Van Morrison, The Theater At Madison Square Garden, NYC – 2/28
A Van Morrison concert is always a risky proposition. Unlike the majority of his peers from the Sixties and Seventies, the cranky and obstreperous singer from Belfast has never demonstrated any desire to placate fans with a recitation of his greatest hits. More than shying away from his treasured back catalog, Morrison has spent years criminally ignoring the albums and songs that kept him within the forefront of his fans’ memory. Too often, Morrison will disappoint a theater full of people, who have paid handsomely for the opportunity to hear “Into The Mystic” by indulging in his recent fondness for country or subjecting them to tepid versions of jazz standards from the Thirties.
In December of 2008, Morrison surprisingly acknowledged his past. For two shows at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, CA, he offered a full recitation of Astral Weeks, his critically beloved gem from 1968, some of which he has rarely played live. Building on the word-of-mouth generated by the Astral Weeks shows (as well as engaging in a little promotion for the CD release of the event), Morrison attempted to recapture the spirit of his West Coast performances by decamping to New York City’ spacious Theater at Madison Square Garden for a pair of East Coast dates.
With Saturday night’s show, the second of the two MSG performances, Morrison atoned for years of neglect with a set list that covered all eras of his storied career. With the priciest tickets retailing for $350, Morrison had raised expectations for a concert for the ages. Leaving aside the debate of whether any Morrison show that doesn’t include the resurrection of Jim would be worth the steep price, the Irishman delivered the show he’s owed his fans for years.
For the first set, Morrison delighted the Baby Boomer heavy crowd by giving them what they wanted, breaking out singalong classics like “Wild Night,” “Domino,” “And It Stoned Me,” “Moondance” and even the beachside bar standard “Brown Eyed Girl.” That didn’t entirely mean he played them like they might have wished. With a crack band behind him, Morrison sang the lyrics at his own cadence, not caring for the proper cues or timing. On “Jackie Wilson Said,” it was hard to figure out whether Morrison had changed the arrangement or simply forgot the opening verse of the song. For as choppy as some of the recitations were, songs like “Queen Of The Slipstream” and a dreamy encore of “Listen To The Lion” came closest to reviving the magic of their recorded versions with the string section slipping some Astral Weeks-like frills into the euphonious ether.
Populating many of the songs with his own inimitable style of scatting, Morrison engaged in some entertaining cat and mouse with his backup singers who immediately echoed his discursive bursts, keeping up with Morrison even while he purposefully improvised a few random phrases. Sax player Richie Buckley got in on the action, also repeating Morrison’s signature wordless outbursts on the horn within moments of their invention. Morrison ceded the spotlight on one other occasion, turning a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” into a vehicle for his backing chorus to take the lead. In the same manner as Roger Waters’ historic concert at the Berlin Wall, Morrison chimed in on the chorus, the song resounding with his authoritative delivery.
Over the course of the night, Morrison hardly acknowledged the audience, remaining stone-faced and impenetrable behind his sunglasses. He broke character only once, filling a brief pause during a guitar switch to make reference to his policy for ceasing the alcohol concession while he’s on stage by informing the front of the crowd that it would be resuming shortly. For someone of his stature, Morrison doesn’t revel in adulation; he concluded each set by wandering off to the right of stage, singing all the way to the back and leaving the band to finish the final song.
The piece de resistance of the MSG concert was Morrison’s second set, consisting of the eight songs that comprise his masterful Astral Weeks, unequivocally Morrison’s finest critical achievement. From the first few bars of “Astral Weeks,” the album’s lilting opening piece, it became clear that Morrison wouldn’t be imitating the 1968 album. In many ways this fact was refreshing. Having never toured behind the album, Astral Weeks has a mystique that grows with each passing year. Much of the album’s allure is its delicate, wispy feel; it sounds as if it was inadvertently captured in the recesses of a backwoods retreat as opposed to the sterile confines of the studio. If Morrison had been able to replicate the feel, even with Jay Berliner sitting in on acoustic guitar, it would have been beyond disappointing. Quite simply, the magic would be lost.
What made Astral Weeks come alive is that Morrison seemed to uncharacteristically care about the delivery of his older work. Rather than pay lip service to his accomplishments, as he is wont to do, Morrison invested Astral Weeks with forty years of experience, placing emphasis on the ethereal rhythms and poetic descriptions while allowing the music to evolve and envelop the room. On the album, many of the musical phrases seem to evaporate into thin air; at the Theater they were played with substance but delivered with care, hardly losing any of their fragile beauty.
Morrison shuffled the songs around, moving “Slim Slow Slider” from its closing spot to earlier in the set. In doing so, he flushed out the orchestral passages and instead of using the song to let the mood dissolve, he gave it form and body. Time has deprived Morrison of the ability and incentive to embody the songs with wonder and uncertainty. For “Cyprus Avenue” and “Beside You,” Morrison barked out the lyrics with confidence, the yearning replaced with knowing. Forty years later, it’s as if Morrison has found the answers he sought in 1968.
Morrison easily could have ended the night with his touching rendition of “Madame George,” letting the sorrowful yet ambiguous tale of an aging drag queen suffice as the final memory. St. Dominic’s Preview’s “Listen To The Lion” kept the pacific mood alive but Morrison sent the crowd out on a high note, finishing up with a version of “Gloria” that had everyone singing and spelling along with The Man. At the end of the two and a half hour dose of nostalgia, Morrison succeeded in temporarily erasing all memories of prior concert atrocities and for one night, reestablished himself as one of the finest soul singers of his generation.