Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, two of the most influential, literate singer-songwriters of the last half century, performed a sold-out concert Thursday night at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House. Cold, cavernous Cole may not have been the best venue for these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, but they made the best of it, Mitchell with a warm, richly textured set that drew heavily from her '70s work, and Dylan with a typically reconstructive romp through his back pages.
After a brief opening set by roots rocker Dave Alvin and a too-long set break, Mitchell took to the stage alone and launched into one of her classic tracks, "Big Yellow Taxi." It's been 17 years since Mitchell performed in the Washington area, and in that time, her voice has taken on deeper, duskier hues that add emotional authority to her ruminations on romantic entanglements, spiritual rootlessness and the restless reveries that lead her to, as "Amelia" puts it, sleep "on the strange pillows of my wanderlust."
Superbly backed by a quartet including trumpeter Chris Botti and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, Mitchell cast her songs in shimmering arrangements built around her characteristic open tunings in different keys. (A new electronic gizmo allowed her to alter those tunings instantly, as opposed to the laborious changing and retuning of guitars from the past.) Graceful, luminous chords cushioned the lilting "Night Ride Home" (with atmospheric coloring from Botti's muted trumpet and terse underpinning by drummer Brian Blade), underscored the giddy sensual recklessness of "The Crazy Cries of Love" and gave proof to the lovely "Hejira," in which Mitchell confessed "There's comfort in melancholy/ When there's no need to explain."
It's not explanations that Mitchell's songs offer, but explorations, a notion underscored by recurrent images of cars (especially taxis), trains, planes and empty roads that stretch forever yet so often lead back to the self. The simply cast "Amelia" conjured the fabled aviatrix to bemoan a lack of romantic connection ("Like me she had a dream to fly/ Like Icarus ascending on beautiful foolish arms"). Other highlights included the sinewy "Harry's House -- Centerpiece," the edgy, accusatory "Sex Kills" and "Magdelene Laundries," a bittersweet narrative about wayward souls and the intertwined hypocrisies of church and state in Ireland.
Mitchell saved the best for last. She revived "Comes Love," a sly 1939 torch song associated with Billie Holiday and Anita O'Day, investing it with both sassy humor and world-weary resignation, and taking the torch notion literally by smoking a cigarette during the instrumental breaks. And for a solo encore, Mitchell revisited "Woodstock" almost 30 years on. Only this time, its generational idealism was replaced by an ineffable sense of sadness over unkept promises and diluted dreams.
This latest local stop on Bob Dylan's Neverending Tour found the recent Kennedy Center Honoree in a feisty mood, albeit not quite as focused as in his most recent shows at the 9:30 club. Dylan remains enlivened, and at times emboldened, by his rock-and-roll band, to the point of taking most of the lead guitar breaks despite not being anywhere close to the technical mastery of band member Larry Campbell. Nonetheless, Dylan seemed to be having great fun from the moment he walked onstage looking like one of his own characters, the Man in the Long Black Coat. (His wardrobe also included white boots and slacks studded with silver dots running up the side.)
He opened with a brief electric set of "Gotta Serve Somebody," "I'll Remember You" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," so dramatically reconstructed (as a hard blues shuffle) as to be almost unrecognizable. The same might have been true of "Mr. Tambourine Man," revisited as an off-kilter newgrass tune with bracing solos featuring lots of stuttering, clipped note runs. Initially off-putting, it proved ingratiating by the time the last verses rolled around.
The acoustic portion of the show included the night's only cover, the Stanley Brothers' "Stone Walls and Steel Bars" (complete with raw three-part harmonies), "Tangled Up in Blue" (the only time Dylan played harmonica) and "Don't Think Twice," with Campbell pattern-picking the familiar melody.
Going electric again, Dylan and the band essayed "Blind Willie McTell," an obscure gem full of deep South atmospherics, and another relatively obscure but great song, the spiritual-like "Every Grain of Sand." He then jacked the power level up another notch with a roof-raising "Highway 61 Revisited," featuring a triple-guitar attack in which Bucky Baxter's pedal steel helped create a full metal racket.
For a generous five-song encore, Dylan mixed electric and acoustic: The former included the foreboding "Love Sick," "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat," " 'Til I Fell in Love With You" and, to better effect, an acoustic and largely faithful "Blowin' in the Wind." A finale of "Forever Young" left even Dylan's oldest fans feeling at least momentarily rejuvenated as they left the hall.