A Sense of Wonder

At the Jackie Gleason, though, "It's All in the Game" was offered as a spry, bright little swing tune, a showcase for the impressive horn section, but performed by Morrison not with an artist's conviction so much as a journeyman's competence. Which isn't to say Morrison sang the song badly. Morrison has never sung badly. Through missteps such as Hard Nose the Highway, through the rightly titled A Period of Transition, and through the muddled poetic excursions of A Sense of Wonder and Common One, Morrison has always sung as if the entire history of rhythm and blues were nestled deep in his soul. He has, as the late Ralph Gleason called it, "the yarrrragh" in his voice, which comes through on even the worst of Morrison's recordings. It's what connects him so firmly to the singers that influenced him as a kid in Belfast, tuning in to the sound of American blues and R&B from European radio signals -- singers like Huddie Ledbetter, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker. It's what made him the finest vocalist of the British Invasion, even though his only real competition at the time came from the Animals' Eric Burdon. (Mick Jagger? Keith Relf? Please.) It's what has enabled him to transcend his influences even when -- especially when -- he's saluting them (e.g., "Domino," "Jackie Wilson Said," "Wavelength," "Cleaning Windows," "In the Days Before Rock 'n' Roll"). And it's what has made him not simply the greatest white blues singer of our time, but simply a great singer among the ranks of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin.

So if Morrison is going to sing something like "Who Can I Turn To," as he did at the Jackie Gleason, he will at least bring to it the power of "the yarrrragh." And he did, and it sounded better than it has since Tony Bennett did it up right, back in '64. But really, who needs another damn version of "Who Can I Turn To"? It's better to relish what he did with "That's Where It's At," a gorgeous obscurity from the ample canon of Sam Cooke, which Morrison segued into from a hushed, pin-drop reading of "So Quiet in Here." He led the band through the changes, calling for repeated verses, instructing the guitarist to hold back, relishing the salvation and redemption in Cooke's lyric of a quintessentially romantic moment when you know it's time to go home but you still beg for "one minute more." And it's better to consider the incandescent "Angeliou," during which Morrison contemplated his words like a scientist, turning to certain lines ("In the month of May, in the city of Paris") again and again, hushing his band to tell the audience: "I've got a story too, and it goes something like this ..." and then dragging out the title for what seemed like a shimmering eternity, reminding you exactly what the man can do when he's doing what he wants.

That may also explain why some of the night's best moments -- not to say the best songs -- came when Morrison turned to his new album. Although it's still too new to be sure, The Healing Game right now sounds like the best thing Morrison's done since 1991's Hymns to the Silence. At last he seems to have found a balance between the cocktail soul of his recent misfires and the emotional exorcism of St. Dominic's Preview (albeit without much of that album's grand, epic drama). He seems even to have done the unimaginable -- namely, turn his legendary contempt for his past and the machinations of the music industry into something that sounds for all the world like a hit single. "It Once Was My Life" isn't the first time he's groused like this (cf., "I'm Not Feeling It Anymore," "Why Must I Always Explain"), but it's the first time he's bitched about it so convincingly over such an irresistible groove.

He closed his April 1 show with two songs from The Healing Game: the title cut, during which he wandered behind the band in purple silhouette lighting, and "Burning Ground," which he tore into with a voracious sense of wonder and purpose. For the first time in the entire evening, the rhythm section responded to the boss's outburst with dynamic gusto. "I watch you run in the crimson sun," Morrison growled. "Tear my shirt apart, open up my heart." Then he chanted the title over and over until finally, completely lost in the power of his own voice, Morrison slammed the mike stand down on the stage, stomped on it with all the power his formidable frame could summon, yelped once at the band, and, knowing his work here was done, took a quick exit.

It was a perfect moment.

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