On Tuesday evening we sloshed our way through the first real rain of this autumn to the Philharmonic for a performance by a man whose lyrics have revealed a man who loves nothing better than to walk in gardens wet with rain – Van Morrison. With a notorious reputation for grumpiness and offhand behaviour in his concerts, we were a little apprehensive about what we might get. But Van was in fine form and, supported by an excellent band, crammed 90 minutes with a stellar selection of songs from a career in which he has recorded an astonishing 36 albums.

He walked on stage promptly at 8.00 pm, and there he was – Van the Man in fedora hat and shades, wielding a saxophone that he would play to great effect several times during the evening, his voice still the same, unmistakable growling brogue.

He was in good voice, and – despite the warnings about his unpredictable behaviour at shows – fully committed. He may not have engaged in conversation or banter with the enthusiastic audience, but he really delivered, powering through ninety non-stop minutes of songs that largely ranged through his extensive back catalogue – even as far back as the days of Them.

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I was there with my daughter, now in her thirties, who wasn’t around when Them were strutting their stuff. As we were waiting in the foyer she had asked me, ‘Am I the youngest person here?’ She wasn’t, but there was no doubt where the median age of the audience lay – reflecting the career longevity of the 71-year old who started his professional career as a teenager in the late 1950s. Still, we brought our daughter up right: from an early age, on car journeys or whatever, she grew to love numbers like ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’, ‘Domino’ and ‘Jackie Wilson Said’. A little older now, one of her favourites (and mine) is ‘These Are The Days’.

He may have kicked off with a couple of songs from his latest album Keep Me Singing, but this show would turn out to be less about promoting the latest product, but instead, in the words of ‘And the Healing Has Begun’, suggested that Van had instructed the band: ‘And we’ll sing all the songs from way back when’.

Not only was Van on good form, he had gathered around himself a superb well-rehearsed band who provided arrangements rooted in jazz and rhythm and blues that lifted his songs to a new level. The five-member band were led with great agility from the keyboards by Paul Moran, who also served as trumpeter and musical director. Guitarist Dave Keary also decorated a couple of numbers with gorgeous pedal steel, notably on ‘In the Midnight’ later in show. Paul Moore on bass and Robbie Ruggiero on drums provided power and drive, while backing vocalist Dana Masters injected soul and sometimes took lead vocal. Meanwhile, Morrison played harmonica and blew alto sax proficiently on many of the night’s tunes.

‘Too Late’ and ‘Look Behind The Hill’ were the opening numbers from the latest album: along with ‘Close Enough for Jazz’ (which Van has reciorded twice – the first time as an instrumental, then as here with lyrics) these numbers set the mood, a perfect blend of swinging R&B and jazz.

Three numbers in came the title track from a 2005 album I’ve never listened to Magic Time. With a lyric that evokes a nostalgic search of the past to capture magic moments almost lost in memory, it set a mood that now underlies many of Morrison’s songs:

You can call it nostalgia, I don’t mind
Standing on that windswept hillside
Listenin’ to the church bells chime
Listen to the church bells chime
In that magic time

Oh the road it never ends
Good to see you my old friend
Once again we sit right down and share the wine

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Van addressed his blues roots and his early days as frontman for Them with a driving take on ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ that sequed into ‘Parchman Farm’, written by Mose Allison, a reminder that a couple of decades ago he recorded an album of Allison songs, on which a jazz band led by Georgie Fame was joined by Mose Allison.

‘Have I Told You Lately’ was one of several tunes that were completely transformed  by new arrangements – in this case from a ballad to up-tempo swing jazz. This was followed by a sequence of songs that represent Van’s quest for spiritual solace: ‘Precious Time’, ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’. The latter (which started life as a pretty dreadful pop duet with Cliff Richard) was transformed into a driving tour de force that showcased the band.

With its unmistakeable opening guitar figure, ‘Cleaning Windows’ heralded some forty minutes or so that marked the highpoint of the show. The song had been subjected to another transformation with the band pushing some hard r&b licks before segueing into ‘A Shot of Rhythm and Blues’. This was followed by a lovely reading of ‘Beautiful Vision’, the only time in this show that we got a glimpse of Van’s ‘Celtic soul’ side.

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Still, the best was yet to come. A jazzed-up interpretation of ‘Moondance’ began with the instantly-recognisable piano figure from Miles’s ‘So What’ and was rounded off by Van scatting the words ‘So What’ as the band lent powerful support. A wonderful, bluesy reading of ‘St James Infirmary’ followed, leading into a reconfigured ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ before the set reached its conclusive highpoint with a joyous ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ that segued into  Sonny Boy Williamson’s great R&B number ‘Help Me.’

Finally, a no-holds barred encore of ‘Gloria’ that raised the roof. After name-checking each member of the band, Van walked off stage, leaving his musicians to carry on for another five or ten minutes with an extended jam in which every member of the band took a solo. A somewhat unusual ending (encore with artist off-stage) to a tremendous evening.

Van Morrison In Concert at the BBC, 29 September 2016

Setlist

  • Too Late
  • Close Enough for Jazz
  • Look Behind The Hill
  • Magic Time
  • Baby Please Don’t Go
  • Parchment Farm/Don’t Start Crying Now
  • Sometimes We Cry
  • Have I Told You Lately
  • Precious Time
  • Enlightenment
  • Whenever God Shines His Light
  • Cleaning Windows/A Shot of Rhythm and Blues
  • Beautiful Vision
  • Tore Down a la Rimbuad
  • Carrying a Torch
  • Moondance/So What
  • St James Infirmary
  • Jackie Wilson Said
  • In the Midnight
  • Brown Eyed Girl/Help Me
  • In the Garden
  • Gloria
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