Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
In 1973, Van Morrison led his illustrious eleven piece band, The Caledonia Soul Orchestra, on an extended tour of the U.S.A and Europe, a tour which climaxed in London’s celebrated Rainbow Theatre concerts and the recording of the legendary double live album Too Late to Stop Now (1974). The band’s guitarist and long-time Morrison sidekick John Platania observed that the tour ‘represented the height of Van’s confidence as a performer’. Within a year, however, the orchestra had been slimmed down and re-christened as the Caledonia Soul Express, before being wound up altogether by a fatigued and depressed Morrison determined on quitting the rock ‘n’ roll rat race. ‘There was a period where I didn’t write, I didn’t play guitar and I didn’t even listen to music’ admitted Morrison. To fill the void, he studied Jungian Psychiatry, enrolled in a course to release accumulated tension and attended Alcoholics Anonymous for a spell, before retreating to the sanctuary of a home he’d sarcastically sign-boarded as “The Van Morrison Self-Improvement Camp”.
His self-imposed exile lasted for the best part of three years, before the born-again troubadour returned to the fray with the underwhelming comeback album A Period of Transition (1977). In an interview with Rolling Stone, Morrison acknowledged that he had been holed up in a Belgian Hotel ‘completely at the end of my rope’ when he took the decision to step off the touring treadmill. All the more astonishing, then, forty years down the line that the Van Morrison Roadshow has rolled into town once again, with the septuagenarian soul man playing Cardiff for a remarkable fifth time in six years.
This time around, the unique selling point for hardcore fans is the chance to see the newly ennobled Belfast Cowboy on stage as part of the city’s inaugural Festival of Voice, sharing the limelight with international luminaries Hugh Masekela, Femi Kuti and Rufus Wainwright, as well as renowned talent from closer to home in the shape of John Cale and Van’s very own special guest for the evening Bryn Terfel.
Morrison is greeted with feverish applause, from what seems like a full house at the Wales Millennium Centre, as he joins his five piece band on stage just as they strike up the soft-hued instrumental “Celtic Swing”. There’s no doubting that this is a well-drilled combo (you simply don’t survive a year-long route march with Sir Van unless you can cut the musical mustard), and Paul Moran (keyboards), Dave Keary (guitar), Paul Moore (bass) Liam Bradley (drums) and Dana Masters (vocals) are all well attuned, by now, to Morrison’s renowned mood changes and mid-song shuffling of a set list.
The band kick into rather anodyne versions, despite Morrison’s sterling efforts on Tenor Saxophone, of “Close Enough for Jazz”, “Higher than the World” and “Magic Time” which all make for a lukewarm start to the gig, though things hot up somewhat with a carousing cover of the Harry Edison and John Hendricks’ jazz standard, “Centrepiece”, a song which Morrison recorded with his chum Georgie Fame for their 1995 collaboration How Long Has this been Going On. Serviceable renditions of “Enlightenment” and “In the Midnight” lead into a re-jigged and rejuvenated “Moondance”, which perfectly sets the scene for the introduction of Bryn Terfel. Van’s observation (which I’d like to think is without sarcasm) that ‘we’re lucky people’ is soon borne out by a brace of wonderful duets.
Morrison has recently restored the strangely overlooked “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” to his live set after a three year absence and his paean to childhood memory is duly transformed into a brooding ballad by the Welsh base-baritone. The opera singer really does appear to be enjoying himself immensely on stage, even though his attempts at making eye contact with his co-star are constantly thwarted as Morrison peers resolutely over Paul Moran’s left shoulder and into the wings. “Shenandoah”, an 18th century folk song that seems to have originated with American fur trappers along the Missouri River, evolved into a sea shanty and finally turned up on the soundtrack of a couple of Jimmy Stewart Westerns in the 60’s, is a sure-fire showstopper . It’s a song both Morrison and Terfel have already recorded (with the Mormon Tabernacle choir and The Chieftains respectively), though its tonight’s magisterial collaboration that will live long in the memory.
A sprightly “Whenever God Shines His Light”, with Dana Masters delivering a neat vocal alongside Van, and whistle-stop renditions of 24 carat Morrison classics “Wild Night, “Wavelength” and, of course, “Brown Eyed Girl” (10 million radio plays and counting) keeps the crowd at fever pitch. A stunning medley of “In the Afternoon”/ “Ancient Highway” “Joe Turner Sings”/ “Burn baby burn”/ and “Raincheck” finds Van at his “mystic” best and is followed by another finely poised Masters and Morrison duet “Carrying a Torch”.
With a host of self-penned standards to his name Morrison doesn’t have to filch material from his peers to freshen up a set, but he gets such an obvious kick out of paying homage to the legendary blues, soul and country singers of his childhood that his gigs truly come to life as he re-works their signature songs. Last year’s St David’s Hall show was constructed around intense re-imaginings of Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul”, Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me” and Bobby Bland’s 1961 hit “Turn on Your Love Light,” all songs that have been in the singer’s repertoire since his days in schoolboy Skiffle band The Sputniks. With the emphasis largely on jazz tonight, though, it’s only right at the very close of a 21 song set that we get a stonewall blues classic in the shape of a steadfast “Help Me”. It was the 609th time Morrison had performed the Sonny Boy Williamson, Ralph Bass and Willie Dixon song live, but he still sang it like he meant every word. There’s a single song encore, a tempestuous version of his garage rock classic “Gloria” that features a fine organ break from Paul Horan and a lengthy scat singing finale from the sublime Masters before Morrison takes his leave and the lights go up.
Tonight’s show had much to recommend it, not least, of course the chance to simply witness a legendary performer go about his business. The set list, while ticking most of the boxes (Van performed his three most popular songs after all, not something he’s always willing to do), wasn’t the most imaginative of presentations and was a little top heavy with jaundiced Jazz workouts, though well appreciated, overall, by an enthusiastic crowd. Disappointingly, the tributes to his late friend BB King and the Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer numbers “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Travelling Light” that have featured regularly this year were left to one side this evening.
Some Morrison gigs stay with you for ever – the incredible triple header at the Kings Hotel in Newport in 1990 being personal favourites, tonight’s workmanlike effort (those glorious duets aside) may be harder to recall as the years slip by.