By Brian Wise.
Ascend Amphitheater, Nashville – Thursday September 14, 2017
First time Van Morrison concert-goers and even long-time fans struck gold on Thursday evening when the singer gave one of his very best performances. Even obsessives would have been ecstatic when, out of nowhere, he threw in ‘Mechanical Bliss,’ on obscure B-side from the ‘70s. Even more notable was the fact that he chuckled his way through the song, as if immersed in some private joke.
If Van was succinct at the Americana Music Honors & Awards the previous evening he was positively chatty this evening with more than a few sentences. Perhaps it was the presence of his daughter Shana, who opened the show and came on for a duet, but this was a happy, avuncular Morrison that we rarely see but should savour when he appears!
“Ladies and gentleman, Sir Van Morrison!” came the announcement as Van strolled on in a dark pinstripe suit, fedora and sunglasses and launched into ‘Moondance,’ the first of many ‘hits’ in what can only be described as a brilliant 23-song set.
In many ways this concert was Morrison’s tribute to his roots and influences. There were the early Them songs, a few blues numbers (including Mose Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’), a couple of country songs (including Hank Williams’ ‘Half As Much’), a New Orleans selection (“Don’t You Feel My Leg’), a classic Johnny Mercer ballad (‘That Old Black Magic’) and that weird obscurity.
Then there were his own classics: ‘Moondance,’ ‘Warm Love,’ ‘Have I Told You Lately,’ ‘Days Like This,’ ‘Wild Night,’ ‘Jackie Wilson Said,’ ‘Gloria’ and more). Amazingly, the set did not include the new single ‘Transformation,’ which he did at the Awards, or any other songs from the new album Roll With The Punches, which was on sale at the merch tent! (This is the sort of thing that Dylan does all the time and it must frustrate the hell out of his record company).
If you wanted a summary of Morrison’s career it would be hard to find a better one than this evening’s set list and it was fascinating to hear the song selection as it unfolded. The country songs were obviously included to pay tribute to Nashville. The blues songs reflected Morrison’s early influences and he really belted out ‘Night Time Is The Right Time’ with one of the back singers responding. This was followed by Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’ with Morrison working out on harmonica.
Afflicted by a cold, Morrison retreated during the music breaks to sip some water or blow his nose but it didn’t seem to affect his voice which is as good as ever. Morrison seemed totally at ease, blessed with a fantastic six-piece combo – including two backing singers, one of whom also played acoustic guitar – that can flesh out every type of song from the back catalogue. The absence of a set list meant that the band had to respond instantly to Morrison’s one or two word prompts as to the next song.
The first surprise of the evening arrived two-thirds of the way through. Morrison remarked, ‘And now for something completely different’ and introduced Shana for a duet on Johnny Mercer’s classic ‘That Old Black Magic’ – after which he joked, ‘I hope you understood that, because I didn’t.’
‘And now for something completely different, different,’ he joked and then produced the evening’s biggest surprise: a version of ‘Mechanical Bliss’, which was the title track of an unreleased album from 1975 which was intended to be the follow-up to Veedon Fleece. The song was released as the B-side to ‘Joyous Sound’ in 1977 but I am not sure if he has ever performed it live before tonight. Morrison seemed chuffed that it included timpani, something he mentioned several times, and he also kept breaking into laughter as he delivered the obscure and largely meaningless lyrics. It was an astonishing inclusion and one that for obsessives made the night just that little bit more special. It will certainly stick in the memory forever.
The show closed with ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and ‘Real Real Gone’ which segued into Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me.’ While the Amphitheater staff seemed totally pre-occupied with stopping anyone from taking photos (with cameras or phone) they could not stop people dancing at this point.
Morrison returned to the stage for an encore of ‘Gloria’ and after he finally left us the band continued to jam for 15 minutes, by which time he was probably back in his hotel!
The buzz in the crowd afterwards was a good indication that everyone knew that they had seen and heard something special: a happy Van Morrison and a great set list. You couldn’t possibly ask for more than that!
Have I Told You Lately
Sometimes We Cry
Days Like This
Baby, Please Don’t Go / Parchman Farm / Don’t Start Crying Now / Custard Pie
Here Comes the Night
I Can’t Stop Loving You (Don Gibson)
Half as Much (Hank Williams)
In the Afternoon / Ancient Highway / Don’t You Feel My Leg
Whenever God Shines His Light
Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)
Night Time Is the Right Time (Roosevelt Sykes)
Help Me (Sonny Boy Williamson)
That Old Black Magic (Johnny Mercer) with Shana Morrison
Brown Eyed Girl
Real Real Gone / You Send Me (Sam Cooke)