Like his near-contemporary and fellow enigma Bob Dylan, Van Morrison is famed for the patchiness of his live shows. Until this performance I had yet to see a gig from the singer, songwriter and mystic-curmudgeon that rated anywhere above “satisfactory” – and most had been, frankly, half-arsed. But here, wearing a tight-fitting suit and trilby, in the first of four shows over two nights at Ronnie Scott’s, Morrison was in full flow throughout.
Focused, locked in a groove with his seven-piece band, his voice was gruff but true, his phrasing effortlessly immaculate, hovering behind or beyond the beat, and his alto sax-playing was loose and free. He even cracked jokes. Beginning the show with a swinging “Brown Eyed Girl”, perhaps his best known tune, he quipped, “I thought I’d get that one out of the way” as it ended. Later he poked fun at his reputation for crabbiness in his deadpan Belfast brogue: “Welcome to the grumpiest show in town.”
For Morrison, throughout his 50-odd years as a musician, it’s always been about the music – the rest is either peripheral or irrelevant. Hence his cantankerousness at being expected to perform non-musical duties, and hence, presumably, his palpable sense of ease at being on a stage where the audience can be relied on to applaud a good solo, which they duly did. The essentialness of music lies behind the title of his new album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, released earlier this week on the jazz label Blue Note. Among the standout tracks performed here were the soulful “Open the Door to Your Heart” and the hypnotic “Mystic of the East” (apparently referring to east Belfast, rather than some exotic orient).
But the show reached its zenith with “Burning Ground”, from 1997’s The Healing Game. With its looped vocal refrain and repeated piano riff, spiritual-earthbound lyrics and growing sense of drama, this was classic Van Morrison. As the song grew and grew, everything in the room – the waitresses serving coffee, the barman cleaning glasses, even the musicians around the main man – slipped out of focus so that all that was left was Morrison, churning, meditating, gesturing as he sang, “I’ll pull you through by the skin of your teeth.” It was mesmerising, and it was all about the music.