Even casual fans of Van Morrison know that he can be hit or miss in concert, rarely acknowledging the audience and evincing a seeming indifference to the fan base that rewards his muse.
So it was with some trepidation that I settled in for an evening with the Bard of Belfast at the first of his two nights at the Shrine in LA. Would the gig (leading into a tour that bounces around for a few nights each of the next few months, finishing with a bizarre sounding multi night dinner and show in Newcastle) prove to be a curmudgeonly offering or a flight of excellence?
Van has fully embraced the bandleader motif stretching back to Duke Ellington and most poignantly with James Brown. With the nod of the head, a flick of the wrist or a stern glance at a band member Van cues his players. A guitar solo, a keyboard flourish or a harmonizing phrase would result. Like bandleaders of the past, Van is called to stage by an unseen announcer with a simple introduction, with the band already vamping the opening melody. Van’s current touring band comprises Paul Moran (keyboards, trumpet), Dave Keary (guitar), Paul Moore (bass), Robbie Ruggiero (drums) and singer Dana Masters (vocals).
Striding onstage with his sax, Van took the band through a jazzy instrumental and segued into “Close Enough For Jazz.” Several songs later, Van shocked the audience (and Moran, to whom Van shot a withering glance) when Van delivered a spoken word quip about Harvey Keitel. Later in the show he would riff lyrically about personalities ranging across Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone and Big Joe Turner.
But to me it did not seem that Van was fully comfortable in the first part of the evening. A pleasantly revamped “And the Healing Has Begun” was a needed spark. He and the band perked up, and the audience began to reciprocate.
Visibly dealing with a cold (coughing between verses and blowing his nose between songs) Van soldiered through. Veterans in the audience feared the evening might still head south but by about the halfway mark Van began to find his groove. By the two thirds mark he had definitely found the aaaargh, and the whole stage seemed to levitate by a foot or two.
(photos by Brad Auerbach)
Over 80 minutes into the show, past the often abrupt end to his previous shows, “It’s All in the Game” was the pivotal song. With a melody written in 1911 by US Vice President Charles Dawes (the 1958 version by Tommy Edwards is the only No. 1 pop single to have been co-written by a US VP or winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), the song gave Van room to expand and chase his muse. The band was right there with him.
Rolling a refrain through various iterations, Van was riffing “no Plan B, no safety net, this is it” as his testament about where he was, what he was doing: performing live on stage, no autotune, no guru, no other method. As if wandering away to look for the pylons, Van walked offstage while the band continued to work the melody. On keyboards, Moran anxiously peered offstage, trying to get a signal. Time to end the show? The chief roadie came out, whispered into Moran’s ear, who in turn signaled the band. A key change and Van came out for an absolutely transcendent “Into the Mystic.” Van and the band soared and circled and finally the song touched down on earth and the evening was over. The final 20 minutes were just about as brilliant as any other Van Morrison performance I have seen.