangled Up in Blue hoedown fueled by dueling guitar and mandolin.
Skipping concert warhorses like All Along the Watchtower and Like a Rolling Stone, he showcased three songs from his Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind album. Testifying to the new material's strength, one of these, a ghostly Sick of Love, was the night's most riveting performance.
The three rock icons, boasting a collective century and more on the concert stage, united once, late in Dylan's set, to perform I Shall Be Released. It wasn't exactly the Three Tenors: Mitchell missed her cues and most of the lyrics, while Dylan and Morrison sounded more like the Budweiser frogs.
A touching moment, to be sure, but more symbolic of the evening was a lighting effect earlier in Dylan's set that projected gigantic silhouettes of the artist and his band on the scrim behind the outdoor stage. This was indeed a night of giants.