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.