BY PETER MCGORAN
As Van Morrison enters the stage to be awarded the Freedom of Belfast, donned with his trademark fedora, he is already oozing the classy, soulful aura of an artist about to be turned into a legend. This is his night, his award. Mired by controversy over ticket arrangements and with a persona as divisive as Marmite, Van is evidently not everyone’s Man. But everything about his personal character aside, my God, this is an incredible musician.
Opening the night with the instrumental “Celtic Mist” (a surprising but appropriate choice) we begin our expedition into Van’s Celtic, jazz-tinged brand of soul. By the time the first song is finished the crowd is waiting to hear the lion roar, but Van is more than timid as he shakily begins the vocals of “Moondance”. This is nothing new unfortunately; Van is prone to uneven starts lately. All of this fades away quickly, however, as he leads into the pre-chorus with the lines, “And all the NIGHT’S magic seems to whisper and hush” ringing out superbly throughout the venue (the acoustics of the Waterfront really showcasing what Van can do with his vocals).
From here all things are golden. “Moondance” leads into “Brown Eyed Girl” and Van’s greatest hit (which he himself has had a love/hate relationship with) drips of nostalgia yet shimmers with all the power of the anthem it is. He leaves it to the crowd to sing “Sha-la-la” after the chorus, sees that everyone is on the same note, opens his arms and says: “Just like that!” and we repeat.
The magic of the moment isn’t lost and Van moves effortlessly into a jazzy cover of “Old Black Magic” (a duet with daughter Shana – a credible singer but merely a shadow beside her father) then “Magic Time”.
Here, the concert moves into a more lukewarm phase. Relatively unheard-of songs like “Sometimes We Cry” from Van’s more recent albums are played and far too much attention is given to the band (who are excellent, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t who we came here for). Older or less dedicated fans seem confused and wonder when and where Astral Weeks will be played. Sadly, there is to be no hits from Van’s pre-eminent album this night and we wonder whether he has grown tired of songs like “Cyprus Avenue” and “Madame George”, or perhaps he just doesn’t have the energy for them anymore. Thakfully, interspersing this phase are songs like “Days Like This” and “Whenever God Shines his Light” which remind us of just how many classics Van Morrison has to offer.
Then comes an almost transcendental moment when he begins “On Hyndford Street”, a lesser known spoken word song but an absolute wonder to see performed live. The lights go down low, the music is soft and Van himself seems lost in past memories as he recounts his childhood growing up in East Belfast, listing the streets he used to play in, the music he used to listen to, the life he used to have. It’s the most appropriate song for the moment; it speaks volumes to the Belfast audience and touches every heart. Any accusations that Van the man somehow ‘abandoned’ Belfast are washed away. It’s clear that the city was always his biggest influence and always his home.
“On Hyndford Street” gives way to “Gloria” and it feels like Van has kicked down the door to your mind. We’re back down on earth, cheering and clapping and singing along for the final climactic moments of the concert. By the time our hero leaves the stage we’re all thoroughly satisfied with his performance.
However, it is only because of how good Van Morrison is that I can write this down as being one of the best concerts of my life but still wish that it had been better. Not to hear any songs from Astral Weeks was a shame but it would be difficult, in spite of this, to say he didn’t excel. All in all, it truly was the perfect way to celebrate one of Belfast’s greatest treasures.
Van Morrison – cheerful looking as always!