Hard Rock Live, Hollywood
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Preceded by a reputation as one of contemporary music's most distinctive voices - as well as one of its most curmudgeonly characters -- Van Morrison's first visit to South Florida in recent memory promised to be an auspicious event. After all, with a repertoire forever etched in the pop canon, Mr. Morrison had ample reason to indulge the audience -- many of whom knew him only on the basis of songs like "Brown Eyed Girl," "Moondance" and "Wild Night," as well as classic collections like Astral Weeks and Tupelo Honey.
On the other hand, he had the option to delve deeper into the rambling trajectory that's guided him ever since those initial efforts, much of which took him out of the commercial mainstream and splintered his following. Knowing his penchant for the unpredictable -- this is the same guy who opted out of participation in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary gala for reasons still unknown -- there was no way to predict what he would provide the audience, or for that matter, if he'd only opt to go through the motions.
What ultimately transpired was a bit of all the above via a highly articulate display of musicianship that drew fairly equally from his vast catalogue. While those hoping to hear the hits got only a hint of his better-known repertoire -- "Brown Eyed Girl" early on and then the one-two punch of a swinging rendition of "Moondance" and a surprisingly vibrant take on "Have I Told You Lately" -- most of the set avoided his chart fare entirely.
Still, Morrison and his crack six piece band -- Jay Berliner (guitar ), David Hayes (acoustic and electric bass ), Bobby Ruggiero (drums), Tony Fitzgibbon (violin), Richie Buckley (flute, saxophone) and Paul Moran (piano, trumpet, organ) -- were exceptional throughout, conveying the sweep of even his most celestial material with a passion and dexterity that was dazzling in its designs. "In the Garden" and "Foreign Window" received rousing receptions, the audience leaping to their feet in response to stirring performances that brought the material to a rousing conclusion by virtue of sheer virtuosity and an innate connection between the instrumentalists themselves.
Even so, there was something missing, that being any attempt by Morrison to engage or, it seemed, to even acknowledge his audience. From the moment he appeared at 8:03, even as the audience was still settling in its seats, until he abruptly exited, leaving the band to finish the final selection and the lights to go up without an encore an hour and 45 minutes later, he only addressed the crowd once... and that was to briefly introduce "Keep It Simple" by simply announcing the song title.
Dressed in a white suit, white fedora and shades (looking part Colonel Sanders, part Pillsbury Doughboy, part Vegas entertainer), he fastidiously immersed himself in his performance, deftly shifting from piano to sax to guitar and harp, literally without missing a beat. His vocals were as pliable as ever, still the molasses-soaked mesh of a bluesy howl, an emotional plea, and on "Have I Told You Lately," a guttural rumble that added a momentary hint of amusement. Yet, while he generously shared the spotlight with the band, giving each musician ample opportunity to solo, he never introduced the individual players, leaving them all but anonymous despite their exceptional contributions.
Ultimately, Morrison proved he's still the master of his craft, a man who fluidly ambles between genres, from rock and pop to jazz and Celtic to basic R&B, all with the skill of a seasoned survivor. Yet, he steadfastly retains his aura of absolute aloofness and deliberate mystique, never revealing himself in anything more than his music. "Going down to Florida, going down to Florida," he rambled on the bluesy "Playhouse," briefly offering the crowd a connection worthy of a cheer. And yet, for all the exceptional effort it took to get there, he never quite made it all the way to their collective embrace.
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Personal bias: "In the Garden was an unexpected highlight with its rousing refrain of "no guru, no method, no teacher," and yet, the absence of songs like "Domino," Saint Dominic's Preview," Caravan." "Into the Mystic" left diehard fans feeling less than satiated.
Random detail: Morrison's strict regimen extended far from the stage. Signs littered the foyer alerting the audience to the fact that no camera or smart phones were permitted, by the artist's own request. Odder still, liquor sales were ceased as soon as he hit the stage. And even the light of a cell phone was enough cause to summon the security personnel.
By the way: Bassist David Hayes has been with Morrison practically since the beginning, but clearly each of these players were capable of recreating any of the songs Morrison might have mustered.