A Night to Remember (and one to forget): Two sides of Van Morrison

The gig going experience is often about factors unrelated to the music. After 20 years with M.E. I have learnt that standing up for two hours to watch something indifferent is not for me, and to quote music writer David Hepworth, I like to be looking at the inside of my eyelids at a reasonable hour. That tends to dictate the shows I attend and my reaction to them. Van Morrison is a good example here. He is widely reported to be mildly eccentric in his approach to live shows, and whether you get truculent Van or transcendent Van seems to be mostly a matter of chance.

I’ve seen him twice and got one of each. In 2006 I saw an outdoor show at the Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. They do a series of shows there most summers, from pop to classical. The weather clearly makes a difference to the experience, and on Van Morrison’s night it was a pleasant night at the end of July. Sitting on the grass with a glass of something and some snacks before the music is part of the attraction of gigs here, and it takes a lot of hard work to burst that bubble. On this night Van was equal to the task. With a set mixed between covers and hits it quickly became obvious which songs he wanted to play and which he couldn’t care less about. As the latter included ‘Moondance’ and my personal favourite Morrison song ‘Bright Side of the Road’ he wasn’t winning the audience. He hit his stride with a version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and his own ‘Gloria’. As these were the last songs of the night there was a feeling that he simply didn’t want to be there. The car driving away from backstage five minutes after he left the stage confirmed this.

Transcendent Van showed up in 1990 at a small church in the Exmoor village of Stogumber. What lead him to play to 300 people in a small freezing-cold church? Allegedly it was just wanting to hear his music in a church setting. Playing with a small band featuring Georgie Fame on Hammond organ Morrison himself played guitar, saxophone and a keyboard. Some of the audience were locals rather than fans which changed the dynamic of the show. Perhaps he didn’t feel obliged to play so many of the usual songs. The standouts in a set that featured many of his more spiritual songs included ‘Dweller on the Threshold’ and ‘Bright Side of the Road’. Even ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ a song that I never warmed to was transformed by Fame providing the other half of the vocal, rather than C***f. The performance peaked with ‘Into The Mystic’. Fame’s Hammond solo as good as anything on the night.

Everyone views shows differently, and I’m sure there were those at Westonbirt who hadn’t seen what the man was capable of who found the show acceptable, if a little uninspiring and assumed that was just what Van Morrison delivered. Having seen transcendent Van in action it was hard to reconcile the two wildly different performances for me. At the Stogumber show I left feeling that I had witnessed the hand of some form of deity at work, at the other I saw a mortal who simply didn’t want to be there and didn’t care who knew it.

About Tim Martin 82 Articles
Back to bouncing between Clevedon and Crianlarich, with all sorts of Americana music to help the journey. I then write about some of it here and elsewhere...

9 Comments

  1. Tim, this excerpt from my book ‘A Life In Live Music’ conveys my similar thoughts on the moods of Van The Man and his performances. Forgive some of the more personal minutiae.

    VAN MORRISON. Another Irish legend, and one that I have been fortunate to see about 10 or so times. I’m unsure of the first time that I saw him. It would have been in the mid-eighties at the Oxford Apollo and I was there with a friend and neighbour, Alistair Duncan. It was a strange show in that he didn’t seem at all pleased about something and left the crowd utterly amazed when he left the stage after barely an hour for what I thought was a mid-show interval, only for the house lights to come on and the show was over.
    Not put off by this, and continuing to love his almost annual album output, I went, this time with my then-wife, to see him again, this time at The Albert Hall on 10th October, 1989. He seemed far happier and put on a fine show, helped as always by a wonderful band and the magical surroundings and acoustics of The Albert Hall.
    My wife and I then saw him again in the somewhat incongruous venue that is The Oasis Centre in Swindon on Saturday, 20th June 1992. I would have to say that this would be my favourite of all the Van concerts I have been to. He was in great spirits – laughing and joking with his band and the audience. If my memory serves this was probably the longest show I have ever see him do – at least 3 hours. He even took some requests from the audience; something I had never seen before or since.
    The second last time I was at one of his shows was on 4th March 2012 and it was another great show. It was if he had rung me up and asked me what songs I would like him to perform! From the opening Brown Eyed Girl (which I had never heard him perform live before) through Crazy Love, taking in a magnificent Tupelo Honey, on which he played some great guitar, which segued into Why Must I Always Explain, to an astonishing No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, culminating in a wondrous Gloria, it was just a superb concert.
    Intermingled with the above concerts, I have seen him at at least three Fleadhs in Finsbury Park, twice more in Oxford and a couple of Bishopstock Festivals in 2000 and 2001, which have been watched with varied degrees of enjoyment depending on his (and maybe, my) mood.
    Van was also in sparkling form when I saw him in July 2013 at The Cornbury Festival. Once again people around me were confusing his lack of audience interaction with him being a curmudgeon. WRONG! He’s not there to entertain us with between-song jokes and stories. The man is a brilliant songwriter, singer and musician. I’ll just repeat that; a brilliant songwriter, singer and musician. Not a comedian, raconteur and magician.
    What a performance he gave that night. He had obviously taken into consideration that he was performing at a festival and therefore his set list was sprinkled with more of his well known songs.
    Songs he sang included:
    Precious Time; Moondance; Whenever God Shines His Light; Brown Eyed Girl; Have I Told You Lately; a glorious and never-heard-live-by-me- before, Here Comes The Night; Baby Please Don’t Go; Gloria and many more.
    As always his band were following his every move and twitch, but to wonderful effect. A great professional band, backing a great professional songwriter, singer and musician.

    • Thanks for your comment Ken. His A Night in San Francisco remains up there with my favourite live albums. I was due to see him at Black Deer (not sure if it was this year or last year’s cancellation). perhaps that might have redressed the balance for me.

  2. Unfortunately I’ve only had the crap experience having seen him in Stoke in the late 70’s early 80’s when he played a princely 50 minutes and the lights went up before 10.00. The same tour my brother in law saw him play for 3 hours (bit excessive that). Who else can earn their crust with such a cavalier approach to output??
    His brief appearance was rectified a little when my somewhat musically inexperienced friend pronouned in his broad Lancashire accent, apropos Van’s tastelsss Man at Greenwoods attire, that he looked ‘just like his dad’ Excellent.
    I get your point about stand up not being his forte nor required Ken, but an acknowledgement and appreciation of people who pay good money to see him wouldn’t go amiss.

    Good article though Tim!

  3. I’ve see him 40+ times since 1979 I guess – and I’m a part-timer compared to other Van fans: others have seen him more than that in a year – and you get what you get. I’ve never found his open air shows that enjoyable, and he always leaves straight after his performance regardless. I’ve been to two successive nights with broadly similar set lists and wildly differing performances. He went through a spell over several years of AWAYS finishing with BEG and Gloria. That got tedious for the hard core fans but probably great for the casual attender. The thing is, when he’s on there’s nobody better. Nobody more transcendent. He takes two songs and makes them one – he had Celtic New Year and Healing Game together in the mid 2000s which left the audience transfixed. His ‘workshops’ are legendary. His live renditions are always better than the studio versions. You keep going in the hope you’ll get one more performance which rocks your emotions. I don’t buy a ticket to make friends with him but to listen to a near-genius make music. His greatest performance to my ears was the Astral Weeks show at the RAH on 19th April 2009. He was 20 minutes late coming on but it was generally agreed that it was a show for the ages.

    Thanks for the piece, Tim. You’ll be the envy of hundreds for having been at the Stogumber show.

  4. Having seen VM with my wife at least a dozen times over the years – outside and inside at various locations across the country – you knew you would get near or enough ninety minutes of his musical time. No more, no less. No encore, absolutely no interaction with the audience who had paid top whack to see him perform or no attempt to mingle after the show ….. I recall seeing him drive away in his chauffeured limo from the Liverpool Empire just after exiting the theatre.

    I stopped going to his see him live ten years ago. Being expected to shell out £50 x 2 for middling seats was getting too much, when you knew you could see decent new music for less than half the price in Newcastle where I now live. So I saved my hard earned money to buy his expanding output during this time.

    The final straw with the now ennobled one, was the transformation of his ‘eccentricity’ into idiocy last year with his ‘anti lock down’ rant of nonsense and conspiracy shite. So for me now it is not just no more live shows it is no more purchases. I’ll just stream listening to him, knowing that will hurt him the most … in his pocket.

  5. I may well be wrong but I think over the last couple of years he has approached live performances in a more professional way as he considers it to be ‘just doing his job’. Maybe there won’t be many ‘transient’ shows but I don’t think there will be many bad ones either. Plus his voice is as good as ever. Overall his latest double album is pretty good, but it also has some of his most predictable, banal, throwaway, lyrics. However for a man of his age he is sort of unique. I am somewhat biased, coming from the same city and have been listening to him for the last 50 plus years. I will see him again at Black Deer. The last time I saw him ‘live’ was ’83 for the ‘Live at The Grand Opera House Belfast’ album, recorded over four nights. He once said to me at a chance encounter “Who are you fuckin’ looking at?” Ha.

  6. Good thing that you caught him on a good day Geoffrey. Long ago I heard an apocraphyl story about his insisting that someone he didn’t like the look of be removed from an after gig party. He only relented when he was told it was his bass player.

  7. What’s your point ? From someone who’s seen Van at least 30 times since the 70`s I’ve only been disappointed once. He’s not going PLAY brown eyed girl every show. The first thing you learn about van is that he’s the artist, not you. He doesn’t pander. Sit back and enjoy the ride and you’ll get more out of it. Remember they booed Ray Charles when he went country, look how that turned out.

  8. My wife took me to see Van for my 45th birthday at the Beacon in New York. We turned a corner and there it was Van Morroson with Georgie Fame and the blue flames. Thought I had died and gone to heaven. Georgie Fame. I was back in Westway in Derry washing the dishes and singing Yeh Yeh at the top of my teenage lungs! What a show. They were filming it but you had to be there. After about 5 encores they come back on and Platania starts throbbing Smokestack blues then the man walks onstage: John Lee Hooker! Stop your train let the cowboy ride why dont you hear me callin’
    They went through Gloria with Van breaking strings and everyone in the house on their feet! Fifteen years later for my 60th she flew me from Newark to LAX where I met up with my son James in from Louisville Ky , we rented a car and drove up to the Hollywood Bowl to see the Astral Weeks show. We came up the elevator just as he was going on stage. First half was great and then he “dialed in” the Astral Weeks part. Very disappointing. They had him all tricked up with aviator shades and red curls falling out from a hat. And a big fake set of false teeth. Zero charisma. That was a dozen years ago. When James was 10 months old I saw that Van was laying at the Garden state Arts center here in New Jersey. Over my wifes protests we got in the car with no tickets. Parked and walked up towards the venue. I hear this girl in front of us saying ” what are we going to do with these two extra tickets?” 10 rows back what a show the Belfast man put on that night!!

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