Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell: Bash of the Titans

The trio triumphs on West Coast tour

Bob Dylan, Van Morrison
John Hume/Redferns
Bob Dylan and Van Morrison
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On the closing night of his tour with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan stood onstage at Anaheim's Arrowhead Pond arena, moments before his fifty-seventh birthday. The houselights were up, and Dylan was rollicking his way through "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," with a crowd of roughly 16,000 people – a mix of young fans and folks nearer to Dylan's age – on their feet, cheering his every move and howl. Dylan seemed animated by the response – or, to be more accurate, animated by his own best musical instincts. "Everybody must get stoned," he sang, propping himself on the toes of his left foot and leaning into the microphone. Then Dylan swayed back on his heels, turned, dipped into a crouch and executed a modest duckwalk across stage, tearing into a guitar solo, the notes tumbling on top of each other with the frantic pace and angular phrasing of a maddened bebop flight. Dylan is an older man now, and in some ways a deeper and more world-wise artist, but in moments like these he moved and sounded like that fierce, young, brash man who had originally recorded the song back in 1966, in a season when he was turning the known world of folk and popular arts upside down.

It was a triumphant occasion – not just for Dylan, who has fought his way back from pop disdain to renewed critical and public acclaim, but also for Morrison and Mitchell. All three are rock & roll-era icons who have endured bouts of hard neglect and have come through those experiences with a solitary integrity and courage. This seven-date swing through the West Coast was an arousing demonstration that Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison are artists who continue to make essential music and who still have the power to state their own terms and contexts for their art.

Previously Unseen Bob Dylan Lyrics From 1965

The tour began on May 14th in Vancouver and moved down through Washington, Northern California and then Los Angeles and Anaheim, with Dylan closing most of the nights and Morrison concluding on the others (Mitchell's set stayed in the middle spot each night). On the evening of the tour's first show in Los Angeles, at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, Morrison opened the bill, and the next night (again at Pauley) he held the final spot. Though Morrison's thirty-year body of recorded work has proved as enduring as it has protean, his live shows have been another matter. There have been nights when Morrison has taken a stage and crooned and yowled and raged and stomped with a transfixing passion that is peerless. The next night, though, he may seem so misplaced, frozen or detached that he cuts his show short, leaving an audience with uncomfortable memories.

But Morrison's performances at the two L.A. shows, and again at the final Anaheim appearance, were a reminder of all the things he can be: a soulman who sings about love, sex, God, loss, rock & roll and poetry, and who sings about the possibilities of spirit – spirit as a way of getting through mortality's confusion, a way of seeing the world and celebrating its mysteries and treasures. Dressed in a sharp black blues-man's suit and fedora, and leading a seven-piece band, Morrison performed as if these were some of the prime nights of his life. In soulful blasts like "Cleaning Windows," "Satisfied" and "Domino," and in his saloon-style tribute to Frank Sinatra (who died the night the tour began), "That's Life," Morrison would toss his head or flick his shoulder, cuing his horn section to let go with a revelatory squall and making the audience jump in exhilaration. His quieter moments were also powerful. The dark and lovely "Cypress Avenue" and the tenderly hopeful "Days Like This" sounded unpremeditated, as if Morrison were just uncovering their depths for the first time.

Joni Mitchell was an interesting choice for an arena tour. For some time now, she has cast herself as a sort of anti-pop artist. Not that she opposes pop, but it doesn't really fit her idea of the complexity to which song forms should aspire. She long ago abandoned the folk-informed styles that brought her to fame in favor of a high-minded brand of songwriting that derives partly from the modal-fusion music of Weather Report, as well as from the ECM school of chamber-style jazz. This aesthetic shift – which began promisingly with 1974's Court and Spark and worked best two years later on the sublime Hejira – may account, in part, for why Mitchell has kept a distance from concert stages for so long. In some of her 1980s live shows, Mitchell's older, folk-infused material received a much stronger response than her jazz-inflected work; she has not toured since 1983.

Bob Dylan Through The Years

This time around, Mitchell kept a firm distance from nearly all of her early material. "I am going to try to play some of my more difficult and obscure songs tonight," she told the audience one night, and she held true to that aim through these three shows. Accompanied by the muted tones of her own rhythm guitar – and by Greg Leisz on steel and lead guitar, Brian Blade on drums, and her ex-husband, Larry Klein, on bass – Mitchell favored the pastel-toned sound that characterizes her more recent albums, Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo. In songs like her set opener, "Night Ride Home," Hejira's "America" and "Happiness Is the Best Facelift" (from her forthcoming album, Taming the Tiger), this ascetic approach seemed tuneful and intimate, and presented Mitchell as a singer who is sensual yet reserved.

The problem was, Mitchell's emphasis on this manner proved too same-y and unyielding – especially since so much of her work since Hejira has been built on open-ended melodies and static rhythms. But Mitchell made two concessions to her better-known pop past: "Big Yellow Taxi" – a song, interestingly enough, about treasuring the simple verities before casting them away – and "Woodstock," which she performed as an encore, accompanied only by the thrum of her own guitar. It was her best moment in these shows. When Mitchell first recorded the song, in 1970, on Ladies of the Canyon, her voice had a crystalline, high-end purity that fed into the song's bright hopefulness. Now, her voice has settled into a throatier and more shadowy range. She can't reach for airiness; nor does she want to. In 1998, Mitchell's "Woodstock" is no longer a paean; it's a lament. When she sings about the dream of a reborn nation, she does so with a rent in her voice that lets you know how far off that dream is.

These shows marked Bob Dylan's first U.S. tour of arena-size venues since he release of last year's much-acclaimed Time Out of Mind, and he got the best of the opportunity. In the early ; 1990s, following a long string of arena and stadium treks with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Grateful Dead and the G.E. Smith band – a period that showed Dylan sometimes casting about for a clear sense of his purpose and his audience – Dylan decided to step back for a time from the steady and hard glare of popular culture. He overhauled his band a few times until he settled on its current lineup – mandolin player and steel guitarist Bucky Baxter, bassist Tony Gamier, guitarist Larry Campbell and drummer David Kemper – and they toured frequently, playing numerous one-night stands in concert halls and theaters. Dylan also took a more active part in playing the music and began brandishing his own style of lead guitar, focusing on shaping phrases that sprang from the songs' hidden melodic motifs. By the time Dylan played Los Angeles' El Rey Theater last December and New York's Theater at Madison Square Garden in January, he was giving some of the most joyful and confident performances of his career, and nearly every song was an epic-length showcase for the band's three-man guitar front line.

For this recent series of arena dates, Dylan cut back on the length of some of the guitar passages, though he also invested more fervor into the core of each song's performance. His first night at Pauley Pavilion, Dylan took the stage on and tore into a version of "Absolutely Sweet Marie" that hit with a remarkable force. It was plain that Dylan and his current band have achieved an impressive brand of musical kinship, much like the quick-witted empathy that the singer once shared with the Band during its concert sprees of the 1960s and 1970s. At certain points – in such songs as "Silvio," "This Wheel's on Fire" and "Rainy Day Women # 12 and 35" – Dylan would deliver a line with a brilliant inflection and drummer David Kemper or guitarist Larry Campbell would answer with flammable riffs that deepened the emotion and momentum of the song, provoking Dylan to even better vocal twists.

But Dylan's most affecting and victorious performances on these nights were "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Love Sick." Both are songs about what lies beyond lost dreams and ruined faith – though the two songs are ages apart in perspective and miles apart in tone. Today, Dylan performs "Tangled Up in Blue" with more ferocity and openness than he does any other song in his set. He pushes into his stinging flurry of acoustic guitar riffs and strums as if he is trying to break the song wide open and find its last meanings, and the audience reacts as if it is hearing something of its own story in the turmoil of the music and the lyrics' account of flight and renewal. "Love Sick" is the other end of the story, twenty-odd years down a hard line. At Pauley Pavilion and Arrowhead Pond, Dylan sang the song in the voice of an older man, talking to himself about the last love he could afford to lose, wanting to let go of his hopes so that he can also let go of his hates, and damning himself for not being able to abandon his memory.

Photos: Bob Dylan Captured at Home and on the Scene

At the end of the first L.A. show, Dylan told the audience about his appearance a couple of years before on a TV tribute to Frank Sinatra, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. "I had planned on doing a Frank Sinatra song that night," Dylan said. "We'd worked it up and had it all ready to go. Then somebody requested that we do this song instead. I hadn't sung it for a long time, and I haven't sung it since, but I want to do it tonight. I hope we get it right." Then, with Dylan on acoustic, he and his band played "Restless Farewell," from his 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin'. "I'll bid farewell in the night and be gone," Dylan sang, as the mesmerized crowd stood on its feet and listened.

It was a fitting gesture – and not simply because Dylan's respect for the late singer was genuine. Dylan, like Sinatra, is somebody who has ontinued to play music simply because, in any season, on any given night, it is what he would prefer to be doing. It isn't just a career but a necessary way of living. Like Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams before him, he stands as a definitive American artist: somebody whose talent can give life to our best visions and keenest ideals – somebody we should be happy to claim as our own.

This is a story from the July 9th, 1998 double issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 790: July 9, 1998