There are few living artists who have a more direct channel into what Gram Parsons called the Cosmic American Music than Van Morrison. Offhand I can think only of Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke. Of the three, Morrison is the only one who has a running love-hate relationship with his fans. They (we) love him; he hates them (us), or at least so it seems. He is a brilliant, eccentric, enigmatic performer and artist.
We went to see Morrison perform a few years ago in an arena concert at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. Taj Mahal opened for Van and wasn’t bad. The house was packed, the sound was muddy and the setting impersonal, but I was glad to have seen Van live. He wore sunglasses and stood still singing at stage center. He brought John Lee Hooker out for a song or two. The only song I can remember from the show was “Gloria,” his last number. In retrospect, it seems little more than a generic arena concert.
Last month a friend invited us to see Van perform this past Thursday at Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Northrop holds an audience of 4,500 or so, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear Van in a more congenial setting than an arena. In the event Northrop proved to be a great venue for Van. The sound was perfect and acoustically intimate. Morrison was accompanied by a ten-piece band including his long-time guitar sideman John Platania and the band shone.
Even though Van was fighting a cough, both he and the band were, to my ear, phenomenal. Drawing on the resources of age and guile, Van seemed to me to turn the clock back to his heyday in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when he could do anything with his voice. Having conquered his sources, Van in his prime moved seamlessly in his own voice from Curtis Mayfield to Ray Charles and the blues artists he identifies by name in “Cleaning Windows.” I’ve never heard him sound as good he did in his recordings of that era, but he sounded that good to me on Thursday night.
Included in the set were “Jackie Wilson Said” (performed in a somewhat jarring jazz lounge singer style), “Moondance,” “Raincheck,” “Have I Told You Lately,” “Help Me” (a Sonny Boy Williamson cover), “Bright Side of the Road,” “Too Many Myths,” “In the Afternoon,” “Stop Drinking” (a Lightnin’ Hopkins cover), and a spirited version of “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore.” Morrison directed the band and joined in himself on alto sax, mouth harp, and acoustic guitar. Reviews of the Minneapolis show and the Minneapolis set list are posted here.
My friend begged off joining us for the show when it turned out that the tickets available to us would cost $161 (the top ticket for the show was $211). It’s hard to say that any pop show of this kind could be worth it, but without disputing the premise: Was this show worth it? The audience was enormously appreciative of Van and the band; it seemed to hang on every note. As long as they were playing, the show was pure bliss.
But the show started promptly at 7:30 and ended abruptly 95 minutes later. The show would have made the great first set of an event that might have made the audience feel a little less foolish. Even so, Mrs. Trunk and I are both glad to have been there. And, I must admit, I think I would do it again, if I can still afford it.
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