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Bob & Joni & Van
1998-05-17, The Gorge Amphitheatre, George, WA
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#1 album on this date: ‘Before These Crowded Streets,’ Dave Matthews Band (knocking off the ‘Titanic’ soundtrack after a 16-week run)
#1 movie on this date: Deep Impact
Times headline on this date: “Defending the Hansons,” by Neil Strauss
When last we checked in on 1998, Dylan was in South America opening for the Rolling Stones. A month later, he's on the U.S. West Coast with two equally iconic names: Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell.
This was not unusual. In the late '90s, Dylan, or his people, seemed to want to play bigger venues than he could fill alone. So he went into a dispiriting run of, essentially, oldies package tours. He'd already done one Van Morrison tour earlier in the year, and would do a third in the fall, playing glamorous venues like the Puyallup State Fair. The next year, he'd go out with Paul Simon twice, then chase that by touring with Phil Lesh and Friends, no doubt knowing that any Dead member is a guaranteed concert draw.
That impulse soon subsided. He'd still bring along prominent co-headliners here and there - Lesh again in 2000, Willie Nelson in 2004, most recently the My Morning Jacket/Wilco/Beck/etc "Americanarama" tour in 2013. Sometimes these are old friends; sometimes it's not clear he even knows their names (MMJ’s Jim James later complained he never spoke with Bob the entire tour). But mostly, he seems satisfied playing whatever venues he can fill himself.
Even this '98 super-tour wasn't initially supposed to be quite so super. It had been announced as another double-headliner tour with Van Morrison. Then Van dropped out and Mitchell was drafted as a replacement. But then at the eleventh hour Van somehow dropped back in, so all three icons hit the road together.
Unlike the Stones tour, which seemed like pure commerce, Bob, Joni, and Van make sense together. They're all idiosyncratic performers - some would say "obstinate" - who refuse to rest on their laurels or become greatest-hits acts. They have well-earned reputations for performing what they want how they want, whether the audience wants that same thing or not. In the show we're looking at, for instance, Joni didn't perform anything off Blue and Van ignored Astral Weeks.
This particular show took place at the The Gorge outdoor amphitheater, in George, Washington (took me a minute to notice that name), a few hours from Seattle. And if you're thinking, "Is Washington State really warm enough for an outdoor show in mid-May?" - good instinct. It wasn't.
The venue apparently opened its summer season several weeks early just to secure a slot on this tour, and weather issues plagued the show from the start. Temperatures were in the low 50s, with wind topping 30 MPH at times. The overhead lighting fixtures were visibly swaying in the wind - Joni even comments on it during her set - and a couple online reviewers say it was alarming to watch.
For reasons I assume are weather-related, Dylan went on first, for the only time this tour. Though billed as three co-headliners, at every other date the order was Van, then Joni, then Bob. But here, shortly after 6pm, out walks Dylan. Maybe he just wanted to get out of there. Or maybe the promoters worried they'd have to call the show prematurely and somehow Bob, as the first-among-equals headliner, contractually had to perform or else people would get their money back.
Either way, he went on first and performed a shortened set of eleven songs. It unfortunately did not include a reprise of the previous night’s duet (tri-et?) with Joni and Van on “I Shall Be Released”:
At today’s show, before the second song, he sarcastically tells the crowd, "I wanna sing one of my hit songs now.” Funny line! Except, well, it sounds sarcastic, but then sure enough he goes on to play one of his actual hit songs! "Lay Lady Lay." He follows it with a bunch more hit songs. Seven of the ten original songs he plays come from the '60s, and the eighth is "Tangled Up in Blue." He barely touches the album that had won him the Album of the Year Grammy only a few months prior.
There are plenty of shows where Bob plays his famous songs. I'm not aware of another where right up front he tells the audience, here folks, let me play you some of my big hits - and then does it. Bob picked two other equally idiosyncratic '60s icons to tour with, then pulls a switcharoo and becomes Jimmy Buffet.
It's a boring set of songs, but he doesn't sound bored while playing them, which is something. Maybe he's trying to reach the lawn in the back or maybe he's trying to howl over the wind, but he belts each song to the rafters this amphitheater doesn't have. I realize full-bore hollering sounds exhausting on paper, but gives a sometimes sleepy song like "Just Like a Woman" an extra infusion of energy.
Joni Mitchell takes a different approach. Rather than trying to blast through the elements with sheer power, she leans on charming banter. It's occasionally tinged with a tone of fear, as when the heavy coat she's wearing apparently gives her static shocks from the microphone. The music, sadly, falls victim to these same elements. It comes across as a little lounge-y, like a corny jazz band playing at the Boca Vista. I'm willing to give her band the benefit of the doubt that nuances are getting lost in this environment of wind and muddy open-air sound. Subtlety doesn’t translate.
The three songs she plays solo acoustic work better. They include the only real hits of the set too: "Big Yellow Taxi," "The Magdalene Laundries," "Woodstock.” Unlike Bob, Joni at least attempts to promote her current work in difficult circumstances, with almost half the set coming from her three '90s albums: Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo, and the forthcoming Taming the Tiger. A shame that stuff didn't get more of a chance here.
But, tonight at least, Bob and Joni were the warmup acts for a reason. If I could only keep one set, it's no contest. My admittedly little-informed impression of late-period Van Morrison was that he has become a hit or miss live performer. But he's practically in It's Too Late to Stop Now mode here. He cuts through in a way that neither Bob or Joni managed.
He seems to be more or less winging the setlist too. Listen close - after just about every song you can hear him slightly off-mic yell the next song to the band. "Jackie Wilson!" "Raincheck!" "Domino!" And the band literally doesn't miss a beat. I timed a few breaks between songs; the longest was three seconds. Not bad for a 9-piece band that for about two of those seconds doesn't even know what they're about to play.
The mostly new tunes fit right alongside the few hits in this context, a jumping soul revue where the individual songs matter less than the overall sound. When he switches halfway through "Tupelo Honey" into the barely-remembered '91 song "Why Must I Always Explain," which uses the same melody, you don't even mind him cutting a beloved classic short. They both swing just as hard when he plays them here. Listening to Van’s set cold, you’d be hard pressed to tell which were the hits.
Oldies package tours are a pretty dispiriting phenomenon, and I'm glad Bob's mostly put that phrase behind him. But when the fit is right - and when the night is magic - sometimes a performer can transcend.
PS. Rob Mitchum’s Phish Essays newsletter, which partially inspired this one, has returned! If you’re a Phish fan, no doubt you’ll love it. But I’m NOT a Phish fan, and still find it super interesting to read Rob’s dispatches from this strange world. Subscribe here.