Some 400,000 Garth Brooks fans may still be licking their wounds over his aborted concerts in Ireland, which were originally scheduled for this past weekend. But Irish musician Van Morrison gave about 400 of his most devoted followers something worth writing home about Sunday with a rare small-venue show virtually in his own back yard.
At one point, the celebrated singer, composer and lyricist grabbed, of all things, a ukulele, pulled a stool up in front of a microphone stand and sat his compact, stocky frame down, announcing to the audience at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa in Newcastle (not far from his hometown of Belfast), “It’s comedy time again.”
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Van Morrison attributed coining of the phrase 'sit-down comedy' to Billy Connolly. He actually said "it was invented by Dave Allen."
“This is called 'sit-down comedy' -- it was invented by Billy Connolly,” the 68-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said, a broad grin appearing briefly on his ruddy, round face. “Just so you know I’m legitimate, Billy Connolly says I’m very funny. I’m not going to argue with that.”
It was a rare -- for Morrison especially -- moment of onstage levity, the kind of revealing drop of his guard that few outside an inner circle of close associates ever get to witness.
This was why those looking on had forked over close to $400 a ticket to see Morrison in such an intimate setting. About a quarter of the fans crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S., while another sizable portion came from across Europe for the chance to see the artist sometimes referred to as the Belfast Cowboy virtually in his own back yard, said Howard Hastings, managing director of Hastings Hotels.
Hastings owns the resort and spa where Morrison performed in the first of two nights in the hotel’s swanky ballroom, which was outfitted for the shows with three dozen white linen-draped tables for 10. It's an elegant room that Hastings said normally hosts local tribute bands and other performers who entertain the seaside hotel’s guests.
But Morrison in recent years has adopted it as his home field performance space of choice, using it to prepare for other tour dates or just to comfortably play for local fans. “He likes it because it feels like the blues clubs he started out in,” Hastings said.
Morrison has long been one of pop music’s most cherished figures, an artist prized for decades by fans, critics and his fellow Rock Hall of Famers including -- but hardly limited to -- Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2.
But he’s also long been one of pop’s most mercurial and, at times, hermetic figures, one who rarely grants interviews and during his concerts rarely chats with audiences, opting to let his music say whatever he is in the mood to express on any given night.
Dressed in a black fedora, shades and a dark gray suit, Morrison was accompanied on Sunday by his musician daughter Shana, who opened the evening with a three-song set of American country-inspired songs, and an accomplished six-piece band.
Like many of the musicians and writers who influenced him, Morrison has been deeply inspired by where he grew up, and over the decades has sung about the cobblestone streets, the undulating hills and the mystic mists of Ireland.
But like so many other European musicians, he’s also been powerfully drawn to American music and culture, which was reflected Sunday in a rendition of “Rough God Goes Riding,” a song about the loss of heroes. Morrison name-checked a string of Old West outlaws that extended from Jesse James and Billy the Kid through Clint Eastwood, which drew a laugh from fans.
Those fans, Hastings noted, are largely the kind who can spot a nugget such as “Green Mansions” when Morrison reaches deep into his vast songbook, or recognize the first time in years that he’s picked up a guitar to play instead of his more typical blues harmonica or alto sax.
As much as these lighter moments allowed Morrison to figuratively let down his hair, it was the songs in which he invoked the transcendent spirituality at the core of much of his music that was the big payoff.
It was anything but a perfunctory greatest-hits set, with Morrison offering up only a few of his cornerstone numbers near the end of the show. Instead, he opted for gems such as “Queen of the Slipstream,” “So Quiet in Here,” the instrumental “Celtic Swing” and “Whenever God Shines His Light.”
In a meditative, mid-set stretch that included “Sometimes We Cry,” “Who Can I Turn To?” and “In the Garden,” Morrison brought the music down to a whisper, and there was nary a clinking glass or misplaced cough to be heard.
During “In the Garden,” he voiced lyrics that can stand alone as poetry on a par with countrymen such as William Butler Yeats, against a soulful arrangement that equaled the best of one of Morrison's heroes, Ray Charles:
The olden summer breeze was blowing against your face, alright
The light of God was shining on your countenance divine
And you were a violet color as you sat beside your father
And your mother in the garden
The song shifted into a mantra on the phrase “no guru, no method, no teacher,” one of several moments Morrison allowed the music to transport him, and his audience, to another place. At 68, his vocal tone and phrasing is as good or better than ever, and he drew a standing ovation in the 100-plus-year-old hotel.
“I first heard him in the ‘60s, at a show with Aretha Franklin and Dr. John, and I thought then, ‘Who IS this guy?’ ” said 72-year-old blues-folk great Taj Mahal, another Morrison fan who caught Sunday’s show after recently wrapping up his own European tour in Paris. “Even then, you knew he’s no copyist. There’s a lot of people he likes, but there’s nobody like him.”
Morrison historically has danced only to the tunes he calls, but he indulged at least one request Sunday: Hastings noted during his introduction of Morrison that one couple in the house were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.
The wife’s name? Gloria.
Morrison closed the show with a roof-raising performance of his career-establishing 1964 hit with Them. Chalk up another win for the hometown fans.
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