Live Review

Bob Dylan / Van Morrison / Lucinda Williams - Rose Garden Arena (Portland, OR)

Bob Dylan on September 23, 1998

Watching Lucinda Williams step on the Rose Garden Arena stage as the crowd of 14,000 filed in, I recalled the first time I saw her perform, in 1989 at a small club in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her tentativeness that night and almost Sally Field-ish reaction to the crowd's applause was, at times, excruciating. If you had told me then that Lucinda would one day hold her own on an arena stage with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, I'd never have bought it.

Of course, any discomfort this night would have been forgivable. Indeed, she seemed a tad nervous at the start and confessed: "I don't know what to say. I'm playing on the same stage as Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. I think that speaks for itself."

But ultimately, her music spoke for itself. Her wonderfully nuanced singing, complete honesty in both songwriting and performance, and first-rate new band easily won the crowd over in a brief 30-minute, six-song set. Everybody got it. Lucinda did a masterful job transporting her arena captives clear across the country to her stories, places, sights and sounds of the South.

After a slightly tentative start with "Pineola", John Jackson's graceful mandolin got things rolling on "Car Wheels", Lucinda's poignant recollection of disorienting childhood relocations. Things picked up a bit more, and Lucinda let go on Randy Weeks' "Can't Let Go" as bassist Richard "Hombre" Price and drummer Fran Breen laid down a fast-moving, Memphis train song beat. The band then hit full stride as Kenny Vaughan's lead guitar tore through "Joy" and "Changed The Locks", casting a spell with a gritty blues feel. With three great albums in a row and now a confident live show, Lucinda has certainly earned her place on this big a stage. And she is taking full advantage of her opportunity.

Any fears Lucinda may have had about opening for the great Van Morrison were needless. Sadly, Van the Man opted to dial this one in, limply delivering a surprisingly unadventurous greatest-hits set (including "Here Comes The Night", "Domino", "Tupelo Honey", "Crazy Love", "Jackie Wilson Said", "Moondance" and even "Gloria").

Morrison's vocals skills and band are such that he can go through the motions and fool most people. And he did -- the crowd went wild for his set. But he didn't fool anyone when he failed to face the audience for half the show and even walked off the stage while someone else introduced his band members. Last May, on the day after Sinatra's death, seeing Van deliver a spine-tingling set opening for Dylan and Joni Mitchell, I was bowled over as he seemed determined to seize Sinatra's mantle as our finest vocal interpreter. But on this night at least, Van was just another oldies act playing it safe.

Of course, the safety zone is nowhere Bob Dylan ever parks. Nearly four decades after his arrival, Dylan is still exploring the potential of his own performance. At the show with Morrison in May (at the Gorge Amphitheatre in rural Washington state), Dylan and band whipped through a loud, snarling set of blues-rock with the concentrated energy of a tornado. But this night, Dylan delivered a much more relaxed performance, the most focused portion of which was a four-song acoustic set in the middle featuring "Mr. Tambourine Man", "Tangled Up In Blue", "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll", and a stirring traditional country song, "Stone Walls And Steel Bars". Featuring standup bass, mandolin and acoustic guitars, Dylan and his fine band gave these numbers a feel that was more old-time country than folk. The delivery was loose but with conviction. They went acoustic again for the final encore, "Blowin' in the Wind".

Dylan's constant rearrangement and reinvention of his material breathed new life into "Silvio", one of the most rockin' numbers on this night and a crowd favorite at Dylan shows of the past couple years, though it was originally a fairly slight track on a largely forgotten record (1989's Down In The Groove). Co-written with Robert Hunter, "Silvio" now seems to represent Dylan's homage to Jerry Garcia and Garcia's commitment to live performance.

Other numbers exhibiting Dylan's remarkable vibrancy included hits such as "Maggie's Farm" and "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35", as well as songs such as "Love Sick" and "Make You Feel My Love" from his latest album, Time Out Of Mind. But the best moment of the show was another track from the new record, "Can't Wait". The relentless push that's driving Dylan to work harder now than at any point in his fabled career could be plainly heard in the slinky groove of this tune.

Delivering it even slower and harder than the recorded version, Dylan's great band played as one, with a completely cohesive sound unlike anything you could compare it to -- shadowy blues with a scary edge, featuring a dramatic buildup simultaneously slow and unyielding. Dylan punctuated each syllable with a calm but unmistakable desperation: "I'm breathin' hard/Standin' at the gate/But I don't know/How...much...longer.../I.....can.........wait." Dylan's intensity seemed to confound the less hearty among the surprisingly sedate crowd. It might have been impossible for anyone who loved Van's by-the-numbers "Gloria" to appreciate this strange alchemy of Dylan's.

I was feeling almost drained at the end of "Can't Wait" when my wife turned to me and quietly asked, "Why do you think he still does this?" By "this" I think she meant the long bus rides, continual checking in and out of hotels, performing night after night -- the whole ordeal of being a touring musician. My only answer was that if I were this good at something, anything, I'd want to do it, and do it this well, too.