Concert Review: Van Morrison — Engaged Rather than Grumpy
By Paul Robicheau
A relatively short-but-sweet night that struck just enough highs and no real lows — as long as one accepts that Van Morrison gives more heed to covers than his own hits.
Anyone headed into a Van Morrison concert has long faced the question: will he be engaged and on point or will he be grumpy and mail it in? To add an extra level of uncertainty these days, consider the revered Irish R&B singer’s repudiation of pandemic restrictions and other grievances on his two latest albums.
Morrison immediately drew from that recent material at Boston’s sold-out Leader Bank Pavilion on Saturday. He took the stage in fighting trim at age 77, sporting a crisp white suit, dark fedora, and usual sunglasses as he opened with “Dangerous,” which alluded to his back-and-forth spat with a Northern Ireland health minister who used that term for the singer’s questioning of evidence. “Somebody said I was dangerous,” Morrison sang. “I must be getting close to the truth.”
At the same time, the stoic singer’s vocal delivery was nonconfrontational, the lyrics gliding by as he spread attention to soloists within his nine-piece band, a trend continued as they rolled out “Thank God for the Blues” to set the night’s stylistic tone. Most critically, Van appeared in both good voice and mood — and even mumbled “Thank you” a couple of times.
Soon he was on to the positive reflection of “Days Like This” (once adopted as an anthem for his country’s peace process), adding his own ribbony alto-sax break, then led a perky swing through Moondance nugget “These Dreams of You” and turned to scat in a jaunty “Precious Time” over a swirl of organ and baritone sax.
Even when he stopped and restarted the band after a miscue with opening-act guest James Hunter’s tradeoff on harmonica and vocals in “Tell Me,” Morrison appeared to laugh it off. He and Hunter really clicked on the oldie “Money (That’s What I Want),” done as a bluesy bop. On a roll at that moment, Morrison and his band hit the blues harder with a twangy “Baby, Please Don’t Go” (which he first recorded with his ’60s band Them), singing into his harmonica mic at one point. And that song segued into “Got My Mojo Working,” the singer tilting his head back in a spirited call-and-response as his band picked up steam.
The edge and energy were emanating from Morrison at center stage through the rest of the players, carried through “I’ve Been Working,” marked by its staccato refrains of “woman” and “alright” and crackling with horn, guitar, and organ solos. Then Morrison loosened up for a lighter attitude in his phrasing to the standard “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” which he dedicated to jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco, his onetime recording partner who died in August at age 51.
Morrison finally tapped the spiritual, searching side of his own ’80s repertoire for a back-to-back “Dweller on the Threshold” (undercut by its rippling riff of horns) and “In the Garden,” apparently an on-the-fly call given the paperwork delivered to his music stand. It made a welcome inclusion, though its “No guru, no method, no teacher” musing didn’t approach the song’s transcendence in decades past.
That segment still served more grist than perfunctory, crowd-pleasing renditions of late-set romper “Wild Night” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” which began the encore with house lights up and Hunter returning for the call-and-response of “Gloria,” where Morrison waved his mic to the crowd for replies of “Alright!” and “So good!” Then he walked off mid-song to let his band work another 10 minutes of hearty soloing, including a trumpet shot of “Tequila” and a vibraphone tease of unsung favorite “Moondance,” padding the show to 95 minutes.
Alas, by that point, Morrison was surely off in the moonlight and not coming back, on a relatively short-but-sweet night that struck just enough highs and no real lows — as long as one accepts that he gives more heed to covers than his own hits.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.