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.