“Getting up and singing songs that you sang 30 years ago during what you thought was a revolution is kind of pathetic. I don’t like old people on a rock & roll stage, I think they look pathetic. Me included.” — Grace Slick, 1997
Hey Grace, tell it to the 20,000 or so people who packed into UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to witness two nights of a baby boomer bliss: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison on one dream ticket. The show had its problems, to be sure, but at the very least it offered occasional glimpses into the very distinct genius that defines each of these pop paragons. And if anyone’s *not* looking pathetic lately, it’s Dylan himself. Playing this gig mere days before his 57th birthday, he put on a fiery rock & roll roots show here that would put his boy’s band to shame.
Clad in an all-black, mariachi-style cowboy suit, Dylan displayed all the swagger you might expect from an artist who was nearly written off eighteen months ago, then abruptly re-emerged with one of 1997’s strongest rock albums. Dylan and his brilliant backup band drew standing ovations for “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and the show-closing “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” while all-acoustic versions of “Rank Strangers to Me” and “It Ain’t Me” showcased the grit and sensitivity paramount in the legendary songwriter’s finest work.
Still, the set’s strongest moments came when the boys were in full electric Fender twang, whether it was on the dark, disorienting blues groove “Cold Irons Bound” or the dramatic, tremolo-and-slide-guitar read of “Love Sick,” both of which appear on 1997’s triple-Grammy-winning, critically lauded comeback album Time Out of Mind.
Joni Mitchell inherited the unenviable task of being next in line. In marked contrast to Dylan’s cool stage demeanor, Mitchell was downright personal with the audience, engaging them with between-song banter and her considerable storytelling skills. After introducing “Happiness is the Best Facelift” as “another morbid little Christmas song,” Mitchell chuckled candidly, “I don’t know if these songs make you feel better or worse.”
It was a bit of both, actually. Backed by a talented jazz-based rhythm section (featuring ex-husband Larry Klein and drummer Brian Blade) and Greg Leisz’s colorful slide guitar, the 54-year-old Mitchell pulled off exquisite versions of “Black Crow” and “Amelia” (from her 1976 tone poem Hejira). A perfectly executed Dylan impersonation in “Big Yellow Taxi” (during the verse Dylan wrote for his own 1973 cover version of the song) drew sustained applause, as did stirring reworkings of “Woodstock” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Mitchell’s intricate musical adaptation of the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming.”
Despite an intimate, graceful performance free of indication that Mitchell hasn’t toured in fifteen years, however, her set may have been a bit heady for the L.A. crowd. One couldn’t help but sense that after an hour of melancholy ballads, abstract bebop phrasings, and literary referencing that included Plato’s Republic, some folks were feeling a bit pop-deprived.
Enter Van Morrison, who offered a much-needed shot of rock & roll adrenaline with a joyous, shamelessly upbeat version of his 1970 classic “Domino.” The Belfast Gypsy used his trademark dynamic — that long, slow drive to spiritual exultation (or sexual climax, whichever you prefer) — to repeatedly work the audience into a near-religious frenzy. Soulful, R&B-powered versions of “Days Like This,” “In the Afternoon/Shake Rattle and Roll” and his closing number, “Burning Ground,” were strong examples of his scope, while the ballad “My Name is Raincheck,” a beautiful duet with daughter Shana Morrison, offered an emotional high of a very different nature.
Nevertheless, as energetic as Van Morrison was compared to Mitchell, he was still considerably more subdued than Dylan. Draped in a full business suit, dark shades, and black fedora, and motioning for organist John Allair to hit the keys harder here, exhorting the rest of his wildly talented, nine-piece band to “make it funky!” there, the Irish-born 53-year-old presided over the goings-on like an ornery mob boss. To his credit, the band was tight as a knot, the musicianship was dazzling and slick, and the crowd was on its feet throughout. But Van Morrison is legendary for truly inspired live performances, and tonight concertgoers had to settle for mere professionalism.
With more than 160 years of experience, twenty-eight hit singles, and three permanent slots in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame behind them, there were a lot of favorite songs that didn’t get played tonight. But one reason these artists have such enduring legacies is their independence, a stubborn dedication to their own musical muses in the face of occasionally stifling critical and public expectations. Of course, the legacies aren’t yet complete — in Dylan’s case, at the very least, we still have much to look forward to. And who could argue with that? Grace Slick aside, of course.