Dylan, Morrison and Mitchell in Total Control

by Ben Wener
Orange County Register
May 26, 1998

You had three chances. Two in Los Angeles, one golden opportunity in Orange County. If, for some pathetic reason, you missed it - you didn't score those great seats, couldn't find a sitter, broke a limb a few hours before show time or, worse, just flat-out ignored it - then it is now time to begin kicking yourself.

Forgive a fan some respectable hyperbole: This will (probably) never happen again. If you saw the Mighty Trifecta of Geezer Rock - those forever-young-in-our-hearts legends Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison - play the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Saturday night, or indeed at any of the seven stops of this West Coast jaunt, you saw something to tell your grandchildren.

Even if it wasn't flawless. Even if there wasn't some rousing sing-along finale featuring all three chanting on (insert your favorite Dylan classic here). Even if you didn't "get" Joni's deliberately moody and highly personal performance. Even if the only thing you could understand out of Van was the duh-duh-duh-duh-DAPs of a ridiculously bouncy "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)."

So it wasn't the final hour of "The Last Waltz." Who thought it would be? Some invariably thought that, given this bunch's dense catalog and three-decade-plus history, perhaps this 4 1/2-hour extravaganza would be one long tear down Memory Lane.

Think again. If anything, this marvelous night of music proved that these three post-50 geniuses aren't finished providing us heapings of poetic, soulful bliss and lively, accessible art. The pop model has not been perfected, say their performances (especially Joni's); Van and Dylan, actually, argue that it's time to refashion it a little closer to the fundamentals.

Each artist was surprisingly strong during his or her respective 75-minute set, though each in quite different ways - Van the (Icily Cool) Man offering his soul revue equally Charles Brown-ish and Caledonia-style; Joni the Imperial Mystic still searching for truth and declaiming man's idiocy amid modern sounds; and Dylan the Literate Entertainer simply having a blast, whether ripping through his standards (dig the roof-raising "Highway 61 Revisited" he stirred up) or more recent material (ditto the feel accorded "Cold Irons Bound").

Van, looking not unlike the long-lost father of Jake and Elwood Blues in his black suit, black hat and dark shades, started things with a roar, zipping through "Domino" and "Jackie Wilson Said" before launching his instinctive eight-piece band through more subtle grooves, such as "Cleaning Windows" and "Beautiful Vision."

There was understandable apprehension going in over whether the Belfast wonder would really commit himself to performing. In the past, he's relied far too heavily on the pleasant voice but grating manner of backup singer Brian Kennedy. When Kennedy began the set with two numbers, including a lifeless "Sweet Thing," the situation looked bleak.

But Morrison instantly seized control of the stage, clearly the ringleader here who calls all the shots (not just solos but the entire set list) based on what his mood is. You literally could hear him yell out for the next tune ("Days Like This" brought a happy response from the band) or watch him set off a chain of whispers rippling through his group (something akin to " 'Tupelo Honey' ... pass it on").

Amazingly, the cantankerous rocker pushed all the right buttons. His set was one that all middle-age stars should emulate: A healthy smattering of crowd-pleasers reworked in style tossed with a mix of obscure material, a few centerpieces (check the wail on "Have I Told You Lately?"), some interesting combinations (see "In the Garden" meshed with "Real Real Gone") and at least one gem for the hard core (and "Cypress Avenue," with its throw-the-mike-to-the-floor closer - "It's too late to stop now!" - was a brilliant choice).

He was, in short, incredible. "Good luck, Joni!" one fan yelled out as Morrison exited strutting.

Had the Canadian singer-songwriter, who rarely tours, tried to match the power of the soul man's set, it surely would have been an embarrassment. As it was, Joni's choice to focus on more "obscure and difficult material," as she dubbed it, was the right move, though admittedly better suited to a much smaller venue.

There were only two tunes the 20,000-plus crowd seemed to recognize: "Big Yellow Taxi" (done in a stinging version that included a cute reference to the extra verse Dylan tacked on when he covered it in the '70s) and "Woodstock" (which somewhat made sense given the evening's lineup but slightly spoiled the meditative context of her set).

Backed by an excellent, jazz-tinged three-piece, Joni shined throughout the performance, seeming to be more invigorated the further she ventured from the middle of the road. Hence, "Just Like This Train" was haunting yet relatable, "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" was heady and protesting, and "Amelia" was ruminative and downright gorgeous.

The audience's response was polite at best, and it made sense; anyone more than 25 rows from the stage had to have lost something in the open arena air. Even so, Joni's still-ethereal (but now also smoky) voice, influential outlook and strong, underrated guitar playing were transporting.

Dylan, of course, has given some of the best performances of his career this past year, and Saturday was no exception. There was a marked difference, however, in this briefer gig and, say, the drawn-out-and-storming club shows he played last December. There he was constructing enthralling evenings of tone and thought; here he was just living it up in ways only Dylan can.

Which means out came "Lay Lady Lay," "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," "The Times They Are A-Changin' " and a snarling, raspy version of "Tangled Up in Blue" that found the master tweaking his old notes in new ways and sounding fresher than ever, as if the bruised origins of that song had just been created.

He threw in some recent cuts (notably a lovely take on "To Make You Feel My Love" that far surpassed any studio version, including his own) and a few oddballs ("Silvio," a cover of the Rev. Gary Davis' "Cocaine"), but this wasn't about song selection. This was about seeing a smiling, prancing, cheeky Dylan feeding off the energy of thousands of fans and returning that gift with some splendid, bustin'-loose playing.

He solos a bit more these days, some may have noticed, though he solos like he sings * all over the place. And so what? He's Bob Dylan. He sounds better than he has in a decade, he's got an album-of-the-year Grammy back in his trailer, he's on top again and, as he slinked offstage for the last time, he turned 57. He's earned the right to beat the blazes out of one note for 12 bars. Even if it is the wrong note.

The bottom line is that those who heard him pluck all sorts of funky notes on a touching "Forever Young" will someday imagine they were dead-on. Just as they won't remember Joni missing a chord on "Just Like This Train" at a crucially quiet moment, or Van flubbing the opening line of "Beautiful Vision."

None of that matters. What does is how much this evening reminded that these three are still vital to pop music and should remain so for some time to come. As Van sang, "I don't fade away unless I choose."


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