Van the Man Raves on, Raves on, Raves on
At the Orpheum Theatre.
Friday, April 21.
By MARK ROBERTS
ROLLING STONES may come and go, Whos can grind onto the road for one more farewell tour, but Van Morrison has been there all along, preaching the true Celtic Soul Vision. His latest Boston concert was a vibrant confirmation of his enduring passion and musical energy.
The man and the town have had a long affectionate relationship; Morrison's Irish roots have given him a strong following here, and much of Astral Weeks was composed while he was living in Cambridge. The rapport between singer and audience was strong at his Friday show, even in the cavernous spaces of the Orpheum, and none of the surliness which has sometimes marred Morrison's reputation as a live performer was in evidence.
Mose Allison, Morrison's habitual opener, played a fluid opening set of jazz piano numbers, accompanied by a drummer and double bassist. His appearance, in respectable middle aged sports jacket, was in surprising contrast to the supple youthful voice that harped on classic bluesy themes.
The theater was packed by the time Morrison's band appeared. They played a couple of tunes by themselves before he joined them, settling down to work together well and producing a full sound, enriched by Morrison's characteristic soul style horn section: two saxophonists (one of whom also did deft work on the flute) and a trumpeter. But it was the appearance of Morrison himself that ignited the evening, lifting the band from workmanlike proficiency to something more vivid, against which his voice swelled.
The effect was wonderful. A short, burly figure -- in a jacket that didn't fit, who looked as though he might accost one in a pub -- stumped onto the stage, and barely looking around, grasped the microphone and opened his lungs. The sound poured out, rich with an archetypal Morrison image, of an "afternoon in summertime . . . drinking champagne and wine."
The production was very well balanced, with Morrison's voice prominent. But there was also judicious blending of the voice with the brass instruments, so that a note from one would often be taken up by the other, highlighting the instrumental and percussive qualities of Morrison's singing and the vocal quality of the instruments. In place of the female soul voices that appear on many of his records, the backing vocals were sung by the bandleader/keyboardist, who was clearly enjoying himself.
All the performers seemed to be enjoying themselves in fact, including Morrison, whose awkward, stiff movements belied his increasing involvement in the music. The constant themes of his songs are spiritual involvement, the redemptive powers of love, and the mysteries of experience, and during moments in the concert he seemed to be striving for a transcendent communion with his audience through the music, passionately repeating key phrases as though they were mantras.
He played for a long time -- about an hour and a half followed by five encores, each of which covered several songs. The material ranged across his long musical history, and also included a version of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," as well as a nod to his musical progenitors in one of the encores that swept through several 1960s R & B staples, such as "Gloria." He also included several traditional Irish ballads, of the sort on his recent collaborative album with The Chieftains, during one of which a woman from the audience was invited on stage for a brisk jig with the trumpeter, to much applause.
There were a few disappointments; the microphone link for Morrison's saxophone during the one song in which he played it seemed poorly adjusted so that the sound was buzzing and harsh. "Moondance," which opened the second encore of material from the album of that name, was taken too fast for its summer nights romance to unfold, and seemed perfunctory. However, the next song, "Turn up your Radio," also from Moondance, expanded fruitfully on the recorded original, with a long exploratory passage in the middle during which Morrison seemed to be searching the emotional airwaves for the tune that would fire his soul. Another high spot was the incantatory "Summertime in England" from Astral Weeks, where the shimmering heat of the ancient grassy hillsides seemed to Fill the lull as Morrison's voice dropped to a whisper.
Morrison is an authentic visionary space cadet, full of the mad, religious passion of the romantic poets, and he preaches a gospel of the spirit reached through the senses. In "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher," a recent song, he swept into a more swinging rhythm, but the recurring religious imagery persisted. My only regret about the choice of songs was that he didn't play "Stone Me," in which his classic metaphor of water as bringing spiritual revelation has one of its most striking realizations.
The evening was not solemn, though. By the final encore the sheer enjoyment of all the musicians in their work was evident, and the audience shared in it.