LIVE REVIEW: Van Morrison @ Virgin Money Unity Arena, Newcastle (03.09.20) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by Thomas Jackson, Tynesight Photography

Cards on the table: I’ve been a Van Morrison fan for almost forty years and I’ve seen him a bunch of times, with admittedly diminishing returns. I used to argue that the 15-20 years of genuine genius (including the still-breathtaking-after-52-years Astral Weeks, but going back to the feral R&B of Them and through a staggering run of seventies albums) excused him any late period complacency. Over the subsequent four decades he’s sorely tested that tolerance as albums turned from middling to mediocre (with the occasional flash of excellence), his live shows became more perfunctory and he just generally turned into a tremendously grumpy little man.

So I was surprised as anyone to find myself on a windy Gosforth Racecourse on a chilly Thursday night, sat in my pen waiting to see Morrison on the week of his 75th birthday and hot on the heels of some typically curmudgeonly comments about Covid-19. I hoped for some sort of rant to spice things up but Morrison stopped actually communicating with his audience a while back, so it wasn’t looking good for a rollercoaster ride of musical thrills. As for the whole Virgin Money Unity Arena venture – others have written about it here so I don’t need to add much, except to say that a Morrison gig isn’t really the occasion to see how the social distancing set-up fares in terms of atmosphere and excitement.

The first thing to point out is that the band were on fire, and Morrison was happy to stand back and let them shine. But from the moment he appeared onstage, wrapped up like a Soviet housewife in a breadline, he looked like he wanted to go home. Actually, that’s unfair – there were occasional moments when he genuinely seemed happy up there, but it was usually either during one of several covers (Bo Diddley’s I Can Tell being a notable example) or when the band were letting rip. But for the most part, he used his still remarkable voice sparingly and was tearing through the crowd-pleasing numbers ever more quickly (this, by the way, is progress of sorts – hearing songs like Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria tonight was still surprising).

For a longstanding fan like myself, perhaps the oddest and most saddening thing about Morrison today is his relationship with his own back catalogue. Obviously, more recent material is foregrounded but some of his all-too-rare dips into the past were bewildering – surely nobody needs to hear Whenever God Shines His Light, even if we are spared Cliff Richard’s guest vocals? I completely understand that to be expected to perform songs from Astral Weeks or Veedon Fleece fifty years on might be a bit much – what pensioner wants to spend their evening reaching for transcendent expressions of spiritual yearning when you just want a cup of tea and a Midsommer Murders boxed set? – but so much of his more recent stuff sounds like a cruise ship ballroom act. When he did dig in the proverbial crates for something unexpected – notably for Wild Night – the old Van was still in there, fiery and soulful as ever, and the version of Baby Please Don’t Go was pretty off the hook. But somehow these flashes of excellence mostly just threw the rest into sharp relief.

 

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