There are probably more than three reasons why your might go to a Van Morrison concert; but here are three to be going on with.
First, surely he can’t be as bad-tempered as he was last time – or can he? Secondly, there will come a time when he’s not around – and good luck God, if one of your angels should sing out of tune. And thirdly, because of the love/hate relationship you’ve had with him since you were growing up – especially if your hometown was Belfast in the ‘70s.
Friday night, and we’re sitting in the front row of the Empire, adjacent to Lime Street station in Liverpool; there’s a discernable buzz of anticipation around this splendid old auditorium. Surprisingly there are a few empty seats. Maybe that’s down to the nigh-on £100 tickets, or perhaps it’s a sign that the Belfast Cowboy is failing to engage a younger fan-base as the Baby Boomers begin to shuffle off.
The last time I’d seen him – in the Albert Hall a year ago – I’d sworn I’d never come back. He had grumped off stage after barely 45 minutes of a performance that was both desultory and indifferent; the sell-out crowd had left speechless at the realization that they had paid almost a fiver per minute for the privilege.
We’d had a sweepstake on the way down last night, for how long he’d hold out before retiring for his slippers and cocoa.
So when we arrived at the Empire to be informed that
the programme would start at 7.45 sharp and would be finished by 9.15, I felt confident that my prediction of 90 minutes was spot on.
Off to the bar, then, to get a drink or two to take in with us. But as we queue to be served, we learn that alcohol is not allowed in the auditorium.
“…Normally is”, the barman informs us, “but He’s specifically forbidden it for tonight’s performance.”
“Grumpy old Irish bastard,” said a voice behind me. “Just ‘cos he’s bloody given up drinking!”
“I have a thing about grumpy Irish bastards, you know”, says the lady next to me. “I go all weak-kneed for them,” she adds. “In fact I’ve just buried one.”
“D’you want another one?” asks my girlfriend, a little uncharitably. “I’ve got one here you can have!”
San Miguel guzzled and toilet visited, we take our seats, with noses virtually pressed to the stage. The show gets off to a low-key start. The seven-piece band slink onto the stage and apologetically slide into “Baby Please Don’t Go”. The Great Man waddles on and loosens his larynx amid a flurry of groveling technicians re-connecting wires. VTM responds with frenetic hand waving as if he were chastising a badly behaved dog. This doesn’t bode well, I think, revising my sweepstake bid. But after they seamlessly merge into “Here Comes the Night”, things start to pick up. The knowledgeable audience, whose initial groans suggest that they’ve been through all this before, begin to warm up sensing that this just might be a good one.
A snappy rendition of “Moondance” and “Fair Play” do much to reinforce this sentiment. Before long, we are slapping our arthritic or replaced knee joints to the subtleties of Morrison’s adept musical infusions of Soul, Blues, Jazz and even R&B, as he works through his considerable back catalogue.
The advancing years may have done little to diminish VTM’s enduring ability both to frustrate and to entertain, but they have done little for his dress sense. The too tight leather jacket groans with the burden of containing his expanding waistline, and the jeans look like the sort that return you change from five quid at Primark. The passage of time can be cruel to us all, but his heavily jowl-ed face bares testament to his former years of hard living.
As he sings “Have I Told You Lately”, I can’t help noticing that he is starting to look a bit like Captain Mainwaring. Just swap the aviator sunglasses for a pair of bi-focals and the fedora for the peaked-cap and you’re there; probably a control thing.
And that brings me on to the question that I ask after every concert of his: why does he always treat the members of his band so dismissively?
During “Help Me” – the penultimate of the 19 numbers he performed – I clearly heard him say to Paul Moran, the immensely talented keyboard player and trumpeter: “Don’t play any more f**kin’ bum notes…just play chords…only chords.”
Now this, I considered, was a bit harsh; particularly as he had hit a few fairly duff notes himself during the performance – in fact, some that were little more melodic than his repetitive mid-song nose blowing.
Just have a look at Moran’s CV: not only is he Morrison’s “Musical Director” but he has worked with the likes of George Michael, Sister Sledge and Gilbert O’Sullivan. He also released a polished jazz album, entitled “Smokin’ B3” which reached number eight in the HMV jazz charts.
And his fellow musicians, who managed – on this occasion – to escape the wrath of Morrison, are no less accomplished. Chris White played saxophone with Dire Straits, while fellow Irishman Paul Moore played with The Chieftains and Mark Knopfler, in addition to being the Musical Director for Riverdance for two years.
The answer must lie somewhere buried in the fact that there is no shortage of talented musicians who would give absolutely anything just to play with him.
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Because, like us all, there will come a time when he’s not around. And for all his faults and frustrations, sometimes – like last night – he proves that he is irreplaceable. Rave on!