Van Morrison – On the Road Again, Mercurial and Remarkably Wonderful All At Once

Van Morrison in concert can be a difficult bet. Like other icons late in their career (Miles Davis, Bob Dylan), Morrison seems to ignore the audience. In San Diego last night, he was true to form: mostly mercurial, at times transcendent, at times workmanlike.

The evening opened with a criminally short set from Mavis Staples, who continues to go from strength to strength. She was once heavily courted by Bob Dylan for marriage, and more recently recorded a duet with Morrison. Some who had seen the brilliant concert pairing of Solomon Burke with Morrison decades ago were hoping for a Staples / Morrison stage moment, but no such luck. Morrison strolled onstage, famously as if returning to work from lunch down the pub. He set the tone for the evening with “It Once Was My Life,” one of his many tales of woe in the music business:

Well I was locked in by the system
Where no freedom is the rule
Now I spend all my time just trying
To make it understood

Morrison shortly thereafter rolled into one of his many gems, and added a line to “St. Dominic’s Preview” before acknowledging it is still a long way to Buffalo and Belfast too:

Warner Brothers is still drinking my wine

As much as he is my desert island artist, methinks Morrison doth protest too much.

Morrison assembled a very strong band for this tour, which included Jay Berliner on guitar. Berliner’s dexterity was not as sterling as we first heard on Morrison’s epic Astral Weeks album, but the guitarist added some tasteful licks and showed that Morrison does not always jettison permanently prior band members. Paul Moran handled keyboards, trumpet and the difficult chore of leading the band, spying for any indication of which way Morrison’s muse was headed.

Indeed, it was great to see Morrison call a few audibles, indicating he was fine having a fluid set list. He caught a few band members unaware when he launched into “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” They spun on a dime and only missed half a beat.

Morrison then called for “In The Garden” and I longed for a Guinness.

The streets are always wet with rain
After a summer shower when I saw you standin’
In the garden in the garden wet with rain

Earlier in the evening he previewed a lyric from that song when he opened “Like Young Lovers Do” by switching up the opening lyrics to:

In the summertime in England all misty with rain

Sadly, he never returned to his guaranteed stage apogee “Summertime in England” last night, but he did assay his biggest hits. He has over the decades stated his disdain for the hits, but grappled well with two of his massive hits “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Gloria,” the song every band has played at least once. His on-again-off-again relationship with “Moondance” was ameliorated with a two horn attack at the intro.

The other guitar duties were handled well by bassist David Hayes and Dave Keary, who has worked with both Morrison and Engelbert Humperdinck.

“Wild Night” was thin and rather perfunctory, but “Cleaning Windows” perked up Morrison with his pre-fame autobiography.

What’s my line?
I’m happy cleaning windows
Take my time…

What’s my line?
I’m happy cleaning windows
I’m a working man in my prime

Morrison poked into his jazzbo leanings when he called for “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid.” Dana Masters was given a chance to spotlight her sterling backing vocals, and Teena Lyle displayed her percussionist chops. The setlist included nothing from Morrison’s forthcoming album Three Chords and the Truth, which drops later this month. There are several gems on the new release, which fans might hear in his swing thorough the UK and forthcoming residency in Vegas early next year. Among the generous fourteen tracks, the best song is the lead track “March Winds in February,” which folks might debate is Morrison’s first ecological song. He also includes perspectives like “Fame Will Eat the Soul” or “Read Between the Lines” or “Bags Under My Eyes,” any of which would have fit right into the bitter part of his latest setlist.

Morrison clocked out at the seemingly statutory 90 minutes. The band jammed for another 10 minutes trading solos, including a fine 1960s drum solo from Mez Clough that would have made Ginger Baker proud.

Moran looked anxiously for the road manager to determine if Morrison would be back for an encore, and although everyone else in the venue was ready, Morrison wasn’t in the mood.

That is what makes a Van Morrison show so challenging: definite moments of brilliance, but he just about always leaves you wanting more.

(photos by Brad Auerbach)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.