Larmar Tree Festival
11 July 2003
Originally published in Wavelength magazine
We managed to get right up to the edge of the stage, just ten feet away from the action, which brought life to the show. It was a short-shrift, single encore contractual obligation 90 minutes (well, just under actually) and Van and the band were having a great time, changing lines, goofing off, ‘Mama don’t allow no Hammond organ playing here’ etc. We got Vera Lynn’s Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover incorporated in a song. We got once again a jokey run on Morecambe and Wise’s jolly signature tune When You’re Smiling. We got a lot of basic R & B. We got some really superb sax playing fromVan.
Georgie Fame arrived after a couple of songs just as he had two years earlier, dressed in shorts and fisherman’s multi-pocketed top looking like an eccentric cleric who’d spent the day hiking across Cranborne Chase with a butterfly net, which for all I know he might have been. You know whenever Georgie arrives it’s jazzy and you can forget the Celtic mists. He hasn’t learnt any new tricks, and I’d rather hear his younger self doing Pink Champagne than anything he’s done since. Yes, he is very reactive to what Van’s doing, which must be his appeal. But against the current of opinion, I think Georgie has a strong style that pushes things in a particular way, and I’d rather have a less intrusive and less clichéd keyboard player. Poor Richard Dunn gets relegated to piano. Now I love twin keyboard groups, but The Band or Procul Harum or Supertramp arranged for using both piano and organ, while when Georgie just turns up you don’t get a terribly thought out keyboard interplay … and actually I prefer Richard Dunn on his own.
I long ago stopped expecting the transcendant show from the current Van and settled for the one, or on a good night two, transcendant songs in a workmanlike set. Trouble was there weren’t any transcendant songs at all in this jolly bouncy set, not one single moment of emotion or emoting.
The ending is getting inevitable. Precious Time and Jackie Wilson Said come near the end, then something different (Jump Jive and Wail here) then the radio mic is picked up halfway through Brown Eyed Girl signalling the imminent singing exit. Then Gloria as an encore. Just the one, as I realised as soon as he picked up the radio mic again towards the end of it. I was tempted to start for the car park, but hope ruled and I didn’t (it took 40 minutes to get out as a result)!
So a bunch of competent musicians having fun on a somewhat generic bunch of R & B songs. Yes, fair enough. A good time was had by all. I was glad to be there, certainly. Good … but not great.
For me the ultimate quartet of songwriters is Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Robbie Robertson. I like James Taylor and Jackson Browne too, but nowhere near as well. I don’t have all their albums, for instance. The thing is, having seen James Taylor and Jacksone Browne do far, far better shows in the last few months, I have to say that either of them would have completely blown Van off the stage tonight. That wasn’t true five years ago, or ten, or twenty. Not only that, I’d say the only members of Van’s current band who’d stand a chance in an audition for Browne or Taylor’s touring bands would be David Hayes and Matt Holland. The others don’t hold a candle (I include Fame on keyboards as without a hope in that company – his range is too narrow). Maybe that’s a tad unfair to Bobby Irwin’s sterling work on drums at Larmar Tree, but the competition is Steve Gadd with James Taylor. I made a similar comparison with Paul Simon’s band (also with Steve Gadd) a year or so ago. Taylor, Simon and Browne have impeccable and often new arrangments of older material, the lights are meticulously worked out, a lot of time and effort has been put into the show, there’s about 30% of very recent stuff, sitting in all three cases on excellent and melodic recent albums. Both deign to address the audience entertainingly, and both do a two and a half hour set. Taylor’s current lead guitarist is as good as anyone I’ve ever seen, and if you add Taylor’s own rhythm guitar playing you realise that Ned is out of his depth at this level. Clinton Heylin suggests in his biography that Van likes to have players who have to stretch themselves to hit the mark. Van’s receipts must equal those of the others, but he seems reluctant to splash the cash on the very best musicians, and would benefit (as I’ve been saying for 20 years) on affording a female backing duo or trio (Brian Kennedy filled that gap superbly on his own), a percussionist next to the drummer, a third horn player, permanent twin keyboards.
With the present easy-rolling band and present penchant for lazy material that doesn’t need a lot of arrangment or rehearsal, I’d say Van has definitely slipped out of the Premier league as a live act. I watched The Band do the same through the 90s, for much the same reasons. To be picky, the admission price is much the same for all these artists, but Van, like Dylan, rides on the inspiration of the evening, as he always has rather than the pre-planned complex arrangments of the others. The difference is that Van can still sing at full power effortlessly, whereas Bob can’t, effecting as his delivery is. Through much of the 25 years I’ve sought out Van’s shows and watched him, the inspiration has been there and that’s been enough for some wonderful shows. Now it doesn’t seem to get around much anymore. The obligatory set pieces towards the end – Jackie Wilson Said, Precious Time, Brown Eyed Girl, Gloria are almost a contemptous series of proven crowd-pleasers bringing about the expected engineered climax for a large audience. Conclusion: could try harder.