Van Morrison's latest tour has nothing to do with goodbye

Van Morrison's latest tour has nothing to do with goodbye
Van Morrison, shown in an undated file photo, performed Monday night in Los Angeles. (Lawrence Watson)

Van Morrison is not a big believer in the lure of scarcity.

On Monday night the veteran singer and songwriter from Northern Ireland played the first of two concerts at the Wiltern Theatre — his second engagement in Los Angeles in less than a year following a three-night stand last March at downtown's Theatre at Ace Hotel.


Does that seem like a lot? Consider that Morrison, 72, had not one but two new albums to promote, both released in the past five months: the bluesy "Roll With the Punches," which came out in September, and "Versatile," a collection of jazz and pop standards (and several originals) that dropped in December.

Introducing the latter's "Broken Record" on Monday, he noted proudly that the album had made the top 10 on the jazz charts. Then he cracked up — or got as close as the impassive Morrison gets to cracking up — when someone in the audience started singing along at a volume usually reserved for "Moondance" or "Brown Eyed Girl."

This market-saturating activity comes just as a remarkable number of Morrison's 70-something peers, including Elton John and Paul Simon, have announced that they're retiring from the road — though not before lengthy farewell tours.

You can imagine the experience those goodbye shows will deliver as fans savor what they've been led to believe is their last chance to sing along with "Tiny Dancer" and "Homeward Bound."

And you can imagine the money they'll be willing to pay for that opportunity.

Yet none of that had anything to do with Morrison's concert, which felt meant to emphasize the idea that here was a guy at work, tonight as on any other night, and let's not make a big deal about it. (Let me be clear: With loge seats going for more than $250, money was no less a motivating factor for Morrison than for Elton John or Paul Simon; it's just not what the show made you think about.)

Dressed in his latter-day uniform of pinstripe suit, dark glasses and trilby hat, Morrison shuffled onstage at 8:01 p.m. holding an alto saxophone and jumped with zero fanfare into a 90-minute set that mixed old hits with covers and favored obscurities.

As usual, Morrison didn't say much, beyond the comment about "Versatile's" top-10 showing. At one point, during a hard-driving medley of "Baby, Please Don't Go" and "Got My Mojo Working," an excited-looking woman approached the stage and flung what appeared to be a sheaf of papers toward the singer, who either didn't notice or did an impressive job behind those shades pretending not to.

But the music communicated plenty about love and desire and memory, and not through any determination on Morrison's part to make you forget that he and his six-piece band had played "Wild Night" and "Magic Time" on countless occasions before (and will likely play them many more times in the future).

Indeed, what was borderline-radical about the gig was its implicit argument that emotion isn't necessarily endangered by the process of grinding it out — a true break from the farewell-tour viewpoint, which suggests that meaning in rock and roll is a precious resource that must be protected.

This isn't to say that Monday's show lacked traces of the improvisational energy that's helped define Morrison's music since "Astral Weeks" came out 50 years ago. (The Times did not photograph the concert Monday at the Wiltern because Morrison's representative demanded that photographers sign an agreement restricting use of the images.)

In "I Get a Kick Out of You," for instance, he broadly acted out Cole Porter's lyric about taking a sniff of cocaine, which his rendition of the tune on "Versatile" hadn't prepared me for. And he ventured deep into the word "lonely" in a dreamy take on "In the Midnight," repeating the syllables until they became a kind of mantra.

But those moments of departure were taking place within a larger system of ritualized assurance — one that an observer could find immensely satisfying (as I did) or boring as hell (as the woman in front of me evidently decided before she pulled out her phone and started scrolling through Instagram).

Because the performance was so polished, you were never afraid of — and therefore never tantalized by — the prospect that Morrison wouldn't find his way back to his established path.


Of course he'd find his way back. He had a show to do the next night.

Twitter: @mikaelwood