Van Morrison’s Concert was Terrible (and I Loved Every Note of It)
“I’m an introvert in a business of extroverts….which is kinda’ a big problem.”
— Van Morrison
Van Morrison’s concert on the night of January 15th, 2016 at the famed Shrine Auditorium on the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles was terrible. And, I loved every single note of it.
Here, I’ll explain.
The Van Morrison canon includes such an extensive catalog of recordings and live performances now dating back 52 years that the restrictive straightjacket of a limited two-hour engagement is certain to entail glaring omissions and even suffuse some disappointment. His most loyal followers — attracting devotees of jazz, blues, soul, rock, folk, gospel, country, traditional Irish ballads, and most affectionately his freewheeling trademark improvisations (some studio album releases were recorded in a single take!) — only adds to the pressure of catering to mass audiences, prompting the famous edict, “you can’t please all the people all the time.”
Hence, Morrison doesn’t bother to try.
But, Morrison certainly manages to please “some of the people some of the time,” no person in any crowd more vital to the audience’s gratification than Morrison hopefully losing himself within himself while performing onstage. When that happens, the show is on. We know we’re in for a real treat.
Indeed, when Morrison searches and ultimately connects that hidden place, whatever and wherever it’s buried beneath all the flesh and sweat, he’s has transformed himself numerous times into an electrifying tour de force, as though a butterfly is emerging from the quiet solitude of a cocoon. Conversely, when he gets lost searching for that inner conscience, unable to make the connection, Morrison doesn’t bother mask boredom nor hide obvious discontent. Morrison’s very worst stage shows have induced walk-outs and harsh reviews, only contributing to his self-imposed exile from all the trappings of pop culture and the music scene. For this reason, Morrison’s stage performances over five extraordinary decades, not to mention his cantankerous relations with the media over just as many years, have been combustible and often contentious.
Strangely enough, this constant soul searching both onstage and off combined with a willingness to bare his soul in front of us is what makes Morrison so appealing on such a mass scale, despite never once having a #1 hit (an astonishing indictment not of him, but of often appalling public tastes in popular music). What accounts for the cult-like following? The humanity. The vulnerability. The mystique. The utter lack of any pretense whatsoever. Oh, and then there’s the mind-boggling collection of original music and song lyrics rightfully evoking comparisons to some of the greatest works of popular literature. There’s James Joyce, there’s Oscar Wilde, and there’s Van Morrison.
[The best-detailed recount of Morrison’s career can be seen here in this 11-part anthology VAN MORRISON UNDER REVIEW, which covers the remarkably creative period 1964-1974. This combined one-hour documentary only scratches the surfaces of his extensive career, which is still going strong more than 40 years later.]
A Sense of Wonder:
Van Morrison hails from a gritty blue-collar heritage, the working-class port city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father was a shipyard worker who used to bring records home from sailors taking shore leave during the mid-1950’s. These treasures included cutting-edge recordings of American jazz, blues, folk, and rock n’ roll, and so-called “Black music” then mostly unknown to the typical Irish teenager. This gift of the broadest possible exposure to new sounds instilled a lifelong love affair with a wide array of different styles of music (no popular artist has ever dabbled in more genres over such a long period). Lead Belly, Chet Baker, Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Woodie Guthrie, and greatest of all Ray Charles (Morrison’s creative patriarch) became his musical roots. They took hold and grew — ultimately bearing the fruit of an original style and sound.
From his earliest days in the music business, Morrison’s anti-establishment outlook on life and counter-culture persona was already locked in overdrive. Consider one of his first hit singles from 1964 with the Irish band known as Them (named after the classic 50’s horror film), “HERE COMES THE NIGHT” — interestingly, a throwaway original song written by Morrison was the B-side of this single, which was the classic “Gloria”). His performance was at least three full years before other singers and groups emerged and pursued many of the same poetic expressions which ignited Van’s own musical legacy.
The height of Morrison’s career as a popular recording artist overlapped the terrible period in Irish history known as “The Troubles,” which referred to the bitter religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants resulting in hundreds of bombings, political assassinations, and other acts of random terror over two decades. Remarkably, Morrison somehow bridged those seemingly irreconcilable divides. He was (and remains) immensely popular with both Irish nationalists based largely in the southern part of the country and northern defenders of the British Crown living back in once-bloody Belfast (last year, he was knighted by the Queen). Morrison was the first entertainer from Ireland to became widely known worldwide. U2’s Bono would come much later, citing Morrison as one of his primary influences. Actor Liam Neesan grew up just a short distance from Van, outside of Belfast.
[Funny story of Irish singer Glen Hansard telling actor-interviewer Kevin Pollak of the time he once met and jammed with Van Morrison can be seen here:]
Morrison has always bristles at the suggestion that he’s either a rock singer or (worse) a pop star. At his very essence, he’s a soul singer. But even that restrictive cubicle somehow robs him the credit he deserves for more often taking the journey far less traveled, exploring a vast tableau of musical paths largely unexplored, often with fuck-you disregard for what recording companies want to put out with his name on it, or what his public demands and expects of him (Morrison’s brutal fights with the music industry have become legendary — and have been recounted in blistering song lyrics). Morrison is one of the few singer-songwriters who’s successfully managed to craft a unique sound and manner of singing which defies simplistic inventories of commercial convenience. Morrison, who loathes even the thought of celebrity very much comes across as the anti-pop star. His live performances are the antithesis of well-orchestrated, high-energy rock show theater.
There’s an undeniable genuineness in giving that middle finger to authority. While groups like the Rolling Stones can pretend to be so-called counterculture icons while strutting around packed football stadiums officially sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, Morrison truly lives the song lyrics that he writes. His pursuits of enlightenment are real. He’s never sold out for commercial success, leading some contemporaries to suggest that had Morrison instead wished to play the game and go along, he could have been another Elvis or James Brown. Instead, he simply chose to be Van. Thank goodness.
Admittedly, Morrison’s live concerts are not for everyone’s tastes. Arguably, no other musician could get away with such appalling inconsistencies nor blatant disregard for commercial success (except Bob Dylan perhaps, and a few jazz greats, such as Miles Davis). Perhaps this authentic embodiment of rebelliousness is what makes him appealing to so many fans of all ages who speak different languages. Now age 70, Morrison still records and “plays gigs” (he insists that he stopped touring 20 years ago) for no other reason than he deeply loves all kinds of music and wishes to continue that exploration of different sounds coordinated in search for that inner spirit. Fortunately for us, he hasn’t fully discovered himself nor found all the answers quite yet. His journey is our own.
To illustrate Morrison’s getting lost in his own musical world, consider this quintessential live performance (below) on the final night of the old Fillmore East (Bill Graham’s legendary rock venue in New York City). “Cyprus Avenue” is Belfast’s version of what would call — “railroad tracks.” Typical of Morrison recounting events in his early life with which we can all identify, it’s covetous of the things we don’t have — what those on the other side of the tracks own and enjoy. In typical Morrison form, he sings until he’s exhausted, and then storms off the stage without warning. This is Morrison finding that deeper place inside. No Guru, no method, no teacher. No encore.
Here Comes the Night:
Van Morrison tends to appeal to those who are more introspective than extroverted. His hard-nosed highway has included numerous detours, a few U-turns, and dare I say, breakdowns. No career can be as long as his has been without a few head-scratching misses. Morrison has never chosen to gaze outward towards the crowd in search for contentment. Popularity just seems to have gotten in the way and been a distraction. He has no regard for critical reception, nor seems much interested in his audiences’ feedback. Instead, he turns his attention deeply inward — to himself. Prompted by well-publicized bouts of severe stage freight, Morrison doesn’t engage his audience, nor make much eye contact. At times, he doesn’t even seem know we’re out here listening. Far more often, his priority seems to be trying out new sounds and experimenting, totally oblivious to our applause or the pens of critics.
True to form, Morrison didn’t have a warm up band. He arrived onstage promptly as advertised — precisely at 8 pm and then played non-stop for about two hours. Forget about laser shows or giant projection screens — there’s none of those crutches here. Instead, it’s like we’re given the rare opportunity to watch Morrison mulling around inside a recording studio rehearsing. We have no idea what to expect — and judging by how he interacts sometimes with his band mates, neither do they. Multiple occasions during the evening, Morrison abandoned the usual protocol, turning his back to the audience, beckoning someone offstage to come and adjust the microphone, occasionally barking out instructions or raising his hand as to coach his fellow musicians to play the notes his way. Throughout the night, he displayed a surprisingly casual manner most reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, at least in terms of extemporaneous expression. To say his show lacked pizzazz would be a gross understatement. This was the kind of show you’d expect on Saturday night in some packed jazz club where you can’t get inside, and no one knows what’s to be played next, perhaps not even the performers.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? The Shrine Auditorium
Morrison’s two-hour concert was mangled beyond redemption by the muffling acoustics at Shrine Auditorium, which can best be described as atrocious. I’d read considerable advance criticisms of the poor sound quality at the Shrine, no matter who the previous performers were, or the style of music. While the cavernous auditorium capable of holding 6,300 fans remains stately queen with a rich legacy in popular entertainment — hosting premier events including the Oscars and Grammys in the not-too-distant past — this remains a thoroughly unsuitable venue for complex jazz arrangements and the sort of varied instrumentation which infuses many of Morrison’s most beloved recordings. No performer could possibly overcome what amounts to placing speakers in front of a king-sized mattress.
Visuals weren’t much better, unless one was lucky enough to sit in the first few rows. More than half the seats at the Shrine are located upstairs in the balcony, making it all but impossible to connect to the singer, or really get into the music (the volume should have been louder). This, combined with Morrison’s self-imposed introspection while performing live as well as his near-stoic stage presence, produced inevitable disappointment for those who aren’t hard-core devotees of “Van the Man.” We “Vanatics” can and will overlook and forgive. But more casual fans, or those unfamiliar with his legacy, surely departed less than overwhelmed by the experience.
That said, the night’s most unforgivable omission was not being able to hear, nor understand Morrison when he did engage the audience. For those who idolize his musical influence, this was maddening. Being near Hollywood, Morrison even did a few impressions of various movies tars — including Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Slyester Stallone and others. Too mad the majority of the crowd couldn’t follow, all thanks to the criminal incompetence of The Shrine.
As I stated, we had a chance to witness Morrison in top form, and the venue blew it. Such a shame because throughout his career, Morrison has been known to ignore his audiences and when he does speak, he’s sometimes berated them. Here’s a live performance where he apparently can’t wait to get offstage and wrap up the show — an infamous 1974 performance from the WINTERLAND IN SAN FRANCISCO, where Morrison (during the intro of his classic “Into the Mystic”) tells the way-too talkative audience to “shut your mouth….and then maybe you’ll get what you want.” Who would dare say that to a packed house? Wow. Classic Van at his very worst — and best.
Poetic Champions Compose:
Morrison played with a seven-piece band, undoubtedly accustomed to spontaneity and the idiosyncracies of the singer-composer. Surprisingly, he seemed to be in good spirits throughout the night, frequently smiling and joking with his session players. He also played several instruments, including alto saxophone, harmonica, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and tambourine. But his most pronounced instrument was that gruff voice, in top form and as strong as ever, although clearly a deeper baritone than the raspy shrill of recordings from earlier in his career.
I’ll recount some of the highlights.
Once the lights dimmed, someone backstage announced, “ladies and gentlemen, Vaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan Morrison.” No spotlight. No fanfare. The Irish troubadour simply stepped out from behind dark curtains, grabbed his alto saxophone which he clutched like a teddy bear to his chest and then launched into a somewhat surprising set that was almost entirely devoted to jazz, starting with the instrumental “Celtic Swing.” (1983 — Inarticulate Speech of the Heart)
Admittedly, my tastes in live music run somewhat unorthodox. I marvel at songwriters singing their own material, because creating the music requires the most effort. It all starts with inspiration. I’m interested in that raw talent and creative alchemy. Much of this crowd, undoubtedly artistic types themselves given the locale, shared this sense of appreciation for craftsmanship. We understood that a 70-year-old Van isn’t going to command the stage as he once did belting out “Wavelength” or “Domino.” He’s different now, just as we are.
Next, Morrison rattled off “Close Enough for Jazz” (1993 — Too Long in Exile) followed by the title track from 2005’s “Magic Time.” Those were just the first three of 23 total songs, including some abbreviated compilations. Somewhat a surprise — he performed more known classics than usual, including “Baby Please Don’t Go” (1964 — Them), the title track to 1970’s “Moondance,” plus “Wild Night” (1971 — Tupelo Honey), his first solo hit single “Brown-Eyed Girl” (1967, for which he never made a dime because of a bad contract), and closed with arguably his most timeless classic, “Into the Mystic.” Here’s the complete set list:
What’s inspiring to some (and disappointing to just as many) is that Morrison steadfastly refuses to become what he calls “a nostalgia act.” He continues to steadily churn out about an album a year of purely original material, much of it almost as good as his most creative period between 1964-1980, but which doesn’t sell nearly as well due to seismic shifts in the way music now gets sold and marketed, as well as an admittedly aging fan base which probably doesn’t buy too many records. Morrison couldn’t care less, it seems. His journey was never about fame or money. It was always first and foremost about the music.
Based on Morrison’s show in Los Angeles, it still is.
[Here’s the title track from 1995’s “DAYS LIKE THIS”]