There were moments during Van Morrison’s 22-song concert Tuesday when he was whipping the band into a frenzy — shouting out song selections before the final notes of the previous tune had fully rung out.
By Scott McLennan
The lore that Van Morrison has cultivated around himself over his 50-plus years in music is nearly as impressive as the body of work that he has produced during his multifaceted career.
You heard the myths and legends buzzed about in the sold-out Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Tuesday night when the Irish icon brought his crack band and creative impulses to Boston as part of a short North American tour.
“If someone made his breakfast wrong, he’ll be grumpy and put on a lousy show.” “I heard he told the audience ‘We won’t play ‘Moondance’ so don’t ask for it.’” “He has terrible stage fright, that’s why he wears the glasses and doesn’t talk to the audience.” “He’ll either be drunk or great.”
While Morrison has maintained a considerable mystique, there was nothing about his 90-minute set Tuesday to suggest that the artist is setting expectations low to merely puff up a perfunctory performance.
In truth, Morrison is working in overdrive these days. Since September of last year he has released three albums that dig deeply into his love for jazz, soul, and blues, drawing on cover tunes, rearranged versions of his older (and in some cases overlooked) material, and new songs. And there were moments during Morrison’s 22-song concert Tuesday when he was whipping the band into a frenzy — shouting out song selections before the final notes of the previous tune had fully rung out.
Eyes shaded behind sunglasses, an appropriately jazzy hat to accessorize his pinstriped suit, Morrison hit the stage with the loose swing of the jazz standard “That Old Black Magic,” delivering it with his daughter Shana, who opened the concert. It took a few songs for the 73-year-old Morrison’s voice to fully warm up so that he could apply the kind of supple and spry nuances that only he is capable of bringing to a tune.
Early in the proceedings, back-to-back selections from the revered Astral Weeks album (“The Way Young Lovers Do” and “Sweet Thing”) and the Mose Allison homage “Benediction” were well played and nicely pumped up by Morrison’s 8-piece combo. But then the singer noticeably turned up the heat with 2005’s “Magic Time,” using the spectral arrangement he and jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco worked up for their You’re Driving Me Crazy album, which was released in April. Morrison not only delivered a haunting vocal, but he also laid down some lush sax solos.
A new up-tempo jazz arrangement for “Have I Told You Lately” was also a welcome reinterpretation of the original’s syrupy pop sound.
Morrison has not totally turned his back on his rock and pop roots. A detour into his days with Them via “Here Comes the Night” and a medley of “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Don’t Start Crying Now” (complete with Morrison playing harmonica) were all about the tunes’ rocking rhythms.
And the jazzed-up renditions of “Moondance” and “Brown Eyed Girl” were not really particularly radical departures from the hit versions that have been seared into the most casual fan’s memory. But syncopation and swing elements clearly fed Morrison’s passions, and that probably at least partly explains why he remains such a free-spirited and enigmatic artist. Had he played it straight for all these years, one imagines Morrison having a career that looks more like that of adult-pop star Neil Diamond.
Moreover, had he gone a more traditional pop route, odds are we would have been robbed of hearing the clear highlight of Tuesday’s concert: “Broken Record,” a rambunctious new composition full of low-end swing that takes generous advantage of Morrison’s uncanny ability to make his voice come across as simultaneously gruff and ethereal.
Morrison traveled a winding path with his set list, applying a honky-tonk veneer to a cover of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”; slipping a hint of a reggae beat into “Whenever God Shines His Light”; blending bebop jams into the jaunty “Cleaning Windows”; and playing some fine licks on electric guitar during “Vanlose Stairway.”
Morrison’s only misstep came at the wind-up, when he delivered Them’s garage-rock staple “Gloria” as a final encore. The bigger, jazzier arrangement ended up dampening the original’s sizzle; this would have been a more successful experiment had it been part of a regular set. It did not make for a satisfying closing statement, especially given that the tune followed a galvanizing version of the spiritually heavy “In the Garden.”
Perhaps Morrison wanted to make sure he included a note of the perverse: he needed to make sure his reputation for confounding fans’ expectations was intact after such a generous and well-played concert.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.