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.

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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