JazzTimes managing editor Evan Haga saw Van Morrison last night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Here are his thoughts:
The Irish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Van Morrison is one of popular music's great contradictions, as he proved last night during a 90-minute set at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The performance was, on several levels, bewildering.
Over the last four-plus decades, Morrison has written indelible melodies and delivered them in his singular blue-eyed-soul shout, a sort of half-croak, half-belt that feels at once homey and otherworldly. He has recorded songs, like "Brown Eyed Girl," that even children know to sing along to. People genuinely feel like they own his music, even when it's dressed in jazz and Celtic flourishes.
But what he offers, even as it's anchored in American roots and R&B, is so totally esoteric. A notoriously diffident and difficult personality, Morrison, like Bob Dylan, is now less interested in celebrating those terrific melodies than being a roots bandleader ...
Morrison spent most of the Meyerhoff gig directing his crack nine-piece ensemble (with strings) through simmering vamps and R&B shuffles, stoically cuing a keyboardist to lay out here, inviting a guitarist to bend a few more bluesy licks there. You heard stop-time percussion solos, long, true notes played on soprano sax and flute, corner-bar organ and muted, Miles Davis-esque trumpet. For many in the audience, it very well may have been the most they’d ever listened to improvised music.
Morrison himself holds musicianship dear, even if his chops on guitar and sax are middling (he fares better on harmonica). His voice is the thing, and he treats it like his horn, turning lyrics into syllabic scats, re-harmonizing songs whose melodies are set in stone (as he did on "Moondance"), and generally understanding that his inflection and phrasing are more important than enunciation.
There's a parlor game I play at shows like these, especially Dylan. Compare what you remember to what you’re hearing: Last night, "You wiped the teardrops from your eye in sorrow," a favorite line from "In the Garden," became "You'll ride the T. Rex tomorrow."
It's the voice that makes for moments of transcendence, no matter how much attention Morrison pays to his band. His generous croon over the striding "And the Healing Has Begun" and thrusting "Gloria" almost made up for how unaccommodating he is as a performer. In case you're wondering, "Brown Eyed Girl" was tossed off at the very top of the show.
The hour and a half flew by without Morrison acknowledging his audience, and there was no encore despite the crowd's floor-shaking request for one. There were also tech issues: Toward the beginning, a radio signal was continuously funneled into the sound system, providing a serious distraction during ballads, and the house lights seemed constantly in flux throughout.
You might chalk all or at least some of this up to Van the Man's legendarily defiant being. But with tickets running roughly $80 to $350, legend only goes so far.
(Photo of Van Morrison performing at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles by Getty Images)