A Sense of Wonder

What you bring to a Van Morrison concert in the way of expectations no doubt depends on the extent of your exposure to this odd man and his equally odd career. That career is so lengthy and vast -- loaded with mainstream pop hits, standards of album-rock radio, adult-contemporary ballads, traditional Celtic folk, lacerating blues, supple R&B, unctuous jazz-pop fusion -- that no one can predict where a Morrison show will go, where the music will lead, if anywhere. He is a tempestuous and irritable performer, susceptible to mood swings and stage fright -- not to mention a blatant contempt for his audience as well as his own body of work -- and his concerts over the last twenty years or so have been alternately incandescent and infuriating. Morrison may skim through his work from recent albums with varying amounts of passion and interest or he may simply walk off the stage after twenty minutes of babble and scat; he may stand with his back to the audience and lead his band through instrumental jazz standards or sing his greatest hits like there is nothing more important at that moment than nailing down the definitive version of "Caravan." People I've known who expected Van to treat them to an evening of string-laden goop a la "Have I Told You Lately" have left his shows midway, disappointed, disgusted, and indignant. Others who embrace Morrison the tortured artist have been disappointed by the man's lack of adventure: "Gloria"? Who needs it? Where was "Almost Independence Day"?

Morrison's concert on April 1 at the Jackie Gleason Theater, the third of four South Florida performances since the new year, had a little bit of everything for just about anyone still listening. He reached as far back as 1965 for a half-assed version of "Here Comes the Night" (a hit for his old group Them); he pulled two songs each from 1979's Into the Music and 1980's Beautiful Vision; he turned in an incomparable reading of "So Quiet in Here" from 1990's Enlightenment; and he even dusted off the rarely performed "Into the Mystic," which defines Morrison's artistry today as well as it did 27 years ago, when it first appeared on Moondance. And because he's touring behind a new album, there was a generous number of songs from The Healing Game, Morrison's 31st or 32nd release (depending on whether you count the numerous repackings of the 1967 set Blowin' Your Mind). There were also some surprises, not least of which was a perfectly over-the-top first-encore version of "Summertime in England" highlighted by an almost surreal duet-rap between Morrison and sax wizard Pee Wee Ellis, after which he and the horn section sauntered off into the stage-right wings.

On the dimly lit stage, flanked by a nine-piece band with organist Georgie Fame on one side and Ellis on the other, Morrison cut an imposing figure -- his massive frame cloaked in a black velvet suit, a black fedora pulled closely over his eyes, an indomitable presence anchored to the mike stand. And if only by his own standards, Morrison was positively chatty with the nearly sold-out crowd. Unfortunately, between the muddy sound mix and his impenetrable Irish brogue, you couldn't make out much of what he was saying, but at least he was talking -- asking if this was a Seventies or an Eighties crowd before going to the mid-Sixties (for "Here Comes the Night," the words of which he'd mostly forgotten) then to the early Seventies for "Into the Mystic." Compared to the Morrison who usually views his audience with icy aloofness, if he acknowledges it at all, this was an uncharacteristically warm Van.

But if Morrison's personal defenses were somewhat down, his music -- and his band especially -- could have used some of that legendary tension and bite. And you can't blame the band entirely: For anyone who's been keeping track of Morrison's career as a whole and his albums of late, his recent dabblings in supper-club jazz and blues standards have to be somewhat disconcerting, if only because of their relative listlessness. It must have something to do with Morrison's association with Georgie Fame, a jive-ass British soul singer from the post-Beatles era whose Hammond organ skills are competent at best and at worst almost worthy of America's cheesiest cocktail lounges. To Fame's lounge-lizard smarm Morrison has responded for the most part with a breezy, finger-popping approach to some of his old songs that's as bewildering at times as Bob Dylan's late-Seventies Vegas period (documented in all its raging horridness on the 1979 live retrospective At Budokan).

Take "It's All in the Game," the arrangement of which the other night stood in dramatic contrast to the one Morrison presented in 1979 on Into the Music. A hit in 1958 for singer Tommy Edwards, "It's All in the Game" was based on a melody written in 1912 by Charles Dawes, later vice president in the second administration of Calvin Coolidge. In the version recorded by Edwards, the song was a moving if slight pop confection, with soupy strings and a serviceable vocal derived from the slick croon of Nat King Cole. When Morrison approached it some twenty years later, he dismantled the song, placing the emphasis on the mournful violin of Toni Marcus and turning the naively optimistic lyric into a throttling musical and emotional tour de force -- moaning, whispering, purring, screaming, playing with the syllables, mangling the syntax until what was left wasn't a call for faith to a doubting, dejected lover but Morrison's open heart, thumping helplessly, beating as softly as the drum that brought the song to a close.

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