MUSIC REVIEW: Van Morrison

Van Morrison

It's a family affair at the Oydssey Arena, where Van the Man lets his music do the talking

There was a mix of anticipation and trepidation in advance of Van Morrison’s homecoming concert at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast.

Horror stories circulated about just how bad a show Morrison can put on. Rumours that he doesn’t acknowledge his audience, stands with his back to the crowd for the duration of the show, hates to play his most popular songs and is likely to walk off after 40 minutes made this homecoming gig a bit of a gamble.

The singer's petulant reputation is such that even some of Morrison's most avid fans gave his first gig in Belfast in a decade a wide berth. Expectations were low, but the Odyssey ticket prices – strangely enough – remained high.

Yet Morrison arrives on stage to the opening bars of 'Brown Eyed Girl', his most famous song, and it appears that we've got him on a good day after all. The jazzy version of the popular standard features a saxophone solo from Morrison and an instrumental section in the middle. It's an upbeat opener, and a good indictator of what's to come

Tonight Morrison only turns his back to the audience to show admiration for his accomplished musicians – and when you have Morrison's musical status, you can hand-pick your backing band. He gives each musician the respect of listening to their solo, standing back and bobbing his head or snapping his fingers in time to the music.

There is no mistaking who was in charge of the stage, however, when Morrison steps back into the spotlight. Even after a career spanning four decades, his vocal power remains undiminished.

Sometimes his voice is full-throated and passionate, his lyrics seeming to reverberate around the Odyssey. At other times Morrison whispers into the microphone, his husky voice gentle and quiet.

The balance between softness and power blends perfectly when Shana Morrison joins her father on stage for a duet of ‘Sometimes We Cry’. She balances Morrison’s roughness with warmth, and has just as strong a voice as her dear old dad.

The mid-point duet is the highlight of the evening. In its wake a series of slower numbers are taken as a cue for some to slip off to the bar or toilets. After a barn-storming start featuring favourites such as ‘Precious Time’ and ‘Moondance’ – with Morrison turning in a version that would blow any asinine X-Factor contestant out of the water – you begin to fear that the legendary singer has let his hometown audience slip away.

‘Crazy Love’ brings them back. There are cheers, whistles and mass singalongs, which are never easy at a Van Morrison gig. Morrison’s free reinterpretation of his own arrangements makes karaoke very difficult. It is worth keeping quiet, though, to hear the singer’s fresh takes of his more well-known songs.

‘Talk is Cheap’ and ‘Why Must I Have to Explain’ sound particularly heart-felt from a man who works hard to keep his private life out of the press. They might also be an answer, of sorts, to the accusations of taciturnity and his less than engaging on-stage persona.

This Belfast audience care little for the negatives, though. Instead, they revel in the music, which is as it should be. Morrison is in motion for the full 90 minute set, whether tapping his feet or waving his arms. He doesn't banter much with the crowd, but he does thank us 'for being a warm audience'.

From another performer, such a lack of audience interaction might leave one feeling short changed. From Van the Man, however, his introductory 'hello' is more than anyone expected. For him it is all about the music, not about stagecraft. And as the closing bars of 'Gloria' see him off stage, there are no complaints about that from us.

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