13th November 1998
Originally published in Wavelength magazine
The New Symphony Sid
How Long Has This Been Going On?
Fire in the Belly
Who Can I Turn To?
Vanlose Stairway / Trans-Euro Express
Sometimes We Cry
Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby
(?) / Shake Rattle & Roll
In The Summertime / Common One
Just Like A Woman
See Me Through / Soldier of Fortune / Thank You Fallettin Me By Myself / Burning Ground
The Healing Game
Send In The Clowns
Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?
He could have played a couple of hundred yards away in the Bournemouth International Centre to 3000. He chose instead to do two nights at the older Pavilion Theatre to 1200 a time. There’s one reason. Victoria Wood described playing in the Bournemouth International Centre as akin to playing in a Tesco loading bay. Maybe he was at the Pavilion because the shows were hastily arranged. They were advertised only three works before the show. So Van used the smaller venue. Not only that, but he gave us more than two hours, and there was no prima donna with encores where you pretend to be forced back out. After Van had carried the microphone stand off and flung it into the wings at the end of Burning Ground he came straight back on and launched into three more songs.
The ads said ‘no support band’ but we were fooled. Ray Gelato did 40 minutes of swinging jazzy material that set the mood for the first half of Van’s concert. The Man can come out and sing what he wants to. It’s his call. But there was too much for my taste from the How Long Has This Been Going On album and not enough of the meditative Van. His next few bookings were to be with Chris Barber, so conceivably these gigs were preparation for jazzier sets. Like the last time I saw him in Bournemouth two years ago, I felt that he needed an hour of jazzy stuff to warm himself into the mood before launching into the more characteristic testifying Van. The hour of jazzy material did its trick. It warmed him up, and the results were worth the wait.
The line-up on stage was familiar, though I didn’t catch the keyboard player’s name, nor those of the two drummers. For the first hour I wondered if the gig was designed to work in a new drummer. The two drummers were taking alternate songs, with the idle one either adding tambourine or just crouching there. When you have a percussion player as well, two drummers seemed to be a luxury. Then it all became clear. Once they’d hit the material I’d been waiting for, with In the Summertime, it was a twin drum powerhouse for the rest of the evening. The 1990s incarnation of The Band also proved the value of twin drummers. Perhaps Van was working one of the drummers in, but he should consider the worth of a permanent twin drum band. Even so, if there was a choice, I’d prefer to have had Brian Kennedy or a couple of female backing singers. I always feel Van is best with this vocal contrast. John Scott does a fine job of it, but Brian Kennedy is something else.
I’ve said the jazzy material is less to my taste. When Van has a backlist of a least a hundred compositions that are superior to Who Can I Turn To? or That’s Life, I feel they’re a waste. When it gets to the jazzy version of Cleaning Windows, I’m afraid I squirm. I think he murders a great song in this arrangement. I was watching the audience reactions. The clapping hands went above the head for Moondance of course, but really got up there when he got to Vanlose Stairway. Whatever its place in Van’s work, songs from Beautiful Vision always seem to invoke maximum reaction. He dropped back into the jazzy sound for That’s Life then hit Sometimes We Cry. It was starting to cook. Early on, he’d seemed testy over the quality of his microphone, but now he was relaxing. Humour is becoming a characteristic, and the horn section gave us a brief extract from The Floral Dance during In The Summertime. Have you noticed what happens whenever Van gets into his vocal gyrations and grunting and call and response sections? There are always a few of the audience who laugh. Odd, and annoying, but it always happens.
Then came the highlight of the evening. Just Like A Woman is one of my favourite songs. The Blonde on Blonde version is definitive and I couldn’t imagine appreciating a version by any other artist. Van reconstructed the song. ‘Dig these lyrics …’ was his introduction and there were innovations, ‘I was hungry and you were calling all the shots!’ looks like a mistake on paper, your mind goes to Dylan’s voice singing ‘I was hungry and it was your world.’ But on stage, with the dynamic, intricate arrangement, everything he did to the song worked perfectly. It was one of those transcendent in-concert moments. And then he piled on a great See Me Through / Soldier of Fortune / Thank You Fallettin Me / Burning Ground that in any conventional sense closed the show. The lighting plot was carefully designed, which became apparent as he moved into Burning Ground. It was all from overhead, and however clever the designers are they ignored the rule that all stage lighting designers should know from costume drama. When someone has a hat with a brim, you can’t light them from overhead. Maybe that’s what he wanted. He wasn’t the most motionless I’ve ever seen him (that was at Southampton years ago when he had a bad leg and performed sitting down), but Van was frozen still for most of the show, face shaded by the hat brim, eyes covered by the dark glasses.
After Burning Ground he was off for only seconds. So I don’t know if the last three rate as encores or part of the main show. Three slow ones, The Healing Game, Send In The Clowns and Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? I’d last seen Send In the Clowns at Southampton . He didn’t take the piss as much this time, or at least didn’t break up completely. As Have I Told You finished, he walked off. House lights went straight up, a tape came on. That was it. A much longer show than the ones earlier in the year. The body of work is now such, and of such consistent quality that you can’t play the game of ‘I wish he’d played …’ anymore. Multiple disappointment is an inevitability. My main one this time was I thought that one opening guitar figure was going to introduce Showbusiness, but I was completely wrong. I’m sure it was the same guitar part. I’m still having problems coming to terms with the first, muso-oriented parts of the show, which is evidenced by the fact that I didn’t recognize one of the songs, except that it sounded familiar. But the second parts are getting just better and better.