What becomes a legend most? That was the question faced, to a greater or lesser degree, by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell at the Gorge Ampitheatre Saturday night, in the second of a series of seven dates the trio is playing this spring. And, given that they are three of the most individualistic performers of the rock era, it's not surprising to report that they came up with three different answers.
Morrison and his nine-piece band kicked things off with a tightly focused R&B revue, opening with the 1970 hit "Domino" and moving through a string of classics that included "Moondance" and a gorgeous, country-tinged rendition of "Tupelo Honey." In the past, Morrison has seemed dismissive of the material that made him famous, and has often let bandmates Georgie Fame and Brian Kennedy share a bit too much of the spotlight. But on this night, clad in a black suit and sunglasses, Morrison was clearly in command, and he attacked his classics with the same intensity he brought to newer songs like "See Me Through" and "Days Like This." The highlight of Morrison's set, though, was an exuberant, soulful version of "That's Life," played in tribute to the recently departed Frank Sinatra.
If Morrison successfully integrated his older and newer material, Mitchell seemed reluctant to draw on her legacy, and the result was a performance strong in voice but notably lacking in variety and the sort of crowd-pleasers a venue the size of the Gorge demands. Clutching an electric guitar and backed by a three-piece band, Mitchell unveiled several new songs that failed to connect with the audience before hitting her stride with "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," an adaptation of W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming." The audience, hungry for something recognizable, exploded when Mitchell started singing her classic "Big Yellow Taxi," complete with a Dylan impersonation on a verse he added to the song when he covered it on the album Dylan. But by the time she encored, with a somber rendition of the flower child anthem "Woodstock," it was hard not to feel as though she'd overstayed her welcome.
Any bad feelings, though, vanished when Dylan stepped to the stage. Dressed in a long black coat, with black pants, string tie, and boots, Dylan launched into a high-spirited, high-octane version of his Blonde on Blonde classic "Absolutely Sweet Marie" that quickly had the audience on its feet. Next up was a new take on "If You See Her, Say Hello," which transformed the plaintive Blood on the Tracks ballad into a slice of mid-tempo, Byrds-style folk-rock. For those familiar with Dylan's live performances, such transformations are nothing new-35 years after releasing his first record, Dylan routinely rearranges his songs to keep them fresh, both for himself and his audiences.
What was different, though, from past shows was the high energy, intensity, and good humor Dylan brought to this performance. After a decade of sleepwalking through often sloppy, sub-par concerts, in the last few years Dylan seems to have finally regained his skill and pleasure at playing before a live audience. If he still steadfastly refuses to engage the crowd in between-song patter, he nevertheless seems acutely aware of its presence, and has once again started crafting shows that have a rhythm and liveliness that do justice to his majestic songs. On this night, he worked his magic on everything from the 1964 ballad "It Ain't Me, Babe" to the gospel-tinged "I Shall Be Released" (on which he was joined by Morrison and Mitchell) to the bluesy "Love Sick," from last year's Grammy-winning album Time Out of Mind. That three such distinct and memorable songs could be woven together seamlessly in concert three-and-a-half decades into his career is perhaps the greatest testament to Dylan's artistry, both as a songwriter and as a showman.