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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.

golden anniversary

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Saint Dominic’s Preview – November 8, 2008 – Hollywood Bowl, L.A.: A classic, and this one came with snipers on the rooftop.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. On Hyndford Street – October 1, 2009 – Salle Wilfred Pelletier, Montreal: Ethereal bliss.
  17. 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.
  18. In the Afternoon – July 11, 2008 – Tower Theater, Upper Darby: Part 2 of the gnomes on the ancient highway. Diamonds in the night.
  19. 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!
  20. Madame George – November 7, 2008 – Hollywood Bowl, L.A.: Get on the train! I don’t know how you ever beat this.
  21. 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.
  22. 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

24. Shenandoah

Great show, Van! I gotta tell you, I am amazed that you could keep going after “Man’s World,” so thanks for that.

This Is It!

You know how it goes — you’re standing in the grocery store, reading the ingredients list on the back of a can of beans, trying to decide whether butylated hydroxyanisole is the kind of thing you should be putting in your body, and there over the PA system comes a note you’ve heard a thousand times before, a smile comes on, and before you know it you’re singing Bright Side of the Road, not too loud, mind you — just loud enough for the shoppers around you to be thinking now would be a good time to be practicing that social distancing thing, and to be on the safe side, let’s make that 15 feet. Regardless of what others around you are feeling at that moment, you’ve found a new lease on life in the canned goods aisle, you figure how bad can that butylated hydropolyethylene be, you toss two cans of the beans into the cart, and sing your way over to the shelf with the Red Dye #1.

Or you’re driving down the street and Into the Mystic comes on the radio. You pull into your driveway, put the car in park, and sit and listen to the entire song. It’s not like you couldn’t put your fingers on at least 116 versions of the same song in your collection once you get inside. No, you have to sit in the car till the song is finished. Total sacrilege otherwise.

It’s the same wherever you go. At the bar, at the dentist’s office, standing in line at the chair lift, or sitting in the chalet, never even noticing there’s background music going on, and then a Van song comes on, and all of a sudden, perfect order is restored to your life. What is that all about?

As peculiar as that is in the social fabric of life, I can do it one better. What’s it called when you’re walking around, acting pretty normal in the general scheme of things, when you spot it: a sign of Van. Literally. And you have to take a picture.

I got plenty more …

But we’ll leave it at that. At least for the signs. Because there are always the posters …

Then there’s Van on the wall …

Safe to say that taking snapshots of the word Van whenever I see it on my travels (although you’ll be glad to know that I can now walk by a Van Accessible sign without pulling out the iPhone every time) falls on the weird side of the ledger of life, and singing along every time I hear Van in a public setting is on the creepy side, but what do you call the side where I take pictures of Van lyrics? To wit …

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland has a few feet devoted to Van. You’ll have to click on each photo to get the gist …

I think I can safely say that we’ve covered the gamut, at least visually, of my penchant for all things Van. Blame it on the lockdown that I’m sitting here sorting through my sock drawer of Van photos. Not your fault, I know. I take full responsibility. And speaking of live music, or lack thereof, I’ll wrap it up with the visual reminder of the last two Van shows I went to. I’m looking forward to updating this particular gallery!

Van Morrison in Boston, April 26 & 27, 2016

Van Boston 2016 marqueeWang dang doodle – Van’s four-concert April mini-tour, which began with a set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and then went up to Alpharetta, Georgia, for a show that reeled them in,  came to a crackerjack end with two nights at the Wang Theatre in Boston. And I got to go to both. I wouldn’t say that he pulled out all the stops for us,  but he pulled us through on a number of them.

So there I was in my seat on Tuesday night, knowing that Shana was going to open at 7:30; that she was going to have a 20-minute set; and Van was coming on at 8. I was in my seat in plenty of time, having spent the better part of the past three hours at a Boston preshow, so you know that was good. Since moving to the States in 1990, this has been my group – the East Coast fans, and they are the best, the best fans ever. You got to figure I’m in the best of caledonia moods as I sit there waiting for Shana to come out. So I start talking to the two women seated beside me. Van chit-chat. Lovely ladies, who it turns out are at their first Van Morrison concert, crossing something off their bucket list. I have a vision: What if I’d never been to a Van show before: what would I have done with a life that didn’t have his music in it? It’s a scary thought. But I recuperate quickly, and with just the slightest bit of envy, I tell them, “This guy’s amazing; you just wait and see.” What I wouldn’t give to be at my first Van concert again.

Shana does a nice job both nights in her opening set. She’s got her East Coast band, the Flying Manatees, on stage with her; and on the first night, Jason Crosby plays keyboards and violin. I give a nod to the first night for the fuller sound with Jason there, but also, it was just the better set in terms of setlist (Van’s “Angeliou”) and getting the crowd pumped for Van. I am reminded as I listen to Shana sing a lovely version of “Angeliou that one of the wonderful aspects of Van’s performance is the dynamics, both within a song and in the concert overall. In any event, a gentle version of the song ends with her singing, “I’ve got a story too … it goes like this … a story that goes something like this … I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain …purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, etc., etc.” and the Boston crowd loves it.

photo by Brian Heffler

photo by Brian Heffler

They are ecstatic by the time Van comes on stage. He walks on with his sax and the crowd erupts to its feet; but it’s business as usual as Van does his solo on “Celtic Swing.” And we’re into the standard opening numbers. “Close Enough For Jazz” and “Magic Time” give us a chance to listen to how good the band is and appreciate Van’s sax playing, which sounds great tonight. But more on that later.

There’s nothing like hearing a song for the first time live, and so it is with “By His Grace,” with a “keep on keeping on” ending. We get it both nights. On the second night, we also get a very nice rendition of “Symphony Sid,” and by this time in the set, along with songs like “Born To Sing,” “Carrying A Torch,” “Wild Night,” and the list goes on, that Van is very comfortable as the band leader of this very tightly kept band. It sounds great, it sounds rehearsed. You can’t have it all.

Here are the setlists from both nights:

April 26

Celtic Swing; Close Enough For Jazz; Magic Time; By His Grace; In The Midnight; Born To Sing (w/Chris Farlowe); That Old Black Magic (w/Shana Morrison); Rock Me Baby; Someone Like You; Wavelength; Sometimes We Cry (w/Dana Masters); Enlightenment (w/SM); Baby, Please Don’t Go>Parchman Farm>Don’t Start Crying Now; In The Afternoon>Ancient Highway>Joe Turner medley>Burn, Baby, Burn>Raincheck; Wild Night; Whenever God Shines His Light (w/DM); It’s All In The Game>You Know What They’re Writing About>No Plan B/This Is It>Burning Ground; Brown Eyed Girl; Celtic Excavation>Into The Mystic; Stand By Me (w/CF)

April 27

Celtic Swing; Close Enough For Jazz; Symphony Sid (w/DM); Magic Time; By His Grace; Carrying A Torch; Rough God Goes Riding (w/SM); Stormy Monday Blues>Take Your Hands Out of My Pocket>Red Rooster>Goin’ Down Slow; Thanks For The Information; Kingdom Hall; Wavelength; Someone Like You (w/DM); Wild Night; In The Afternoon>Ancient Highway>Joe Turner medley>Burn, Baby, Burn>Raincheck; Whenever God Shines His Light (w/DM); Help Me; It’s All In The Game>You Know What They’re Writing About>No Plan B>September Song>Burning Ground; Stand By Me (w/CF)

Anorak alert: I am told that Van played a few bars of “Celtic Excavation” as the intro to “Into The Mystic.” But don’t go by me; I totally missed it.

“As we sailed into the mystic …” and we were into, you know, the mystic. The Boston crowd loved this one too. I had a random thought that maybe after the Cyprus Avenue shows when a number of fans noted with chagrin that Van hadn’t played “Cyprus Avenue” for them, as a marketing plan, he decides from here on out that he will play a “local” song – “Jambayala” in New Orleans, “Georgia On My Mind” in Alpharetta, and “Into The Mystic” for Boston. Should I be looking for a West Virginia show so I can hear “Shenandoah”?

The other thought I had was that the “standards” (pretty much all the songs that don’t have any of those >>> things in them), besides having a really polished feel to them, sounded upbeat, some of them pop, some of them jazz, and all sounding a lot like the studio cuts. I like the sound, and I recognize the change from the recent past, where the interpretations of his classics were slow and and dirge-like to my ears. If the set is going to be, like it was the first night, three-quarters full of standards, starring band leader Van with his orchestra, then let there be light and joy.

If you only got to go to one of the shows, Wednesday night was the one to go to. But if you had only gone to that one, you’d have missed the first night: the better “Game” with a Van sax solo, a bit of lingering on the “make it real” bridge, and THIS IS IT! which has been my IT since I first heard him do it in Belfast in 2012. I lead a charmed life. And the theatrics of “Parchman Farm.” I like Van’s version of this, and because I don’t go to all that many shows, I don’t get to hear it often enough not to appreciate the nuances of the night’s performance. Tonight he introduces it with “I wonder why I didn’t write this song; it’s by Mose Allison,” and he has the best time with it. And Shana’s duet with Van on “That Old Black Magic” got her vamping a bit, which was good all around, and I daresay she made some new fans in Boston.

But in a way, the highlight for me on night one was “Enlightenment.” In recent times, this is one of those songs that has sounded the same at every concert, performed in that dirge-like kind of boring way. If there are throwaways, this is one of them – for me, at least. But tonight, first of all, it’s faster paced, like all the standards. That’s better. It feels like a new old song. But even better, I listen to the words he’s singing, and I swear to god, serious, it feels like I’m hearing the words for the first time. Is this one of those songs that finally speak to you, even though you’ve heard the song a zillion times? [Later, back at home, we put on a couple of versions “Enlightenment,” and I realized that the only reason I thought I was hearing the lyrics for the first time is because I was. Just a little change in the words in one spot gives the song a new spin, at least for me.

Tonight, there’s none of the non-attachment  wording, and where in the original, it goes:

Enlightenment says the world is nothing
Nothing but a dream, everything’s an illusion
And nothing is real

in tonight’s version, he sings:

Enlightenment says the world is nothing but a dream,            Everything’s an illusion, but at the same time it’s all real

It’s a small thing, but it’s like a whole new take on the subject, or at least it seems that way to me.

The second show might have been the better of the two because of the song extensions. “Rough God Goes Riding” first. The ending bit that invokes the heroes reduced to zero, Jesse James, Billy the Kidd, Robert de Niro and Clint Eastwood, he has some added theatrics for the crowd. He says something like,

This one is really going to be very difficult … America, what do they know? Just like … OK, this one is up (he gives a thumbs up), and that one is down (giving a thumbs down). Just like Donald Trump … [yeas from the audience on the up sign, bigger boos on the down sign]. If you keep going like that, it’s going to be a Clinton, if you keep going like that. Just like Bill Clinton; it doesn’t matter. Bill goes, AAAAAAAA-MEN!

Well, that was fun! It’s not the first time he’s given us his thoughts on Bill, but it’s been awhile.

“Stormy Monday Blues” is a killer. Chris Farlowe joins Van on stage and Van just takes it to town, through Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Take Your Hands Out Of My Pocket” and Howlin Wolf’s “Red Rooster” and “Goin’ Down Slow.” Dave Keary’s solo is superb, unfortunately all too short, but it’s all Van scatting, improvising and singing the dirty blues.

The band deserves a big hand. I think Van’s got them where he wants them, and I hope he keeps taking it up a notch with them. The band: Dave Keary – guitar; Paul Moran – keyboards and trumpet; Paul Moore – bass; Dana Masters – backup vocals; Bobby Ruggiero – drums.

Van is sounding just as superb as ever, his voice in such good form, such control. He gave us a couple of tasty treats over the two nights.

It was great to see everyone. What can I say … one more time again. See y’all on the road!

van in nyc, november 25 and 26, 2013

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. Continue reading