Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison each demonstrated unambiguously why they have endured for decades by serving up creative and thoughtful sets Thursday during the first of a three-night stand in the Southland. The trio’s efforts were met with reverence by the celebrity-dotted, packed house, and yet it wasn’t an exercise in nostalgia. Each icon provided music that could easily hold its own in today’s mostly urbanized and mechanized marketplace.
Morrison’s lengthy set opening the evening was a mixed bag of R&B-influenced tunes, during which he by-passed “Brown Eyed Girl” but offered “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” last made into a charttopper by Rod Stewart; and “That’s Life,” in such an uninspired version of the Frank Sinatra hit that it seemed almost blasphemous to perform.
Morrison, however, made plenty of use of the top-drawer horn work by Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis, which had the audience hanging on every counterpoint, and trotted out the memorable “Moondance,” in addition to more recent additions to his 28-album repertoire.
But he never mentioned that Polydor Records next month is releasing a 30-song, two-disc retrospective dubbed “The Philosopher’s Stone” which is a reason he embarked on this short roadshow.
Mitchell, who followed Morrison, provided the antithesis to Morrison’s set in almost every way. He offered a stage crowded with eight musicians, she had just three. He stayed way to the back, she occupied the stage apron. His perf was polished and he rarely spoke; she appeared nervous and offered lengthy monologues before each song.
The dichotomy of the two performers was reflected in the crowd: They bounced and clapped in time during Morrison’s perf, but sat in rapt attention during Mitchell’s, focusing on every lyric and nuance like kindergartners during story time.
Mitchell — who hasn’t toured in more than a decade — delivered a musically pristine set which included previews of some new tracks, including a well-crafted nugget dubbed “Crazy Cries of Love” from her upcoming Reprise Records disc “Taming the Tiger.” She also went home again with “Big Yellow Taxi,” which was met with unbridled enthusiasm from the crowd.
Dylan was by far the most enigmatic of the threesome, the ringing guitars and chugging rhythms of his set particularly pronounced when backdropped by the simplicity of the guitar-vocal stylings of Mitchell, who preceded him.
The driving tunes offered by rock’s most acclaimed songwriter provided the crowd with a shot of adrenaline as the Grammy winner tapped into numbers the crowd clearly expected to hear, such as “Just Like a Woman” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” yet considering his hefty repertoire provided a head-scratcher or two as in the lackluster “Silvio.”
But at every musical turn, Dylan delighted the SRO crowd, most of whom stood and stayed until the show’s final bars which rang through the cavernous venue more than four hours after the triple-legend bill began.