Sunday 4th March 2012
I last saw Van Morrison in 2007, making this by way the longest gap between shows in twenty-five years. I’ve seen him most years up until 2007, then I never got tickets for the Live Astral Weeks shows in 2009. 2007 was with the Crawford Bell Singers, who were on Austin City Limits and Keep It Simple. It’s hard to believe that Keep It Simple, the last studio album was four years ago, and Astral Weeks Live was three years ago. As I look on my long shelf of Van Morrison albums, I realize he’d averaged one a year. If you include the official compilations, forty-four albums between 1968 and 2009. So what’s he been up to? I’d assumed his muse drove him to be so productive.
I looked online to see the Brighton set the day before, Saturday. Nothing much I hadn’t seen before. I’d been hoping more of the 2009 Astral Weeks revisited venture would have stuck, but at Brighton, it was only Ballerina.
Bournemouth was The Pavilion, his prefered smaller venue, avoiding the cavernous echoey Bournemouth International Centre where he had a spectacularly unsuccessful gig on the “jazz tour” in 1995 (widely bootlegged as Stepping On A Dream), and Poole Lighthouse where he started the Linda Gail Lewis tour in 2000 with a ramshackle show. He wisely sticks to the Pavilion, though the smaller capacity (1200?) perhaps contributed to the £65 ticket price in the stalls – double the last time I saw him.
The notices saying mobile phones could not be used for recording or photography and drinks could not be brought in were on every entrance. Good. No flashes, no spilt beer. A TV monitor outside said he would begin at 7.45 and end at 9.15. Not “approximately”, and indeed it wasn’t approximate.
He started with Brown Eyed Girl, reversing his old setlists, and he set out his stall clearly. It was a jazzy version, very different from the original, reinvented as much as he reinvented Cleaning Windows a few years ago. He also got the song over with, a useful thing to do when so many newer fans just wait for it and then go wild. It’s disconcerting to hear something altered so radically, but he was in fine voice.
The band didn’t get namechecked throughout. But we had the MD on organ, piano and trumpet; plusbaritone saxophone / clarinet, trombone, drums, percussion, double bass / bass guitar and guitar. I recognized the keyboard guy and guitarist. The guitarist stood at 90 degrees to the audience with a music stand, facing the keyboard player on the opposite side. Guitar and bass added the very few backing vocals. Van played tenor sax a lot, and harmonica a bit. The immediate sensation was that this was to be a jazzy evening. It wasn’t all that jazzy as it turned out, but this was a supple band of very experienced musicians, who could do the volume changes and light and shade as well as any band he’s had. Sure, we lost backing vocalists (a minus) but trombone added a different instrument, and guitar was noticeably jazzy, until Gloria.
There was a concept, and at least for the first few, I had the impression it was tightly arranged, and unusually that the keyboard player was calling some of the shots. Some was shared with Brighton, but by no means all. We got Higher Than The World, and a big surpise (also done at Brighton), Fair Play from Veedon Fleece. Enlightenment was in this early section.
It’s All in The Game was the medley version segueing into You Know What They’re Writing About / No Plan B / This Is It. There was a lot of improvised stuff … no opinion, no theory, this is it … was repeated ad infinitum to powerful effect as the band played soft and low. It was a night to focus on Van’s voice. In The Garden got huge recognition applause, and the recitation of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher continued the No Opinion, No Theory of the previous song. He was really pushing his point. Moondance gave every one the chance to stretch and solo.
Not Feeling It Anymore / Hurting Game continued the mood, before breaking into Crazy Love then These Dreams of You. Three from Moondance on the night left me hoping for Caravan, but no, it never happens. It does remind you that of all the stars at The Last Waltz in 1976, he’s the only one who still has full power in the vocal chords. Crazy Love appeared on the Phenomenon soundtrack by Aaron Neville, with a Robbie Robertson guitar solo. This was very different as it was from the original too. A strong Talk is Cheap was around this point, and looking at the setlists online, I think it was the only time this tour.
St James Infirmary led into the best version of Help Me I’ve seen him do … I’ve never been fond of the song … but with that many horns (the trombone switched to a sousaphone or tuba or whatever, baritone sax, trumpet, tenor sax) doing interesting things it was lifted. Van left before the end, was only off for seconds, then re-emerged for Tupelo Honey which unlike last time broke into a long Why Must I Always Explain? This was where he got the show back at Bournemouth 1995, but this time the words were ‘No sweet Lorraine’ not as in 1995 with the F-word loudly inserted. That was also the third time in the evening he stressed his “Why must I explain? This is it. No criticism. No comment wanted” philosophy. He strapped on a Les Paul guitar for it.
Gloria was the usual version with the long loud “Van has left the building” ending while the band blew for five minutes, and I’m sure he walks off straight into a car. The fun bit of Gloria was where he went into Who Do You Love? in the middle … a possible nod to The Last Waltz in fact, where Ronnie Hawkins sang it.
I’d wondered about the evening, as there was no new album, no revised album set. What was the concept going to be? Was there one? The answer is a definite “yes.” As with the last two bands, he has created a distinctive sound palette, chosen a selection of songs which is a long way from the best-known ones, and which suit the style, and refined the approach (very quiet playing, lots of vocal gymnastics and talk) which is powerful. My feeling that it was arranged more than usual was borne out by the lighting … cloud effect for It’s All in The Game, the same lit up green so as to look like trees for In The Garden, then stars for Moondance. It was one of the best Van Morrison shows I’ve seen … something I said the last twice, in fact.
VAN AND THE CRITICS
The ranting about analysis or comment is verging to the excessive now, even the obsessive. Van Morrison couldn’t stand Wavelength magazine (for which most of my earlier reviews were written). He even sang Not on my Wavelength … as a specific rebuke. All the magazine was doing was assembling reviews and articles about him, the vast majority highly-complimentary, and trying hard to sell his records and those of his band members by mail order. Unlike Dylan fanzines, it had a strict ‘no reviews or mention of bootlegs’ policy too. Hardly a sin. I take his view that this is a performance art, of the now, and analysis is not the point. e.e. cummings sums it up:
Since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
I was once asked to analyse that in an exam, a question which does make you do a double-take. Any one who’s been reviewed will have negative points burned on their memory, and my ELT books have been reviewed often enough for me to feel that. But I enjoy remembering the Times Educational Supplement review of my first book in 1978. It was written for zero beginners in English. The review opined that It has little literary merit and praised the two books in the comparative review to the skies. Both went out of print within two years, while my book of little literary merit is still in print (in a heavily revised American version) thirty four years later. Sometimes reviews make you reassess your work. A recent one said of one of my 1990s books that it attempted to be a major innovation in language teaching, which fortunately didn’t succeed. True it didn’t do what we expected, but that ‘fortunately’ makes you stop and think.
Back to Van, sorry. I see nothing wrong in giving the opinion that (e.g.) Beautiful Vision is a far better album than A Period of Transition, and saying why you think so. I see nothing wrong in saying that with the Red Hot Pokers backing him circa 2000, Van Morrison sounded nowhere as good as he did in 2005, 2007 or 2012. Every songwriter gets itchy when people start to analyze lyrics and interpret what they mean, but that goes with writing lyrics. At least someone enjoyed them enough to think about them. If you hate the words you choose to sing being interpreted, you might just as well revert to meaningless vocalisation.
Great show, and the bits where he ranted about No opinion / No Guru / Why do I have to explain? made for some of the most effective pieces of the evening BUT I feel two rants rather than three would make him seem more “balanced” in his view of those who, like me, don’t know what they’re writing about.