Tonight – February 22, 2021 – marks the 50th anniversary of my first time. My first Van Morrison concert, on a frigid cold winter night in Montreal.
That first Van concert was quite the escapade, complete with sneaking out of boarding school and hightailing it into Montreal and back and hoping not to get caught in the process. I won’t give away the ending, but you can read about it in my Van Chronicles. I daresay Van wasn’t at his performing best that night, but it being my first time, it was all I could ask for, and more. I was committed for life.
A very popular game among Van fans is creating one’s dream setlist. I always planned to do this, and never did of course, but here we are, fifty years later, and now seems like a good time to check this off the to-do list. A big shout-out to vanomatic, whose site is a wealth of information on all things live Van, and continues to fill in the blanks for all of us.
Here, then, is my dream setlist, composed of live versions of some of Van’s best songs, performed at some of the best shows I ever attended. There are plenty of very worthwhile candidates that didn’t make the list, and all I can say is, Van couldn’t conceivably play that long of a set. So only the creme de la creme this time.
- Ballerina – July 10, 2008 – Tower Theater, Upper Darby: Night one of a two-parter that featured a tantalizing preview of what was to come a few months down the road at the Hollywood Bowl.
- Vanlose Stairway – July 6, 1986 – Kingswood Theatre, Toronto: Open-air venue, not great acoustics, but the band worked hard up there. This was part of the No Guru tour. What a killer tour that was.
- Tupelo Honey > Why Must I Always Explain? – April 29, 1996 – Supper Club, NYC: I don’t know … The Drunken Soldiers tour? TH is forever on my Top 10 list, and WMIAE is Van’s best, of far too many complaint songs. Two for the price of one.
- Into the Mystic – March 19, 2005 – Orpheum Theater, Boston: I don’t think there was a person among us who didn’t think this was the best show they had ever been to. We have pretty long memories, too.
- Fairplay – August 4, 2009 – Wang Theater, Boston: The addition of FP to the setlist in the second half of the Astral Weeks Live year was so sweet. I heard it here in Boston for the first time. I remember the goosebumps.
- Little Village – February 3, 2012 – Odyssey, Belfast: I was in the right place at the right time this night. Bridget and I had just spent two weeks traveling around Ireland, and this song was wee Celtic Van at his best. He had me quite believing he was talking to me personally. Celtic Van will do that to you sometimes.
- Cleaning Windows – October 26, 2003 – Le Carre, Amsterdam: I don’t know where to start. R&B just the way you want it. Please don’t touch! Ouch.
- Fast Train – February 26, 2000 – Barbican, York – We didn’t know it at the time, but these were the waning days of the Johnny Scott band, Van was moving on. “Fast Train” was the last song of the night, recorded two nights earlier. Lucky us to get the premiere. And as the last song I heard live from this band, I’m happy.
- What Would I Do? – May 15, 1985 – Massey Hall, Toronto: This Ray Charles gem is putty in Van’s hands. He never played it enough to my way of thinking, and this is the only time I heard the complete version. Sometimes he’ll sneak in a few lines as a bridge, and while those are fun (and rare), you really want to hear the whole thing.
- Saint Dominic’s Preview – November 8, 2008 – Hollywood Bowl, L.A.: A classic, and this one came with snipers on the rooftop.
- Raincheck > River of Time – July 5, 2007 – Hummingbird Theatre, Toronto: I’ve had some intense moments when Van’s head and heart and mouth take off as one, and all I can do is hang on tight. He was relentless on this one.
- Summertime in England – September 21, 1998 – Metro Centre, Halifax: It’s kind of hard to pick just one version, but this stands out as the last time I heard it live, and it was the highlight of the night, for sure.
- All in the Game – October 26, 2003 – Le Carre, Amsterdam: Same for this song – there are any number of versions that could be slotted in here, but he outdid himself this night, taking it out crying waaan, waaan, waaan. Tear your heart apart, or what. European audiences are an even-tempered bunch; there’s no yelling and screaming and acting American – except tonight. Le Carre was on its collective feet.
- Burning Ground – June 14, 1997 – Fleadh, Randall’s Island: There are plenty of versions of this song to choose from, but none better than this, my first time. Van as performance artist – dumping the jute with mic as prop. Something else.
- Help Me – June 14, 1999 – Jones Beach, NY: I love this song – Van changes it up every time, plus I give it a 98, it’s got a good beat and I can dance to it. The JS band’s treatment made me sit up and pay attention.
- On Hyndford Street – October 1, 2009 – Salle Wilfred Pelletier, Montreal: Ethereal bliss.
- It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World > Don’t Let Me Break Down – April 28, 1996 – Supper Club, NYC: Van has had some spectacular moments in his career. I think these 48 minutes are at the pinnacle. One for the ages.
- In the Afternoon – July 11, 2008 – Tower Theater, Upper Darby: Part 2 of the gnomes on the ancient highway. Diamonds in the night.
- Cyprus Avenue – January 16, 1998 – Theater at MSG, NYC: He was hot on this one tonight – reminding us “if this is pop music, what the fuck are we doing here?” Big hand for the band!
- Madame George – November 7, 2008 – Hollywood Bowl, L.A.: Get on the train! I don’t know how you ever beat this.
- And the Healing Has Begun – October 25, 2009 – Theater at MSG, NYC: I couldn’t exactly say which show of the ones I’ve seen that’s my favorite; but if I could exactly say, then I’d say this one. It helps to have a seat six feet from Van at the piano to get you in the mood. But it wasn’t just that – we all got that squealin feeling.
- Caravan – October 26, 1978 – O’Keefe Center, Toronto: I’m exhausted just thinking back on this one.
Van walks offstage, hunkered over his mic, it’s too late to stop now. The band plays on, and back on comes Van for two songs to close out the night, and here I have roamed from the wealth of live shows to choose two songs I’ve never heard live. But never say never; who knows what the next 50 years will bring.
23. Autumn Song
Great show, Van! I gotta tell you, I am amazed that you could keep going after “Man’s World,” so thanks for that.