The lion in winter: Van Morrison in Belfast
The night Van became a freeman of his native city and reminded all of his ability to still create magic
What could possibly go wrong? Even the most optimistic and sunnysideup music fans stageside would have been bracing themselves for something to go awry in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last Friday night. Here was Van Morrison, rock’s most foremost curmudgeon and awkward bugger to beat all awkward buggers, accepting the honour of freeman of his native city and then playing a gig as part of the pomp and ceremony.
Given his historical bent for truculence – not to mention the fact that the pre-game local news cycle was full of belly-aching about large five-figure fees for gig costs and what-aboutery around ticket allocations – and you half expected Van to come out, scowl and then lead his band through a 55 minute instrumental version of a b-side hastily recorded for the second last album. That, doth say the mythmakers, is how he rolls.
To hell with such portents. The lights went down at 8pm sharp, the Morrison band took their places, the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor and his equally distinguished DUP alderman sidekick came out to do their thing and Van ambled on from stage left. He smiled a few times, signed the big book, posed for photos, accepted various tchotchkes of the city’s esteem and then, once the dignitaries departed, he and his band set to play, the real reason why there was so much fuss around this occasion. This was Morrison on home turf, playing his part in a two-way exchange about the city, its people and its iconic figures like him.
The day before at a Banter discussion as part of Belfast Music Week, playwright Glenn Patterson talked a bit about the notion of owning the city. This, he mused, had to be do when you were a certain age and you thought you knew it all and you had the whole span and depth of the place at your feet. You were young and fearless and unbeatable and peerless, doing stuff that you thought no-one had ever done before. Patterson was talking about how a city’s cultural scene replenishes and reinvents itself as new blood comes along, but the notion of owning a city can also apply to certain artists across the years and the decades.
Whatever about how be thinks the city may have regarded him over the years – and artists always take very strange notions when it comes to how they’re perceived by and viewed in their native places – there’s no doubt that Morrison owned this metropolis on Friday night. This was a night for recognition and due process: a night when a city gave a round of applause to an artist who’d painted, amplified and embellished the streetscape of the place in his work and a night when an artist bowed and acknowledged the city which had begot and bred him. Or maybe it was the presence of his mother, Violet, in the audience which ensured he was going to behave himself tonight.
Of course, there has been better Morrison shows. Anyone in this room expecting Morrison to suddenly produce the show of a lifetime does not understand the folds of human life and experience. Over the years and at different stages of his career, Morrison has raved and raged with lusty fervour and fuller voice. All those who’ve seen great artists near the peak of the creative powers will know this. For instance, I remember a run of Morrison shows in Dublin’s National Stadium in the late Eighties as he worked his way back to the centre of the stage, annual appearances which were trascedental, intense and mesmerising. Even when he’d made his way to the old Point in late 1990, Morrison still had that magic, that gobsmacking nth degree of genius to keep you on the edge of your seat.
But it’s 2013 now and the lion now resides in winter. Older certainly and wiser perhaps, Morrison’s trajectory of recent years has been another period of transition, a move towards warm, sweet, tender jazz, that idiosyncratic gruff, rugged, raw voice now lined up on “Born to Sing: No Plan B” alongside a band who’re playing with great riguour and elasticity. That’s what he’s touting these days and that set the template and tempo for this Waterfront moondance.
For all that, though, there were still moments of sheer bliss which sent shivers down your spine. Hearing that roll-call of city names and childhood places transformed into starry, halycon staging posts for “On Hyndford Street”, allowing the audience their due with favourites like “Brown Eyed Girl”, heading for a different level with “Whenever God Shines His Light”, showing there was still muscle and fibre at the heart of what he did with a furious “Baby Please Don’t Go” and ending the municipal fandango with (what else?) “Gloria”: it was a set of carefully mapped angles and well plotted turns. It was a set which was nearly the equal of what the audience expected, full of the magic and memories you’d have wanted for the occasion. Nights like these always create unreal expectations, but there are still times once in a while when nights like this truly become nights to remember.