Boston August 2009: go with the flow

Tuesday was gig day – always a good day. Not really a travel day, as I call Boston my home town when describing Van concerts, but I do have to cross a state border to get there these days. I was down in Boston by lunchtime, picking up Sean at the airport. He’s doing all four shows, so he’s just getting started. Well, we all are, but some of us have longer trips than others. But right now we’re just focused on Boston. Seeing what it is he’s going to bring us this time. These are glorious times in Van’s live music, with the buildup exactly the way you like it: not having a clue what’s in store next.

This gigging is a job, not much time for anything else when you’re hopping from city to city, following the show around. Just enough time to take a shower, clean up a bit, and head over to the preshow, the concert, a drink afterward, to bed and off the next day to wherever the tour is going next. Most of the time it doesn’t give you much chance for sightseeing. But Sean and I have got a couple of hours before the preshow – just enough time for Sean to get acquainted with some of the sights and sounds of Boston. Perfect day for a walkabout, beautiful sunshine-filled day, although by the time we got to Sweetwater four hours later, we were glad of the air conditioning and the chance to rehydrate. Folks started arriving about 5:00, most of them locals – Donna, Bob and Nancy, Dan H., Mike F., Jim, Bill and Nancy, Pat A., Diane, George H., who I was very glad to meet for the first time, and from further afield, Dan, Robert, Bob C., and further still, the winners of the longest-distance contest, Wilfred and Lizet from Holland. They were in New York on holidays and saw that Van was playing in Boston, so made the side trip. I know I’ve forgotten a few names and faces, not unusual it seems. The buzz was what we might expect tonight: two sets or one, a sprinkling of Astral Weeks or the whole thing. No bets were placed, therefore no losers. But no one came close to predicting what we ended up getting – but that’s the joy of it, what keeps us coming back – not knowing what’s coming.

Last night, after I got home, my mind was so full of the music; sitting here at my computer, I couldn’t for the life of me come up with any way to describe it. Beautiful was all I could think of.

And it certainly was that. What we got was a seamless piece of poetry set to an extraordinarily fine piece of music. Amazing to see how Van Morrison “live” keeps growing. The band has gelled around this music, they know how to play it fluidly – the word that kept coming to me last night during the show was “lush.” From Northern Muse to On Hynford Street, it was a classically performed suite. I imagine that this is how you’d feel if you were a classical music lover seated at symphony hall to hear Mozart’s Requiem. This was Van’s symphony for Boston.

The show started at 8:10 – or at least the band came out at 8:10, and waited for a while for Van to come out. The audience started clapping in a now-what-do-we-do way, then Van walked on to sit at the piano for Northern Muse, and the clapping turned into one of joyous appreciation. The Boston crowd is consistent, if nothing else. Their appreciation for Van always seems so heartfelt, not always polite, but always magnanimous. And Van is always able to manipulate the Boston audience – he knows how to make them squeal and, in the next minute, bring them to humble silence.

In retrospect, easy to see how good Northern Muse worked as the opener on the night. It set the style and the tone, laid the table, so to speak, for the night. One song after another – Fair Play, The Mystery, Hard Nose the Highway, Streets of Arklow, In the Garden, and then directly into Astral Weeks. If his plan is to wean us off Astral Weeks, the first six songs of the night got the job done magnificently. But we didn’t have to be weaned; we got the best of both worlds – songs chosen and performed to match the ethereal beauty that he creates with the AW songs. This is the music we love, the music that takes us to that place of beauty, suspended in Van’s telling of it.

To this untrained ear, the music was what I’ve come to recognize with this band – very capable, knowing of the music, able to make it so Van can maneuver around in it. We might get a bit more solos as things move along, but tonight, we only get a sprinkling; and of those, Richie on sax and Jay on guitar are the ones that compelled me to pay attention. Van on guitar would often engage with Tony on violin and with Jay on guitar, adding that extra layer to the music, eventually layer upon layer to make it that lush sound that lifted it off the mortal plane. When I find myself smiling in contentment, usually it’s during some Jay workings. Richie’s clarinet work during On Hyndford Street had me grinning too.

I’m not one to wish away my life, but during Fair Play I was so blown away with how magnificent it sounded, with everyone on stage working to create what sounded like a masterpiece. That’s what I wrote in my notes, anyway. What I didn’t write down was how I could hardly wait for DC so I could hear this again, if I’m lucky. That was the first song I said that on, but it sure wasn’t the last. I couldn’t have wanted for more. At the end of Arklow, he intones “Go with the flow, don’t pull no punches, don’t push the river,” and to be honest, going with the flow was the only thing available to do – he made it so easy for us.

In the Astral Weeks set, he put Slim Slow Slider in second spot, giving me pause to think perhaps it would only be a handful of AW songs, but no, it was just another change in the order. I actually get a real kick out of the different sequencing with the AW songs; it makes for different twists in the story, but we always end up with the dynamics of Madame George – to the moon and back, tonight ending in quiet reflection and reminding me once again why this song stands out in the pantheon.

On Hynford Street, which followed, was one of those synchronous moments: Donna and I rose as one, mouthing OMG! (with about 16 more exclamation points added on) and then came back down to our seats, sitting there in relative awe, thinking this was one for the books.

The show was certainly one for the books. It didn’t have the glorious, driving highs that’ll get you all curfuzzled in the moment; rather, it was a night of beauty, where not a moment was wasted and not a moment lost. Bring on DC and wherever the music goes from here. These times are the good times, the glorious times in Van’s performance art, the times when the music is all it can be. It’s not too late to get on the train. Clear sailing ahead.

If you like consensus, you would have liked the post-show. To a body, it was like we had just come from a seven-course meal, loving every minute of it and completely stuffed. What a night.

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