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Songs Length on 29MAY2008
The Star - Ben Rayner
Marvellous Night for Van Morrison
Van Morrison got down to business with tightly policed set of hits and tunes from new album.
When Van Morrison gets things done, he gets things done Van Morrison's way.
The costly tickets for the storied Irish curmudgeon's gig at Massey Hall last night threatened in bold face a start time of "7 P.M. SHARP," but it was amazing to see how many concertgoers didn't take Morrison's punctuality seriously. They were still streaming in by the dozens from lines extending down Shuter and Victoria Sts. as the first strains of a languid version of "Wild Night" wafted through the lobby.
The efficiency didn't stop there, though.
There was some grumbling outside afterwards in unexpected daylight when Van had waved farewell and stalked to stage left after a curt encore version of "Gloria" little more than 90 minutes later, but they'd just experienced a relentless 90 minutes of music. There was, in fact, so little fat in this tightly policed set list – scarcely any banter, solos trimmed to the bare minimum, little room to roam in the arrangements, one song ceding abruptly to the next – that the whole thing probably would've clocked in at 90 minutes on the nose if Morrison hadn't taken a few extra minutes to yell at his keyboard player to provide some background music while he introduced a cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" by insinuating that he didn't really care for Pink Floyd.
"I didn't know what the hell it was. That wasn't my scene," he said in his intro, repeating it for emphasis when the crowd tittered in response. This wasn't meant as a joke. "No. It wasn't my scene."
No matter. The cover – conducted with lovely call-and-response vocals from two of the three female backup singers (one of whom played a mean steel guitar) in Morrison's nine-piece band and concluded with the droll remark: "I have to say I'm not numb, and I'm not comfortable" – was just this shy of brilliant, anyway, as was much of the evening's fare.
A reputation for uneven live shows precedes him, but the 62-year-old Morrison has obviously cracked the whip mercilessly on his current tour to support album No. 35, Keep It Simple.
He's cracking the whip on himself as much as his astonishingly disciplined backup crew; although that famous bark can't really be bothered to enunciate as much as it once did ("Ishamarvelluhnighforamoonance..." now goes the intro to Morrison's most famous tune), but he would match his gifted, jazz-schooled bandmates solo for solo on sax, harp and guitar as the evening wore on.
The easygoing new tunes scattered through the set – "Keep It Simple," "That's Entrainment," "Lover Come Back" – weren't shamed in comparison to more hallowed surroundings that included a soulful "Sometimes We Cry," jazzbo romps through "Moondance" and "St. James Infirmary," Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me," a rousing "St. Dominic's Preview" and genuinely soulful versions of the Latin-tinged "Ballerina" and the lovely "And the Healing has Begun" that prove there is indeed a beating heart beneath that mobster-lookin' exterior.
That heart is the secret. It takes balls to pull off R & B-styled "I wanna make love to you" come-ons as an Irish white man, but Morrison gets away with it `cause there's a soft touch lurking in there.
Honestly, you should have heard the girlish squeals going up behind Massey Hall when he came out to his car. The cat's onto something.
TORONTO - When you go to a concert you ideally hope you get your money's worth and the artist in question makes every second onstage count.
For fans of Irish soul icon Van Morrison, those two criteria become all the more crucial considering the steep cost for his tickets and his occasional erratic, unpredictable short shows.
So when the 62-year-old singer sauntered out with his nine-piece supporting cast at Massey Hall Monday evening, the ensuing 95-minute set was quite worthwhile but still had some strange twists and turns.
Van Morrison, touring behind this year's Keep It Simple album, kicked things off with Wild Night before finally working off any noticeable vocal rust with the light and soulful Tupelo Honey, directing his band with subtle hand gestures when not belting out lyrics or tooting his own horn as he did during a few saxophone solos.
"And now for something completely different," he said prior to the rather roots-y title track off the new record. But he shone on the blues-tinged That's Entrainment, a phrase defined by Van Morrison as basically being lost in the music.
Fortunately for fans which filled most of the venue at the early start time of seven o'clock, the performer was often lost in that music, whether it was the strong effort he gave on In The Afternoon or on the groovier Cleaning Windows.
However it was around this time when the concert started to get interesting, be it for good or bad reasons. With his group eagerly waiting for the next song title to be uttered by the main man, Van Morrison nailed Saint James Infirmary with its morose, New Orleans jazz funeral introduction.
From there, he threw his band and the crowd a true curveball. "Just play something, anything while I talk," he quickly scolded keyboardist and trumpeter Paul Moran before introducing the next song: a cover of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb.
The track, which Van Morrison originally performed back in 1990 when Roger Waters staged the classic Pink Floyd album The Wall live in Berlin, resulted in some hair-raising, spine-tingling moments on this night. While looking down at a lyrics sheet, he managed to make the song into his own with his unique, powerful range and passion.
"I hope you liked that," he said. "I'm not numb and I'm not comfortable."
Yet for all he showcased on that particular track, Van Morrison came back down to earth in a hurry during Raincheck. While the song contains the lyric, "I don't fade away unless I choose," some of the lyrics had faded from his memory on this night. "I can't remember the last words," he quickly ad-libbed before adding "the show must go on."
Meanwhile, his rendition of Moondance seemed a bit flat as he let his two female backing vocalists take lead for a verse.
Following the somewhat spiritual tone to And The Healing Has Begun (during which he mentioned Ronnie Hawkins who was in attendance), Van Morrison exited only to quickly return for Gloria, capping off a night that was far from B-O-R-I-N-G.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ - Jordan Timm
I will give this to the Baby Boom generation: it can clap like a motherfucker. Where concertgoers my age are too easily distracted by their phones and cameras and the need to yell something witty between songs, Boomers go to a show to pound their hands together — sharply on the beat during songs, and with great zeal between them. They know how to show a man with a microphone some love.
And even when that love seems unrequited, it doesn't faze them. Van Morrison didn't likely much care that a third of his constituency was still queued around the corner outside Massey Hall last night when he walked on stage; when Van says a concert starts at seven pm sharp, well heck, that's when the first note's going to be played, and let the fans catch up if they can. So the poor Massey ushers were no doubt grateful that the sell-out crowd wasn't twenty years younger when Van and his nine-piece band strode out for a spirited take on "Wild Night."
For an artist who's developed a reputation for doing whatever he damn well pleases on stage, it was a broad, genial opener — and more importantly, for an artist who's turned in a great many indifferent performances over the last couple of decades, it was good. The band rollicked along with Van playing guitar, his delivery impassioned and his phrasing clear and precise.
The still-settling audience didn't hold Morrison's punctuality against him. They clapped after the fiddle solo, the steel guitar solo, the organ solo and several rose to their feet to applaud the end of the song. And when Van decided to stay in 1971 and offer up a full-voiced "Tupelo Honey," well, the crowd was justifiably delighted. "This is already better than the last time I saw him," somebody near the back of the hall whispered to a seatmate.
Though the crispness Morrison and company flaunted on those first two songs didn't hold, the crowd's rapture did. Decked out in full Dublin gangster regalia — dark suit, dark smoked glasses, dark fedora with a sprig of something red in the band—Van led his musicians into a couple of numbers from his most recent release, Keep It Simple, a collection of mostly unremarkable bluesy shuffles. Van's fans gave them an encouraging welcome.
The evening progressed through songs from across his vast catalogue, with a couple of old blues chestnuts thrown in for good measure — Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me" and "St. James Infirmary," on which Van played a decent sax. Almost every number chugged along at the same pleasant medium tempo, giving Morrison room to scat around his two female backing vocalists and giving his accompanists space to trade solos while Morrison stood with his back to the audience and pondered the curtains at the rear of the stage. He addressed his public occasionally and briskly. Only rarely were the arrangements anything less than perfectly tasteful, with one victim an unfortunate rendition of "Moondance" that veered too far into Jazz Lite territory.
Morrison's phrasing wasn't as consistently articulate as on those opening songs. Through the middle of the set, he was sometimes more distinct, sometimes less; on some numbers he may as well not have been singing any words at all for verses at a time, just mixing his patented gurgles and rasps and keens with an occasional shout-out to an R&B legend. When he improvised something self-effacing after forgetting the words to the last verse of "Ballerina," from 1968's Astral Weeks, you wondered what was the point. He could have glossed right over it, as he did elsewhere in the set. "DIGGIdiggiDIGGIdiggifizzalandstay — JELLYROLL," he sung late in "And the Healing Has Begun," and whether or not he could be bothered to enunciate the lyrics he'd written 30 years earlier, his voice was in rude health, big and resonant.
The crowd whooped for every vocal run, and at the mention of every icon. Big Joe Turner, Little Richard, Jimmy Witherspoon, all namechecked. When it came Ronnie Hawkins' turn, the crowd roared, and The Hawk, from his seat in the middle of the audience, nodded and grinned.
So Van gave his admirers a concert with passages of focused genius, some of casual brilliance, and some of gifted indifference — which beats the diminished live reputation he's earned over the years and particularly of late. He remained in a populist mood, zipping through favourites like "St. Dominic's Preview" and "Wavelength." Perhaps the truest measure of his generosity of song choice came near the end, as he ordered his organist to give him a little background music while he talked.
"This is a song I learned in Berlin in 1989," he said, explaining that at the time he didn't know Roger Waters or Pink Floyd, or their hit "Comfortably Numb." "It wasn't my scene," he said, and when the audience cheered for that, he snapped, "No, really — it wasn't my scene." But the version Van had sung on had been used in a popular Scorsese film last year, and so he was going to do it tonight. Pandering to the crowd? Maybe Van did care, after all.
They cheered when the band started playing, one of the backup singers handling the verses, and they roared when Van joined his band to sing the first chorus, reading the lyrics from a music stand. He sang the second chorus, too, letting his backup handle the rest. And at the song's conclusion it drew the biggest standing ovation of the night.
The biggest, that is, save that which the crowd summoned at the end, after just over 90 minutes of music. Having left the stage during the last bars of "And the Healing Has Begun," Morrison wandered back on with a harmonica for a perfunctory belting-out of "Gloria" to close the set proper. Then with all Massey on its feet, he ambled offstage, and followed by his musicians after a few minutes of vamping. The crowd remained standing, whistling and clapping. Even as the house lights came up they cheered, though the stage was empty, an encore declined. Fickle, fickle Van. Ain't love a bitch?
We walked into the beautiful Massey Hall in the light, spent one hour and 37 minutes bathed in the light of the music, and exited into the fading light of the day. We got some of the sacred texts tonight. Van often in wailing, prayerful, plaintive voice
At the end of 'Comfortably Numb', Van told that audience that "I hope you liked that. I am not numb, and I am not comfortable." Ballerina was unbelievably beautiful. St. Dominic's Preview like a hymn. Gloria with some "who do you love" lyrics as a tribute to Ronnie Hawkins, who was in the audience.

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