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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Van Morrison

Hammersmith Apollo, London, January 18th 2008

Sometimes there’s nothing better than being lulled off to sleep by wonderful music. This hugely indulgent experience is probably best enjoyed after a great meal and a couple of pleasant glasses of something, especially on a Friday night after a long week back at work.

It’s a long-standing formula, but we put it to the test yet again with a visit to the Gate in Hammersmith (one of London’s finest vegetarian restaurants) and then on to the Apollo, a few strides away, for an evening with Van Morrison. It’s very busy – an interesting combination of ardent fans, half the clientele of the Irish Centre over the road, and dark wind-screened, limo-borne corporate hospitality merchants.
Of course, as many of you realise, you never quite know what you’re going to get with the sometimes tempestuous Van Morrison, notoriously uncommunicative, notoriously prone to stage fright, and notoriously given to tantrums. When I last saw him back in 1999 at the Fleadh a faulty microphone at his piano drove him into a fury – the road crew reluctant to approach for fear of becoming innocent targets for his rage. There’s no such trouble tonight. The sound is almost perfect (you should see the “it’s not my fault boss” expressions on the band’s faces when there’s even a hint of feedback) – certainly as good as it gets for the Apollo.
Van Morrison
The ten-piece band is spread in a semicircle and just off centre is the Man, grey suited, wide-brimmed Fedora almost entirely obscuring his face, hands held close to his sides, fists tightly clenched. And it’s some band. There’s Van Morrison veteran John Platania (he first played with Morrison in 1969 and features on the Moodance album, amongst others) on guitar and the equally long-serving Crawford Bell sings and plays guitar (and a mean trumpet on ‘St James Infirmary’). Prominent in the arrangements is Sarah Jory’s pedal steel guitar and the fiddle of Tony Fitzgibbon who give a pleasing country feel to many of the tunes, and who, like drummer Neal Wilkinson and bassist Paul Moore, have been with Morrison since he first toured his country and western covers album, Pay the Devil, in 2006.
Pay the devil Tonight’s set is more eclectic, going way back in the Morrison songbook with offerings like the almost inevitable encore, ‘Gloria’ and ‘Moondance’ (did you know, by the way, that Mr Morrison has performed the former 638 times on stage, and the latter 1,010 times?). We’re given a Frank Sinatra cover, ‘This love of mine’, Ray Charles’ ‘I can’t stop loving you’ and the New Orleans classic ‘St James Infirmary’, with Morrison exchanging saxophone riffs with Bell’s trumpet. He plays the sax a lot at the start of the set, and plays it well – former associate and musical director Georgie Fame joined the band for a version of ‘Stranded’ early on - and as the evening progresses Morrison swaps sax for guitar.
He also begins to indulge in some extensive vocal improvisations – most notably in a mega medley of ‘In the afternoon’ ‘Ancient highway’ ‘Joe Turner sings’ ‘Don't you make me high’ ‘Raincheck’ and ‘Mystic church’. Part of the vocal callisthenics involves taking the band down to a whisper, which he does by flapping his fists behind his back like an angry puffin. Remarkably you can almost hear a pin drop.





Van Morrison and Georgie Fame

Van Morrison Georgie Fame
And as he adds these vocal layers and colours to the songs it’s hard not to be carried away to what we call the Land of Nod. I’m well gone during ‘Vanlose Highway’, while the Photographer drops off during the long medley. Morrison’s scat singing, picking up vocal phrases – repeating them, welding them together, taking the band high and low. Sometimes he’s as quiet as a mouse – at others it’s as though he has Tourette’s syndrome. And I think he’s hungry, because his vocal meanderings take on an increasingly culinary hue - “I’m going down the Astral Highway to the Gourmet Buffet for some back street Jelly Roll”. He flaps to get the band as soft as they can be, and as the lights fall and the Photographer gently snores he leaves the stage. It could have been quite cool had he not bumped into the bass player, dropped the microphone with a crash, and woke my companion, amongst many others, with a violent start (she later claimed to have been dreaming about eating Golden Wonder crisps in a mystic church). There are some nervous giggles from the crowd as the band crane their necks to see if the Man might return. He does, and he repeats the sequence (without the mike drop) for ‘And the healing has begun’, ‘Help me’, and finally ‘Gloria’.
It is by any standards a good value Van Morrison gig. Mr M. seems happy (it’s hard to tell), the band seem happy and the audience are largely ecstatic. And if you’re a Van Morrison fan you may care to know he currently has a greatest hits album on the go (2007’s platinum Still on Top), and in March will release the entirely self-penned Keep it Simple. Over forty years, over 35 albums – whatever they say, he’s some man. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

Kate's Van Morrison photo album Kate's photographs

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