The evening kicked off with a jazz (bordering on calypso) version of Brown Eyed Girl. This oldie from his earliest days set the tone for the evening, with fresh renditions, and at times studio perfect performances of songs from across his 40 years plus performing history. The audience were treated to such varied tracks as The Way Young Lovers Do, In the Garden, Moondance, Real Real Gone and covers of some blues standards such as Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Help Me'. There was little or no new material on offer and the concert was all the better for it. (For a full setlist please see here).
I used to go to every Van Morrison concert that was put on in Northern Ireland. I saw him play Killyleagh Castle, and enjoyed him in Botanic Gardens headlining with Bob Dylan. In the last couple of shows at the Grand Opera House, however, the singer and his songs seemed tired, the presence of Georgie Fame and Brian Kennedy overwhelmed any potential immediacy or intimacy that the audience may have enjoyed, and Morrison seemed to treat some of his own material with disdain.
None of this was evident tonight. Morrison was warm with the audience (well as warm as he is going to get!) and consummate in his arrangement and performance of every track. Vocally, his range was astonishing, managing to give an authentic growling bluesman sound to his covers, but reaching the high and sweeter notes of Astral Weeks and early career tracks. He was engaged with the material, and meticulously attentive to the dynamic of his band. Those on stage with him didn't disappoint, either. A small jazz feel to the group in no way inhibited the range of material that could be covered, and at times the synergy of backing group and singer lent the performance something very special indeed. To convey intimacy in an arena is quite a feat.
For me this was the only let down of the evening. I simply don't like the Odyssey Arena, or perhaps I should be clearer - I don't like the audience dynamic of the Odyssey Arena. It was announced tonight that the bar would close at 8:30pm, on the request of Van Morrison himself. This, presumably, was to obviate excessive to-ing and fro-ing of audience members during the performance. We were seated in the lower tier, and in a two hour performance there was not a clear 5 minutes in which people were not milling in and out. Several people two rows in front of us visited the toilet (or at least left their seats) over half-a-dozen times and on returning had a general chat with their half-dozen friends before giving some cursory attention to what was happening on stage.
This mystifies me. People have paid good money to hear an artist, and their main preoccupation throughout the concert appears to be walking in and out at will. One feels that a group of schoolchildren would have longer attention spans and better bladder control.
Perhaps I'm just getting old, or grumpy, or both.
Van Morrison, at 66 years old, appears to be at the top of his game vocally, in terms of musicianship (guitar, sax and harmonica) and in terms of engagement with his material. He treated his audience this evening to two hours of wonderful entertainment whose momentum didn't dip, and whose capacity to surprise and delight appeared limitless.