Lyric Theatre, Belfast
I’ve seen Van Morrison in concert several times. But I’ve always wanted to see him perform in his – and my – city of birth, Belfast. So when my Christmas present from Mrs BB was a ticket for this concert, you can imagine my excitement. Not only was it a hometown gig, it was in the intimate surroundings of the 400 seat Lyric Theatre. And it was 6 rows back, dead centre. The ticket price was eye watering, but, hey, it was a fundraiser for the esteemed and historic Belfast Linen Hall Library, so it was all in a good cause.
And so it was I found myself as part of an audience buzzing with anticipation last night, expecting a decent gig (Van never delivers less than that these days) and hoping for a special one. The evening began with the Director of the Library thanking us for our contribution, and giving a heartfelt encomium to Van, ‘a true Bard of Belfast’, for doing this concert for them, and for accepting an honorary membership of the library. He finished and was off stage a few seconds before the advertised start time, and true to form, Van and the band were immediately on stage and launching into the title track from the new album.
There was never any likelihood that Van would do anything particular to reflect the nature of the concert. He just doesn’t do that. What we got – what we were always going to get – was his usual 90 packed minutes of music – next to no talking, but song following hard on song – around 20 in all. But what made it special was the intimacy of the setting, combined with a performance better and more committed than most people in their mid 70s who have been at this for almost 60 years would ever deliver.
After the opener we were straight into one of two excellent tracks he played from ‘The Healing Game’. Next, he strapped on his acoustic guitar, strummed it gently, and sang ‘Chamois cleaning all the windows…’.what followed was a stunning, intimate performance of St Dominic’s Preview. ‘And it’s a long way from Buffalo. Long way from Belfast city too’, changed here to ‘Got to get back to Belfast city too’. It got a huge cheer, of course. And here I was, just a few feet from Van singing beautifully my favourite Morrison song. Reader, there was a tear in my eye.
To be honest if the gig had ended right there I’d have been happy enough. But there was plenty more. Two other standout moments in particular. Again, strumming acoustic guitar, he gave a rare and lovely performance of Into the Mystic. And whilst there was no Gloria tonight there was a rambunctious Baby Please Don’t Go. Van’s sung it a thousand times, and maybe for him it was just another performance, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking it was pretty special to hear him singing with conviction a song he first delivered 55 years ago just a mile and a half up the road at the Maritime – an angry scowling young man in a hurry.
It wasn’t perfect, of course it wasn’t. I don’t really need to hear him do Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance, or Have I Told You Lately? ever again. But equally, there will be many who may never have seen him before and would be disappointed if he didn’t do the hits. Sure he should do them, especially when, as he does, he mixes it up with deeper cuts (a wonderful Foreign Window for example). There were the usual old blues numbers as well including several that are pretty dull on his recent albums but sounded just fine live – Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s How Far From God for example.
The band was the same Irish touring session band Van has been working with for a few years now. To be honest I have always rather dismissed them as little more than competent anonymous session players. But seeing them in this closeup setting I appreciated more than I have before how well they work with Van. They look comfortable and on it, and crucially Van looks comfortable with them. He trusts them and it gives him space to do what he does. It was great to see him decide about half way through a song what song he wanted to do next. He’d turn back, mutter the title to the bass player, who would tell the drummer. When that song ended, the drummer would kick off the next one, and the rest of the band would kick in on whatever song it was without missing a beat. They’re not the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, or his wonderful band of the early 80s, but they are more than good enough. The sound in this setting allowed every note to come through – it wasn’t loud – it didn’t need to be – and it was clear as a bell. Like seeing a band in an intimate jazz club rather than a concert hall.
So all in all, a special and memorable night for this fan, and, judging from the post concert buzz, for many others too. As related in a separate post, the night before was spent in the splendid company of @Colin-H of this parish, and enjoying the different but related charms of Nine Below Zero. It was a great weekend. Got to get back to Belfast city too.
Given the ticket price and the occasion it’s not surprising that there was a slight sense of the Belfast great and good being out in force. But it wasn’t stuffy in the slightest – it was an audience that was clearly up for it and thrilled to be there from the outset.
It made me think..
You don’t think. You just feel.