It was the night the Bard of Belfast jazzed it up in Derry – and looked suspiciously like he was enjoying himself.
For Van Morrison, headlining at the Montreaux festival in a matter of weeks, this visit to the Millennium Forum was up close and personal. Famously truculent, he seemed to respond to the warm reception from the Derry crowd and delivered a superb set which drew the best from himself and a classy seven-piece backing band.
Van the Man, who made a historic return to Belfast from the States many years ago and didn’t so much as mutter ‘hello’ to his home town crowd, even gave a full-scale introduction to a brilliant version of the classic ‘St James Infirmary’.
“Since this is a jazz festival we’d like to do a jazz number,” he said. “It seems this started out as ‘The Bard of Armagh’ and ended up like this.”
There was a jazzy feel to this set, opening the City of Derry Jazz Festival, with Van taking some fine solos himself on sax. But at the very end he ramped it up on harmonica and it was the encore ‘Gloria’ which brought the crowd to their feet.
There were lots of highlights en route. It’s clear that Van is still meticulous about delivery, and this was a finely-crafted and fast-moving show which he drove along and directed from centre-stage. The band gave great opportunities for colour, most of them offering options on at least two instruments, and Van made the most of them with superb arrangements which included some virtuosic breaks.
As Percy always says, ‘light and shade, light and shade’, and here we had the Caravaggio of the music business at work.
Sound and lighting were first-class throughout.
As the years take their toll, there’s always that question mark approaching gigs with singers who are older than you are. Joni Mitchell admits her voice isn’t what it used to be, Dylan’s may never have been. Van Morrison ripping into ‘Georgia’ was Muhammad Ali bouncing off the ropes to send George Foreman spinning towards a career in kitchen appliances.
Van took the crowd on an emotional musical mystery tour – from the love poem ‘Who can I turn to’ to the days of ‘Moondance’; from the dark suits recalling the showband era to the early days of the blues and the fervour of the southern Gospel halls.
The man himself is a study on stage, the missing Blues Brother in that hat and dark glasses, the fan of Spike Milligan who’s known as a Mr Grumpy, the son of a dispirited Harland and Wolff electrician who’s one of the world’s best-known chanters. To see him in such good form at close quarters – as his mama says, rejoice that there are days like this.