The Dome, Brighton
3 March 2012
Heading off to a Van Morrison gig there's always an edge of trepidation along with the anticipation. Of course, you know why you want to be there... That astounding voice. A back catalogue of songs to kill for. A jazzman's ability to cut and coax and prod and change - with a shaman's urge to take it somewhere higher. This is one of the few rock performers for whom the word 'genius' might not be the usual obvious hyperbole.
And yet... This is also the guy who turned in a perfunctory, uncommunicative and frustrating show the first time I saw him some thirty years ago, delighted to have bagged front row seats at the Hammersmith Odeon. This is also the guy who has churned out a whole load of uninspired songs with clumsy and self-pitying lyrics. Who has elevated grumpy-old-man-ness to a form of conceptual art.
I saw a couple of concerts in Brighton in the 90s which were pretty good, but then a gap until I was lured back for his reprise of Astral Weeks at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years ago. Trepidation cubed for that, given the cultural weight of the set-list and the eye-watering ticket prices - it could all go horribly wrong.
It didn't, of course. An absolute and delightful triumph: the voice undimmed by the years, unlike so many of his contemporaries; an extraordinary band; Van (by his standards) chatty and clearly enjoying himself; and to cap it all the unexpected and unalloyed joy of hearing 'Listen To The Lions' live after the night's main menu.
So, I couldn't expect him to match that, nor could I miss the opportunity to see him in Brighton again. Trepidation along with anticipation.
A nicely in-character notice to welcome us to The Dome: no support, on stage at eight sharp, 90 minutes, no drinks, bar shut, no photography - under pain of ritual disembowelment (inside later, security folk were indeed rushing down the aisles earnestly to wag fingers at the merest gleam from a mobile).
But as soon as the music started, the tension slipped way. This was never going to be a reprise of the Albert Hall but it was definitely the next best Van show I've seen. Primarily a jazz band behind him for this tour, all in black, highly skilled - trombone and sax, keyboard doubling on trumpet, guitar, bass and two drummers - slipping effortlessly into a lightly swinging arrangement of 'Brown Eyed Girl'. Van in command: stretching words, repeating, scat singing; pointing in the solos, nodding proprietorially at the particularly good ones - of which their were many.
It's also an evening to appreciate what a good musician Van is himself: he blows some very nice alto sax, along with harp on a couple of numbers and even plays some electric piano.
An early highlight was 'Fair Play' from 1974's classic Veedon Fleece, Van blending sweet high notes with more guttural attack, playing around repeatedly with the wonderfully bizarre 'you say Geronimo' line. There's even a bit of slapstick when Van sings 'you can hear the brass band' then waits ostentatiously while the horns pretend to miss their cue. Sounds daft, but it was good fun at the time...
After that, he briefly reminded us that he can write some clunkers by wheeling out 'I'm Not Feeling It Anymore' ('I just ended up in doubt/All my drinking buddies, they locked me out' etc, etc) before returning to the stronger side of his songbook.
A lot of the set is gently paced and quietly pitched. He's not afraid to cut things back and draw out individual instruments. And that makes for strong dynamic variety when the band crank up and really go for it. A medley moving from 'All In The Game' through to 'No Plan B/This Is It' builds irrestibly to the repetition of the key phrases 'this is it...no rehearsal'.
Then things calm through 'Moondance', 'Haunts Of Ancient Peace' and (another lovely surprise) a slow and gentle reading of 'Into The Mystic' - after which 'In The Garden' builds again to its forceful conclusion 'no guru, no method, no teacher'. Time for some hairs on the back of the neck to spring to attention at a liberating message very convincingly expressed.
After 'Crazy Love', Van calls to the wings for a crib sheet, introducing a Rodney Crowell song 'that we haven't played for a while'. It is 'Till I Gain Control Again', from the Pay The Devil country set from 2006. He doesn't seem to have to study the words much, but relative unfamiliarity may help form what is a moving version of a fragile song.
He then segues into 'I Can't Stop Loving You' before a killer sequence of five songs to close the show: a stark and blues-inflected 'St James Infirmary'; a jaunty 'Precious Time', with an arrangement bordering on ska; then reining back for a luminous take on 'Ballerina' (introduced as a request from his six-year old daughter), before cranking up again with 'Help Me' and closing with a storming and stonking version of 'Gloria'.
The last song is a joy. I realise I'd almost come to think of 'Gloria' as Patti Smith's song, but it's great to hear the relish its creator can still bring to it, the best part of fifty years on - and the sheer enjoyment of the band, reeling off chorus after exuberant chorus after their leader has marched off the stage - a great rock guitar solo followed by a chopping and churning keyboard break, including a heel landing on the keys, Jerry Lee Lewis style.
After that, there is of course no chance of a second encore: the house lights are up before all the band have left the stage. Van is probably several streets way already.
Oh, well: let him do it his way - the results can be extraordinary.