John T. Davis
It is one small measure of Van Morrison’s longevity that the last time I saw him was 27-odd years ago at the inevitably-referred-to “late-lamented” Armadillo World Headquarters. Back then, he stayed over and played a night for free, so enamored he was of the ‘Dillo’s shrimp enchiladas. Someone on hand recalled him swinging from the door lintel of the dressing room, lost in simple bliss. Since then he has put out a score of albums reflecting every prismatic nuance of blues, soul, Celtic gospel, rock and (most lately) country.
Now, three decades later, Van the Man was back in town, as natty as a Martin Scorcese gangster in a suit coat, tinted glasses and a pale fedora. (The illusion was not confined to the stage. A cadre of motorcycle cops and dark limos came sweeping through backstage. I thought for a crazy moment that Charles Attal and Charlie Jones had gone into the funeral business. But of course, it was Morrison and his entourage.)
“Was he always this laid-back?” asked a young fan, who was hoping to hear “Caravan.” Well - yes and no. What might have sounded “laid-back” registered to these ears as smoldering intensity; the precise focus of a master of the game who doesn’t need to squander his focus and energy to achieve a transcendent effect.
Beginning with a tongue-in-groove rendition of “Back On Top,” Morrison wound in and out of his current predilection, country music, as reflected in his latest album, “Pay the Devil.” The Jerry Lee Lewis-weeper “Big Blue Diamonds” shared stage time with a countrypolitan-perfect take on “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” But it is part of Morrison’s gift to segue from country to Muscle Shoals-style soul (“It’s All in the Game”) to swampy blues (he pulled out the sax for “St. James Infirmary”) to the Muhammad Ali rock ‘n’ roll combination of “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Wild Night” and “Gloria.”
There is, however, one moment that lingers. Far back in the crowd, a quarter-mile from the stage, a little kid stared in wonderment as all the grown-ups around him rose to their feet and began swaying and singing in unison. He probably didn’t know there was a guy onstage with the improbable name of Van Morrison singing a song called “Brown Eyed Girl.” It hardly mattered. The song still has the power to engender the same sense of wonder and delight in children today as it did in their parents. And, if everything works out just right, that youngster may tell his kids about sitting in a field on a late summer night listening to Van Morrison sing.