I think Van surprised a lot of people this trip to the United States. To be fair, the setlists from overseas during the past year haven’t been real loin-stirrers, so it was a guessing game as to what the four shows in the States would bring. I bet there were a lot of New York-bound folks anxious to see that first setlist out of San Francisco, where it turned out, by all accounts, Van was in excellent form – best show ever type of thing.
The second show lost the sublime moments of the first night and kept the rest, wrapping the night up with “In The Garden” – just one of the many delights that Van served up all night both nights in SF. Of the 25 songs he performed in San Francisco, 10 never got played in New York. What we missed: Bulbs, Rough God Goes Riding, Satisfied, Haunts of Ancient Peace, Till We Get The Healing Done, Into The Mystic, Retreat And View, Only A Dream, Bye Bye Blackbird, Who Can I Turn To? and That’s Life. In New York he performed 23 songs, and again, it was 10 that they didn’t get in SF: Centerpiece, Sack o’ Woe, Open The Door (To Your Heart), Days Like This, Ballerina, Young Lovers Do, Tupelo Honey, Why Must I Always Explain, Early In The Morning and Glad Tidings. (We were certainly not cut short on variety.)
What they also didn’t get in San Francisco was Jon Hendricks on stage with Van. The first night, Van let us know we were in for a surprise when he quite jocularly said to us “Here’s something you might not have expected” or something like that and then introducing Hendricks as the master of vocalese, which he most certainly is. While Hendricks was on stage, he had the limelight, scatting in his inimical style on his own Centerpiece and Sack o’ Woe; the first night he was so into it on Centerpiece that his daughter Aria had to gently nudge him on the shoulder to give way to her vocal stylings and those of Kevin Burke – as Van dubbed them – the Jon Hendricks Experience. Truly a treat for Van to have Hendricks on stage – certainly a treat for us – with Van throwing in a bunch of affirming “yahs” between silly big wide grins. Van was really taken with Burke too, and his unique vocals, singing trumpet into his handheld mic, even pulling the orange bowler hat off his head and working it like a mute. It made me grin too. At one point Van directed him over to perform some vocalese with Paul Moore on the upright bass, and that too was the coolest thing. Altogether A-plus for the Hendricks Experience. And as fun as both songs were the first night, very loose, very rambling, very jazz, their presentation on night two was an awful lot tighter. Rather than having them back to back early in the set like on the first night at MSG (and ultimately setting the tone for the show), at the Beacon, Van smartly mixed it up, putting Centerpiece as number 6 and Sack o’ Woe as the penultimate song. They’d obviously rehearsed that afternoon, the result was Van getting his turn to scat a wholesome run of dig-a-dig-a-digs on SoW. Centerpiece had Van calling out “Blues Backstage” to get everyone on the same page (all that scatting, you probably get lost sometimes) to close it out. It was obvious how chuffed Van was to have Hendricks on stage; and it’s in moments like this that we see the person Van Morrison totally happy to have one of his musical greats share the stage. You’d have to think they recorded together, for what looks like a duets album in the offing.
We also got Jay Berliner’s lovely guitar both nights, and with Van’s white guitar sitting there waiting for him to pick it up, you’d be smart to think there might be an Astral Weeks song or two, but we struck out at MSG, fully remedied at the Beacon with Ballerina and Young Lovers Do. Jay makes the sweetest sounds on the guitar, and his solo on Ballerina had him dancing up the frets, taking his fingers all the way up to squeeze out the squeals just before they fall off the board. As you’d expect, his guitar work on Enlightenment was delicious, so much so that at the end of his solo, Van called out to him “Keep it there, keep it there,” getting a big grin out of Jay as he carried on. Even without Jay in the band, though, Van can cheer for his regular guitarist, Dave Keary, who seemed to have a bigger role on night two, getting included in a couple of the rounds of those solos songs that populate the setlist these days. I often wonder why Van chooses to arrange so many songs this way – it’s a good band alright, but save for Jay Berliner, no one is giving us anything we haven’t heard before. Maybe as individuals they could all let loose and Van simply chooses that they do otherwise. Behind Van, jazz band or not, I prefer to hear them play as a unit. Best solos song of the two nights: Gloria 10K at MSG. The marathon ending would have been time enough for Van to be back at the hotel and in his jammies by the final note; my, it’s long, but good solos all around. I think it was the first time I’d heard Keary all night.
Van pulled from all over his 50-year canon for these four shows, with the heaviest concentration by far coming from “How Long Has This Been Going On,” with six songs if you include Moondance with the My Funny Valentine instrumental riff to close it out. Points for variation on a theme must go to Early In The Morning – totally jazzed up, driven by Keary on guitar. Just nice to hear something completely different. And for something really completely different, there’s Brown Eyed Girl these days – as Art described it: a “truly idiosyncratic arrangement.” That and then some. Let’s call that jazz.
He seemed to be all over the band, directorially speaking – gesticulating, pointing and slashing on every song. I think the band was getting what he wanted on the first night, but he had something completely different in mind for night two, and I’m not sure they were getting it then, to Van’s dismay. Case in point: In the no guru, no method segment of In The Garden (and lovely it was), he walks over to Keary and in teacher mode, instructs him on something, then walks back toward center stage, turns to face Keary, shrugs and says “Long notes?” And proceeds to call on the audience to join in – “I want to hear you sing on this!” Singalong Van. In the garden in the witching hour. “Big hand for the band, big hand for yourselves.”
Others have talked about how relatively loquacious Van was at all four shows, and he heaped quite a bit of that on us in New York. Dedicating the three 60s songs to Bert Berns, whose son Fred was in the audience, introducing Glad Tidings with a “Seeing as we’re in New York, they want me to do this one” and giving a plug to the Sopranos. And we all love the ‘let me tell you what’s going on in my life today’ Van in It’s All In The Game, and the MSG crowd got an earful. He introduced it as a song from the late 50s, early 60s that hundreds of people had covered and then launched into ‘Many a tear has to fall…” He caresses the words and takes it soaring into You Know What They’re Writing About, baby, baby, baby, September Song, time is running out, No Plan B, no safety net, This is it, segueing into Burning Ground, where Van tells it like it is. In the first verse, after singing “I make you watch me pick up the sack in the noonday sun,” he says to us “Not you specifically. Let’s get specific about this!” and sings it again, “I make her watch me pick up” … bending over to pick up … “the sack” … wipes brow … “in the noonday sun. I try to make her understand how this work gets done.” And then to no one in particular, “It doesn’t come by accident. It only takes about 50 years.” Looking over to Paul Moran’s side of the stage, he opines, “These guys have to laugh at my jokes,” and gives us the “You could be at home getting yelled at or be here getting paid” joke. It wasn’t his only joke of the night – earlier in the set he’d introduced Days Like This saying he’d played this for the president of the United Sheet Metalworkers, ba-da-boom, no it was really President Clinton. It was all part of the talkative, happy and interested Van Morrison we got here in New York. An engaged Van.
And for all that, the real show-stopper for me was Tupelo Honey/Why Must I Always Explain at the Beacon. Van was so into it. The video version is not how I remember it – that pales in comparison. At least the Explain part. Tupelo Honey, is, well, Tupelo Honey – a Desert Island disc; at the bridge, he picks up the electric guitar and does just a lovely Van noodling bit and then he begins playing his voice like he plays the guitar. Where his voice becomes the guitar. It is beyond cool when Van does this, and I am most appreciative that I’m there when he does. What I learned tonight was that it’s got a name – vocalese. Guitar down and it’s on with the show – and the space just got filled with why, why, why must I always explain, over and over and over again. This is just such a great song, a great tune, and I thought Van belted it out with all the intensity it deserves.
A nod to Shana, who soldiers on in the shadows – when she’s singing backup she is so low in the mix, honestly, if you were sitting down on the floor over to the left, you’d never know she was there, what with that big B-3 there. She and her father don’t emit any sense of chemistry in their duets, Van standing center stage singing to the audience, and Shana back over in the corner singing to his right ear. I quite enjoyed her first sets, only three songs both nights, with a good workout on Dad’s And It Stoned Me and Sweet Thing. But where she really put it altogether was at the Rockwood on Monday night, after the MSG show. Among the highlights was a particularly rhythmic version of Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher. So, it’s not like she doesn’t sing; it’s just surprising that Van acts like she doesn’t when they’re sharing the stage.
But back to Van. What a fine couple of nights we got – Van still amazes with his voice, where he takes it, rich and full, folding it around the notes, sweet and simple. Surely, as Van sang in Help Me, it’s too good to stop now! I wasn’t passionate about the shows, but boy, were they ever a pleasure.
Thanks to Bob Croll and Dave, for getting the Rockwood lined up for us, music, posters, T-shirts and all. I failed to mention Jason Crosby before now, who was onstage playing fiddle during Shana’s opening sets, and then just pumping it out on the piano and keyboard at the Rockwood. A very talented musician. And all the fans who showed up – the East Coast crowd assembled once again to see Van. If I don’t mention any names, I won’t leave anybody out, will I Nosey? Let’s hope it won’t be four years before we do it again in New York.