If you can get past the pleasantries with Van Morrison, something the no-nonsense Irish artist has never bothered with much in music or conversation, you might get him to talk about the special space he strives to reach through music, an ethereal place perhaps best summarized in the title of his 1970 song “Into the Mystic.”
“It’s called ‘the flow’,” the Belfast-native said last weekend from a hotel room high above the Las Vegas Strip, not far from the Colosseum at Caesars Palace where he’s in the midst of a seven-night residency that will run through Feb. 9. It’s part of a new tour supporting his latest album, “The Prophet Speaks,” which will bring him to Los Angeles for a pair of shows Feb. 5-6 at the Wiltern.
“It also happens in sports, and a lot of these football players talk about the flow,” he said, seated at a desk next to a picture window affording a panoramic view of the runways of McCarran International Airport.
“It’s just plugging in and going with the flow and then sourcing that energy,” he said with the clipped brogue characteristic of a Northern Irelander. He’s dressed afternoon-casual ahead of another Colosseum show that evening, in a maroon pullover sweater, gray pants and running shoes. “I don't know how it works though. I don't know the mechanics of how that works. I just know when I'm in it.”
He’s been in it on a regular basis for at least the 55 years since he first gained international attention as the lead singer and songwriter of the rock band Them, with those powerhouse early hits “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night.”
After going solo and quickly charting another smash with “Brown-Eyed Girl,” he delved fully into “the flow” on his 1968 masterpiece “Astral Weeks,” a seamless blend of Irish folk, jazz and exploratory rock music.
A half-century later, at 73, while many of his contemporaries have died, called it quits or are actively participating in retirement tours, Morrison shows nointerest in hanging up his musical hat.
In fact, he sported a stylish fedora, aviator sunglasses and a sharp tailored navy pinstripe suit at the opening night of the Colosseum engagement last week, an expansion of a couple of previous one or two-night stands at the 4,300-capacity venue.
Although it had been two months since the band’s last regular tour stop, there was little shaking of dust needed: For nearly two hours they emphasized the jazz and blues swing of his recent outings, a slant that is inescapable on the mix of original songs and savvy renditions of material from several of his longtime musical heroes including Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Willie Dixon, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and John Lee Hooker.
The Colosseum set was peppered with several of his signature hits, among them “Moondance,” “Wild Night,” “Have I Told You Lately,” “Crazy Love,” “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Gloria,” along with interpretations for which he’s become celebrated of Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul” and Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All in the Game.”
His soul-drenched, elastic tenor is as pliant and nuanced as ever, capable of turning on a dime from a confessional whisper to a gospel-rooted shout. He further colored various songs with blues harmonica licks or blowing jazz-R&B style solos on his alto saxophone. His performance was enhanced by a crystalline sound mix that rendered every vocal and instrumental detail in exquisite balance.
His updated arrangements of “Moondance” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” in particular aligned them more closely with the hard-swinging jazz-blues settings he’s favored on tour and in the studio in recent years — something he also relates to striving for the flow in his music in real time.
“If I can't bring it into the present time then I don't do it,” Morrison said. “Some of the catalog stuff I can bring into the present and it works in the present, and some of it doesn't. It's always [about] the present time and integrating it into what I'm doing now.”
That translates as practically zero interest in re-creating versions of songs that he recorded 30, 40 and 50 years ago.
“It’s not like looking back,” he said, illustrating the point by elaborating on how he approaches “Moondance,” one of those cornerstone songs fans expect to hear atevery show.
“There’s not really pressure” he said of how he processes audiences’ expectations. “It’s a workout. And if it's a musical workout, which it is, then they will fit in. I mean, we're not exactly just playing the record. The [‘Moondance’] record was — what, three minutes or so? — now we stretch it. If it can be brought into what I'm doing now, then we keep it in and it works, but it's going to be different, you know. That's the fun part of it.”
Hearing him talk about the fun part reflects an evolution in his demeanor — at least, the one the public has usually seen in concert over the decades. He’s earned a reputation as one of pop music’s most demanding, uncompromising bandleaders, and periodically has been known to admonish a backing musician in the midst of a show for any misstep, much as his boyhood idol Ray Charles frequently did.
In recent years, however, he’s been more generous with a smile, at times even cracking jokes and letting loose bursts of laughter in public, as he did at the end of one number at the Colosseum when he and the band seemed to spontaneously repeat the ending several times.
“I’m just doing now what I wanted to do when I was, you know, 15, 16, 17, 18 years old,” said the man who has recorded numerous songs expressing his struggles with the music industry, among them “If You Only Knew,” “Show Business,” “Pay the Devil,” and “Broken Record.” He included the latter song in his opening-night set at the Colosseum, percussionist Teena Lyle gleefully adding a loud scratch sound after each time the syncopated title refrain rolled around again.
“When I was starting out, I was working in various types of bands, right? Rock ’n’ roll bands, show bands, you know, doing cover songs,” he said. “Then I started to write a few songs here and there, but basically my background was like working with the blues and breaking out of that pop thing.
“I was brought up by my father,” referring to George Morrison, a shipyard electrician who was ardent fan of American music. “He just played jazz and blues records all day, every day. And so I grew up around that and absorbed that…. It was a whole thing then you know, and so that's what I I grew up in that so I just always wanted to do the blues angle.
“But there are a lot of things you have to do for survival, and now I don’t have to do a lot of those things I did when I was sleeping on a couch in Boston,” he said. “I had to do the interviews, had to do the photo sessions, had to do the album covers and all the B.S. that goes with that. Now I’m in the position that I don’t have to do all that.”
Many of his contemporaries from the rock music scene of the ’60s and ’70s long looked down their noses at performing in Las Vegas, once considered the bastion of old-guard entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Wayne Newton and Elvis Presley during the sad final downhill arc of his career. But Morrison, whose daughter, singer Shana Morrison, is planning to join him from some of his California dates, said it never held that stigma for him.
“Those live recordings Louie Prima and Keely Smith made in Las Vegas are some of the greatest ever,” Morrison said. “Sinatra said that Louie’s phrasing was the best in the business. I kind of regret that I missed the opportunity to see some of those guys when they were still around.”
Morrison said he’s finally reached the point in his career that he’d long aimed for when he was a struggling musician in Belfast, or a few years later when he came to the U.S. and battled with record executives who attempted to force him and his music into their concept of what it ought to be.
Today, he said he’s “only in the music” for the “distribution” of his albums, which he records for his own Exile Productions company and releases internationally through Los Angeles-based indie distributor Caroline Records.
“I always thought that success to me was always doing what you want to do. That's what I thought it was, and that's what I'm doing” he said. “I paid my dues — that’s what they call it.”
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Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5 and Wednesday, Feb. 6
Tickets: $98.50 to $253.50 (Limited tickets remain)