Joni Mitchell had a remarkable night Sunday at the United Center. Here was an artist who actually made the joint's turgid acoustics work in her favor. Instead of blasting her music into the rafters, she let it float. She didn't so much raise the roof as make it evaporate, replaced by the incense of her fractured jazz chords and the smoke of her mahogany alto.
Heady stuff. Great stuff. Enough to make another solid set of music by Bob Dylan seem almost perfunctory.
Dylan's on a roll, no doubt. He's coming off a great album, "Time Out of Mind," and he has worked his road band into a well-oiled machine, so much so that they occasionally seem to be coasting--perhaps because Dylan has been working variations on the same set list for the better part of a year. There's no denying that the string-band version of "Tangled Up in Blue" is a keeper and that the ZZ Top spin applied to "Highway 61 Revisited" has been monumental on occasion (though not on this night). But Dylan needs to dig into some other crevices of his songbook to surprise us again, just as he did a year ago when the forgettable "Silvio" became a surprise show-stopper. "Silvio," which rang out again Sunday, is emblematic of the Dylan band's recent approach; the tossed off lyrics are just an excuse for the quintet to dig into the all-mighty groove.
Dressed in black to complement his band of card sharps in their suits and bowler hats, Dylan was an animated, almost playful presence as he duck-walked in place or splayed his legs, sometimes wheeling his guitar from side to side. His strange charisma cued the band, as he crooked a shoulder or dipped at the waist to signal a new curve in an arrangement, and he was feeling so spry he hogged most of the solos, all but reducing Larry Campbell's role to tending the rhythm. Dylan was at his best on "Just Like a Woman," opening with an extended harp solo and finishing it with a guitar jam.
Dylan especially dug into the staccato, counter-punching rhythms of "Cold Irons Bound" and buried himself in the ominous "Love Sick," but his "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" had a tossed-off air.
There was nothing perfunctory about Mitchell's set. She framed it with solo electric versions of "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" that were far more moodily introspective than the originals, in keeping with the tone of the evening. With Larry Klein sliding around the rhythm on bass, and Brian Blade dancing with brushes on the trap kit, Mitchell's exquisite guitar voicings guided her band. The quintet conjured lush tones at even the quietest volumes, with Greg Liesz's pedal steel drifting like a desert tumbleweed on Mitchell's luminous "Amelia."
"Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms," Mitchell sang, in what could have been a summation of a performance in which introspection gave way to a sense of anxiety and finally freedom.
There was a freedom of sorts when Mitchell finally set aside her guitar to perform Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and an obscure Billie Holiday ballad. She worked the contours of these songs, and in her lush, cool manner, sent them spiraling languidly into the subconscious night.