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undеrneath the nevada desert night sky

Van Morrison Bakkt Theater Planet Hollywood Las Vegas, NV Sept 8 and 9, 2023

I’m sitting in my seat night one and thinking, it’s been four years since I’ve seen Van in concert. Jazz Fest 2019. I really haven’t missed him in the interim (when you live in New Orleans, there is just so much good music around, your musical plate is full and overflowing). He’s been very much on the outskirts of my radar.

But here I am tonight. Here’s what I know: Van is going to open with all songs from his latest Skiffle album. I feel I have had my fill of this particular musical interlude of Van’s, but I haven’t heard it live yet, and there is nothing I like better than new. However, with all the skiffle videos I’ve been watching over the past several months, it already seems old to me.

The lights are dimming, it’s show time! I’m feeling good. Sec 104, Row K, seat 9 is looking pretty great – nobody is sitting in the seats right in front of me, or in the row before that, so my sightlines do not involve craning my neck. It’s all good.

There had been hints in Van’s live set before coming to the States for this tour, that skiffle was on the way out, highlights from his back catalogue were on the way in, mixed in with some new blues tunes from the forthcoming studio release of blues. The imagined setlist was music to the imaginations of the long-suffering among us. But at the last minute, the blues album got postponed to the new year, leaving Van to fall back on a polished skiffle set.

Van opens with “Streamline Train,” the first of 13 skiffle songs to open the night, and it pumps right along, John Platania chugging on the rhythm, keeping those wheels moving. I’m getting limbered up. Just in time for “Sail Away Ladies” – it’s such a pleasure to listen to Van take this with such gusto. And for something completely different, the song features clarinet, performed by Jeff Taylor. I would guess it’s been since Kate St John in the 90s since Van has brought in a clarinet. So here we are, two songs in and I’m loving skiffle. “In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down” is next, and that too comes off with much appreciation from the audience.

Then the musicality, for lack of a better word, drops off. There are no dynamics to lead from one song to the next – granted it’s very polished, very well rehearsed, and very smartly presented, but it’s all just one and done to my ears. Right up until the 12th song, “Cotton Fields,” which might have gone unnoticed but for the fact that “Cotton Fields” was the first 45 I ever owned. My brother gave it to me, in desperation really. Knowing my propensity to listen to a song on repeat, he wanted to get me off The Supremes and into something he could stand to hear on repeat through our shared bedroom wall. I am likely one of very few in the audience who would know this song, so I am the one singing along with Van – more mouthing it, so as not to disturb the gentle people around me. Note to Van: I have heard the place name as Texarkana. If nothing else, it rolls off the tongue easily.

All of a sudden, the show takes off. “Green Rocky Road,” next, is a lovely song, and has much more of a freewheeling sound to it, looser than the songs up to this point. It would be a treat to see this song explored further, but that may never happen, so I smile at how he delivered it tonight.

Then to the surprise of all of us come two blues songs, “Travellin Blues” and “Laughin and Clownin,” which if you’re keeping your eyes and ears open, surely you’re thinking they’re from the upcoming album, ya figure? If so, the future, live-wise, holds great promise, especially for those long-suffering ones referenced above. I’ll definitely be watching the setlists of the upcoming shows to see if he adds any other tasty treats from his trove of blues classics.

“In the Afternoon” is delicious. I lean back in my seat and close my eyes, following Van’s song of love, and it’s all quite lovely, and it hits me right between the ears that it’s the dynamics, they’ve kicked in. And indeed, on through the rest of Van’s songs, we get that dramatic ebb and flow of a Van singing full force – “Into the Mystic” and “Help Me” follow, with Van in full throttle on the latter. The band does it justice, best version I’ve heard in years, a return to form. And “Gloria” – unbelievably great, and the huge energy had even jaded me up on my feet.

As Van says, Satisfied.

three days later …

It’s been two days since the show the following night, Van’s last show in Vegas. That final show, at least its first 13 songs, was a carbon copy of the previous night. If there were any nuanced differences, they escaped me. The difference was in the shakeup in the songs to close the show. Last night’s “Afternoon” workshop is replaced by Whenever God Shines His Light, Dweller on the Threshold, and Precious Time, then memory says Enlightenment next, then an absolutely stunning version of “Into the Mystic.” That’s the one that took me away, something I didn’t think was in Van’s method these days. I could do that one again! Tonight’s show ends with “In the Garden,” and I’m sitting wondering when was the last time I heard this. And the audience gobbles it up, me up at the trough with the rest of them.

My afterthoughts, which are not many, include, first of all, how Van has perfected his voice in his established range – one could truly be in awe of a man who at 78 can perform a brilliantly explosive “Into the Mystic” with the strength of a 25-year-old. That he can, and seeing the direction he’s going with the setlist, the future looks deliciously good.


Las Vegas

It’s always a plus to have a friend in town when you’re visiting a place – you getLas Vegas (6) to take off your tourist hat and experience the real deal. That’s probably true of most places, but maybe a little less so when it comes to Las Vegas. Vegas is all bright lights, big city, gambling, drinking, shows, showgirls, and more gambling … and after all that, what’s there to do?

Visit the Bellagio on the Strip, that’s what. To see the huge water garden display beyond the hotel foyer, and then in the foyer itself, a Chihuly masterpiece, plus another piece in the casino. I discovered the artist Chihuly at his museum in Seattle and had heard that the Bellagio was one of the places that featured his work. I’d totally forgotten about it until Wendy and I arrived at the hotel for a sight-see around the water garden, and there it was. Beautiful stuff.

The water garden is a fairly spectacular piece of work too. Apparently they replace the display on a somewhat regular basis (maybe monthly?), and it’s a great tourist magnet – a roomful of constant camera clicking. Just a few shots to give you an idea …

Vegas is hot, except for those days when it’s scorchingly hot. The lushness of hotel lobbies gives way to dry, desert conditions everywhere else, with cactus and palm trees the order of the day. It was lovely sitting in Wendy’s back garden under the shade of the palm tree and soak up her little corner of the universe.


Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

This gem of a place lies about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and it’s the first stop on what would turn out to be Wendy’s and my four-week road trip through southwestern Nevada, northern California and Oregon. We took the back road out of Vegas, just so we could pass through the wonderfully named town of Pahrump. A few twists and turns in the road later, there was Ash Meadows – a desert oasis on the eastern border of Death Valley. What a sight to behold!

Its 24,000 acres include spring-fed wetlands and an alkaline desert and because of its isolated existence, it’s home to several endemic species of plants and animals. It’s also home to Devils Hole, a geothermic aquifer-fed pool within a cavern in caves that were formed 500,000 years ago. Despite the water being over 90 degrees and as salty as you can get, this pool of water is the only natural location of a what’s described as the rarest of fish, the Devils Hole pupfish. Talk about adaptation to one’s surroundings.

As we set out along one of the refuge’s boardwalks, we were warned to take plenty of water – the first, but not only, time we’d be so advised in the Mohave Desert. It’s a hard, hot, arid life out here, and I last all of an hour, which doubles the respect and awe I have for the species that do survive in this desert land.



AMR 1Hugging the Nevada-California border heading north, we hit the ghost town of Rhyolite. If we look back to the 1800s and early 1900s, there are any number of towns that grew up from their rough beginnings as mining camps. Dusty camps would turn into dusty towns, and depending on which way the prevailing winds of the economy blew, towns became prospering cities or everyone pulled up stakes and moved on. The American West is dotted with abandoned towns, and each has its story to tell. Rhyolite’s is perhaps not much different than most. Gold was discovered in them thar hills and with it came thousands of gold seekers, miners and developers. By 1908 it was a thriving community – electric lights, telephones, newspapers, even an opera house, and undoubtedly saloons and brothels – with upwards of 5,000 residents. Then oops, a few years later, the mining dried up, the mining company that pretty much owned the town picked up stakes and left, and within a decade, so had everyone else.

After 1920, Rhyolite became something of a tourist attraction and was the setting for a few Hollywood movies – but since then most of the buildings were moved to the local town of Beatty, either in whole or as scrap, and what’s left is mostly the crumbling remains.

In a curious twist, the ruins of the town attracted the Belgian artist, Albert Szukalski, who in 1984 set about creating some ghostly life-sized sculptures near the site of Rhyolite’s abandoned railway station. The ghosts of Rhyolite!

There’s now a museum on the site and an art center used by artists … the phoenix does rise.

From here, it’s five miles to the entrance of Death Valley National Park, and the ghostly remains of Rhyolite have set the stage for our drive through the valley of death.