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Van's Night of High Artistry Is No Mean Feat


The Van Morrison who showed up at Constitution Hall on Thursday clearly views himself as an artist, not an entertainer. So anybody wanting to hear Van Morrison smash hits would have had more success finding a good jukebox or hitting an open-mike night at the local coffeehouse.

But for folks who looked forward to spending the evening with a distaff diva, Van the Man delivered.

Quibblers could carp about Morrison staying away from familiar material as if it would give him swine flu, that he modulated his voice less than Willie Nelson and mumbled enough to owe Bob Dylan royalties. His people skills were invisible -- not so much as a hello or thanks to fans who'd paid up to $350 face value to share the room with him, and he yelled at bandmates and stagehands like Buddy Rich on a tour bus.

But, oh, what a supply of attitude and talent! An artist's supply, even.

Morrison's current tour showcases material from "Astral Weeks," a 1968 record that got him his greatest reviews, though it wasn't a big seller and had no radio hits. It's the kind of record best listened to alone in a dark room with a mildly mind-altering substance, and clearly comes from an age long before iTunes and singles downloads. In other words, "Astral" is not an obvious choice for the sort of album-centric tours that so many vintage artists are giving these days. But that's Van being Van. Backed by a large band with strings and horns, he reprised tunes such as "The Way Young Lovers Do" and "Slim Slow Slider" while being at once intense and mellow, hushed and swinging. "Sweet Thing" flaunted the Belfast-born Morrison's special brand of Celtic rhythm and blues.

Morrison, 63, has never been a poster boy for good living. Thursday night he looked like a bloated pallbearer in his dark suit, dark sunglasses and a black hat. But his voice was incredibly strong and clear whenever he wanted it to be. He didn't want it to be that often: For "Cyprus Avenue," he used his lyrics, scatlike, to send a rhythmic rather than verbal message.

Morrison treated his band and crew horribly. In the midst of "Fair Play," one of a handful of non-"Astral" tunes in the set, he decided he didn't like the tempo and screamed at his drummer to switch from brushes to sticks. Morrison was close enough to the microphone that the crowd couldn't avoid taking in the humiliation. He later summoned a roadie to the center of the stage to move his microphone and music stands a few feet away from him, then screamed an obscenity at him while telling him to leave the stage. Then Morrison launched into "In the Garden," a 1986 spiritual glorious enough to get him right with God, flaws and all.

The clearest show of respect for the performer and the performance: There was no talking in the nearly full house as the band played and, despite all the deep cuts, no shouted requests between songs for his hits. At night's end, Morrison touched on his singles file briefly, though it was so little and so late that it felt more like a taunt than a reward. He turned the band loose on "Gloria," a three-chord garage rocker that he wrote as a teenager and was later covered reverently by, among others, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix and another iconic Morrison, Jim of the Doors.

But the biggest surprise came with the opening notes of "Brown Eyed Girl." Given all that came earlier, Morrison couldn't have shocked the crowd more if he'd Tasered everybody. But, consistent to the end, Morrison performed his gem with apparent disdain. He sang the opening of the chorus -- "Do you remember when we used to sing" -- but turned his back to the seats to let the crowd take the "Sha la la la la la la la la la la ti da." He knew everybody would remember. ...

by Dave McKenna
Source >> (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/07/AR2009080703207.html)

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