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Van Morrison - Royal Albert Hall, Kensington - 21 & 22 March 2000

[I should warn you that, for this review, I merged together my comments on both nights, and I must admit now that the format really did not work well!]


The two shows in London on consecutive nights (Tuesday & Wednesday) were the first I'd attended since Bournemouth last year, and over the two nights, I took three friends who had either never seen Van live or had only seen him once years ago from afar. Amongst the trivial facts I discussed with them beforehand in my unnecessary pre-show briefing, I tried to explain how renowned Van's organist Geraint Watkins was amongst other musicians, and described the music on his solo album, a sample of which they would probably be treated when the band came on stage. I even managed to impress my Welsh friend with my correct pronunciation of his name (GAIR-int, like 'garish'), but then Geraint and the band threw me by playing none of his songs.  How inconsiderate of them. But we did not mind, the whole show was wonderful.

On both nights, the band started with a relaxing, soulful instrumental involving a lot of sax, a song that I've heard loads before but can't name, so here's the first of several times when I display my appalling ignorance. [I was later told it was Inarticulate Speech of the Heart No 1].   I was interested to note on the Wednesday night that guitarist Johnny Scott seemed to have his own fan club. As he took the stage, two people from opposite sides of the auditorium called out 'Go, Johnny, go!!' and he just waved absently to them. I checked and neither culprit was Chuck Berry. 

Van strolled onto the stage promptly (ie no delays owing to lack of sunglasses, the need to string up the sheep or other such backstage challenges) to belt out I've Been Working, a truly powerful delivery that, along with Van's many smiles during the number, promised a fabulous show to come. Van surprised me by introducing his first guest at this stage, on the second night calling her 'super heavy funk from Holland, Candy Dulfer.'  I've only seen Candy on video recordings of Van's past concerts and of her own show when Van guested, so her presence was a delight.  She is an enormously talented saxophonist and stunningly beautiful. The song provided the opportunity for several solos on the first night--Johnny Scott, Geraint Watkins, and Richie Buckley, with David Hayes contributing a bass solo on Wednesday. He alternated between electric and acoustic stand-up bass throughout the performances.

On Moondance, which unsurprisingly made the London audience go as mad as they get, as it would be a song that most casual listeners would recognise, Johnny and Geraint contributed backing vocals, as always, but Candy and Matt Holland joined in, too. Van walked off during Candy's solo--not out of anger, there were no curmudgeonly episodes in London; Van seemed happy throughout. This 'abandon stage' technique after only one and a half songs made a sea of worried heads turn across the Hall, but needless to say, he returned in good time for the next tune.

Before he did, he sent the ever-present roadie out to Johnny with a secret message, and on Tuesday, whatever it was made Johnny throw his head back and laugh.  I'm not normally the nosy sort, but it's impossible not to wonder what he said.  'Van says to stretch it out as the tap in the loo went mad and sprayed water all over his trousers so he must change or the audience will think he's wet himself.' 'Van just switched on the telly in the dressing room and it's his favourite Simpsons episode, so you'll have to carry the show for a while.' 'His nosehair trimmer got trapped and we've had to send for an engineer.' Perhaps it was something along the lines of that excruciating prom date scene in There's Something About Mary. Forgive me, I seem to have a sick imagination. I just wonder what could be so funny.

Van sorted out whatever problem may have delayed him--an unnoticeable delay, and it's not like we had nothing to do while we waited, listening to the band--and returned to welcome onto stage someone who was a big influence on him, he said, 'that master of blues Mr Bobby "Blue" Bland.'  Despite warming up with that tongue twister, Van flubbed slightly, endearingly, on Wednesday in that he was meant to start the first line of Ain't Nothing You Can Do and had to be prompted by Bobby, since Van seemed to be standing back, 'chilling,' enjoying the whole atmosphere. Van then slapped a hand to his forehead (but didn't utter 'Doh!' a la Homer Simpson, as far as I could tell), smiled, began snapping his fingers to the beat and burst into the most amazing display of vocal strength I've heard in ages. His voice really was amazing both nights, absolutely perfect.

On the Tuesday, when Bobby took the stage, Bobby made it clear that he had been promoted in naval rank since his opening set, as he was sporting a navy nautical captain's hat with gold braid on the rim, but he carried it off as few others could. Bobby coaxed more out of Candy during her solo with comments such as, 'What? I can't hear you!' and she responded appropriately.  Near the end of the song, Bobby held his hand out towards Van and repeated 'the Man!' whilst Van mirrored him and said of Bobby 'the Master!' at which point, on Tuesday, Bobby left the stage.

On Wednesday, however, Bobby stayed on to join Van in a rendition of Ain't That Loving You Baby that had me shaking my head in amazement at the quality of Van's incredible voice. Bobby's voice is impressive, as well, but he has an unnerving fascination with occasionally contributing a sort of lizard roll to the proceedings.  A lizard roll is not a luncheon delight, if that's what you were picturing.  I can think of no more appropriate way to describe this highly disconcerting noise that Bobby makes every few minutes.  During his own set, we originally assumed he had serious sinus trouble and was clearing them out with a sort of 'hnaw! Hnaaaaw' guttural and clicking sound; it was truly disturbing and our heart went out to him, having to suffer so. We soon realised that, on the contrary, it was not a health problem but a sound that he considered to be, apparently, his triumphal trademark noise, which he thought sounded really neat and thus added it whenever possible, and sometimes when apparently impossible. I have great admiration for the man but that insect-like noise was just unnerving.

Still, I mustn't criticise the Captain. Van dismissed him near the end of the song with 'the master of soul' and the wonderful Bobby 'Blue' Bland and his insect impressions left the stage. (Incidentally, I just have to say that Bobby's bassist gave the most incredible bass guitar solo during his set on Wednesday, it was astonishing! See it if you can some time.)

Tuesday's show had Van treating us to the Ray Charles classic I Believe To My Soul, where again he was full of smiles and impish humour (but no sick jokes). His powerful voice amazed me again, and he growled out the blues better than I've heard before. After the line 'and I heard you say,' he imitated a woman's voice to deliver the next line. It was wonderful to see him having so much fun.

On Wednesday, I was thrilled to hear Johnny mumble quickly into the microphone 'Georgia,' after being thus instructed by Van. The way the band has only 30 seconds to prepare to play the next song, which is generally a surprise until they hear Johnny's announcement, never ceases to amaze me, as does the way they offer amazing solos whenever Van suddenly points in their direction without warning. They are tremendous professionals. In this case, Van's relayed command was followed by a truly amazing performance of Georgia on My Mind, with Geraint and Johnny providing spectacular solos on the organ and guitar, respectively. Van was much more expressive in his delivery, frequently pushing the microphone stand towards the floor and leaning over it sideways to shout out the feelings of the song. At one stage, he delivered one of the jokes that, as I have mentioned before, I just never understand. When the lyric 'in my arms' came up, Van said 'here's an impression of Leonard Kramer' and he waved his arms wildly. I'm sure it was hilarious though. I probably have the name wrong; Joe Cocker might have made sense but it doesn't sound much like Leonard Kramer, so....

During all of the solos on both nights, Van seemed full of respect and admiration for his band, and indeed said numerous times 'what about that band!' at the end of the evening. He frequently leaned back with his eyes shut, absorbing the music, usually wriggling the fingers on his right hand, presumably imagining that he was playing whatever instrument he heard.  In particular, he seemed moved by Robin Aspland's electric piano solos, which were indeed lovely. Robin has an amazing way of playing in that he seems to spend the entire night looking at the face of each and every audience member seated in the arena by the stage; he never seems to have to consult music or the keys and he never looks challenged or troubled. I'm sorry I missed his solo stint in London on Wednesday afternoon.

Wednesday night moved on to a delivery of Back on Top that was the best I have heard, though it's not everyone's favourite, I know.  His voice was still spectacular and his harmonica playing was much more atmospheric. 

Next came, on both nights, Chris Farlowe. Most people my age have no clue who he is, so I was explaining to my friends how much they should appreciate him, and of course need not have bothered as they were won over as soon as they heard that magnificent voice. Van left him to it (returning to the Simpsons?), and Chris and the band performed his hit 'Out of Time,' with Chris placing his hand on Johnny's shoulder at one point and enjoying the band generally. It was refreshing for me to hear this performed with Van's band as, when I saw Chris open for Van in Bournemouth, I felt that his own band seemed rather disinterested and unappreciative of the legend with whom they were performing. Van's band were much warmer and, naturally, much better. The crowd went wild--well, for us stuffy folk at the Albert Hall that meant we applauded twice as quickly--when Van re-emerged and joined Chris on vocals at the end of the song.  Exit Chris Farlowe.

Van launched into a tremendous harmonica solo at this point on Wednesday, finding a myriad extra notes to add to the splendid introduction to In the Afternoon. When he wasn't singing, he drank water (well, a clear liquid.) and faced Candy and Matt to enjoy their solos as much as we did, it seemed. He returned to delivering his amazing vocals with the narrative 'Meanwhile, back in the jungle' and, in a mini tribute to 'the great Joe Turner,' charged from 'flip, flop and fly' to 'shake, rattle and roll' before moving on to the part about feeling his thigh, which brought an uncharacteristically enthusiastic reaction from the London audience who lapped up the whole sexy interlude.  When the Get On Up/Like a Sex Machine part finished, everyone was a bit breathless after the loaded performance. That song was played after Back on Top on Tuesday (tenth).

He then moved onto Precious Time, which was played earlier in the set on Tuesday, directly after Out of Time. I don't hate this song, as so many die-hard Van fans seem to, but it never seems to come to life in these live shows.  He delivered it with such energy during the Comic Relief television programme, despite reading some of the lyrics as he sang since it was new then, that it's astonishing that it never seems to light up these days.  It was still great fun, though, and the whole band, particularly Van and Johnny, were smiling.

Precious Time was followed by It's All in the Game on both nights. Robin delivered an absolutely gorgeous piano solo both nights, during which even Van seemed to halt to absorb the beauty of the piano notes, but it was marred on Wednesday by someone shouting out 'sweet!' from the audience, to Van's right. Normally, I brace myself for Van to get angry and cut the set short when this happens. Fortunately, he was in excellent humour and called out, 'Is that who I think it is?' and just smiled. The heckler actually stood up and started bowing down towards Van, arms extended before him, as if he were worshipping Van, which is fine in your own personal stalker-shrine, but too mad and disturbing in the Albert Hall. He shut up fairly quickly and, I hope, was eventually dragged away--though the ushers who played a Gestapo role the previous night and refused to let anyone take photographs appeared to be, on Wednesday, on strike, or at an Usher Party somewhere; they were nowhere to be found. When Van, after making a joke of the incident and handling it brilliantly, was able to return to the song, he included sound effects, knocking on the mike to make the door-knocking sound, and the usual comment about Diana Ross coming through Heathrow.

On Tuesday, after the line 'I promise I can change,' he smiled and said, 'Yeah, we've all heard that before!' and the audience laughed. It was a magnificent performance that had me humming It's All in the Game all the next day.

After that song on Tuesday, Van performed Back on Top and then In the Afternoon before reaching Naked in the Jungle (which came after It's All in the Game on Wednesday). He was growling out the part about lions and tigers, the soloists were amazing and the band was particularly enthusiastic.

On Wednesday, after Candy's solo, Van acted as if it suddenly occurred to him that one band member had been neglected, so he said 'Why don 't we give the drummer some!' and made that into a chant before Bobby Irwin launched into a brief solo on the drums. Van then repeated 'Do you want to get funk' (I hope that's what he said, anyway) and asked the audience to sing it with him. That song was followed with 'a tribute to James B' on both nights, and Chris Farlowe returned to the stage. (He's wonderful but when I see his haircut, I can't help but think of that creature called Spike in the Gremlins. Though it suits him.)

During It's a Man's Man's Man's World, Chris had to input with 'Man made them so happy, because man made the little Teletubbies, ' and Van camped things up later by feigning homophobia and jumping away from Chris when Chris answered Van's 'When the clock strikes two' with 'It's just me and you,' and so forth.

So on Tuesday, Chris changed the lyric somewhat after 'when the clock strikes three' to 'it won't be me!'  Richie was on flute for much of the song, and Candy's solo, particularly on Wednesday, was stupendous.  She hit the highest note I've heard from an alto sax in years, and held it for ages. Chris provided some wonderful growling (no lizard rolls or insect sounds, I'm afraid) whilst Van laughed upon seeing Chris' enthusiasm. Help Me followed the James Brown tribute on both nights, and Van provided another fascinating blues harp solo, exploring seemingly every note possible in a delicate, extended delivery.

During Richie's solo, Johnny and Van launched into shouting in unison 'Batman!' as if it were that theme. After a wonderful stand-up bass solo by David Hayes, Johnny launched into a gritty and awesome guitar solo, whilst someone in the audience shouted out again 'Go, Johnny, go!' on Wednesday.

After this merged into 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,' Van called out several times for a 'big hand for the band' and then left the stage, still playing the harmonica even after we could no longer see him. During this number, the Albert Hall's pipe organ behind the stage was lit up gloriously in purple and a rosy yellow, providing a somewhat breathtaking backdrop to the amazing music. By the time the song ended, the roadie (who only came on for water refills on Wednesday-no nervous scurrying and urgent mike-fiddling that night) had already been on to inform Johnny of the plan of attack, so the band barely paused for breath before launching into the next number.

On Tuesday, Chris 'Spike' Farlowe joined Van for 'It's All Over, Baby Blue,' which showcased Van's vocals at their loveliest and another marvellous piano solo from Robin. Chris left as Van launched into a chant of 'Do you dig?' The band then moved on to Philosopher's Stone, which was truly magnificent, and again, the lighting on the pipe organ in the background contributed in its small way to the band's awesome performance. Van seemed to push from his soul the most amazing mouth harp solo, bending his knees and swaying side to side as he played with great gusto.

This was followed on Tuesday by Have I Told You Lately, where Van playfully ordered Johnny to 'sing it to me' and Johnny jumped quickly to the mike and sang a verse in his lovely, smooth voice. Van beamed joyously as he conducted the band, and seemed to be enjoying the entire evening as much as we were. On Wednesday, a woman near me (a few rows back from the stage) walked boldly up to stand a few feet from Van, in front of the first row, and took a few shots with her camera, and he didn't even kick her, he was in such good spirits. That night, Johnny moved automatically into his vocal contribution of a few lines, when this song was performed as soon as Van returned to the stage. Van wandered off at the end after thanking the audience (does he usually do that? I couldn't remember it) and requesting a big hand for the band, whilst Johnny dutifully alternated with his usual 'a big hand for The Man,' and we gladly donated two hands to the task at hand (sorry).

Wednesday night, Van and Chris Farlowe returned to the stage to sing It's All Over Now, Baby Blue at this point, with Van laughing as he sang about army surplus, and off they went at the end of the number. Last, on both nights, came glorious Gloria. It was slightly more exciting on Tuesday, because Johnny simply didn't pause before hitting the most wonderful, recognisable introductory notes on his guitar as a signal for those who were already putting on their coats and heading for the exits to get back to their seats pronto before Van returned to belt out this wonderful classic. That night, when Van eventually got around to his elocution lessons, he stumbled on the word 'elocution.' Personally, I think that was a well thought out, long-planned ironic device designed to demonstrate to us simple concertgoers that everyone needs elocution lessons, so we should pay attention rather than leave the venue. Good teachers know how to employ these handy tips to keep the yoof of today interested in education.

For Gloria on Wednesday, Van returned with a special guest. I wonder, how many times have you heard Gloria and said to yourself, 'You know what this needs? Some maracas and a star-shaped tambourine! Then it would be something truly special.'

Well, last night would have been your dream come true as Phil May of the 60s R&B band Pretty Things stormed on with these instruments in his hands. That band were known at the time for their unkempt appearance, and Phil has not yet broken with tradition, looking a wee bit like Iggy Pop, but wearing a shirt. He sang quite a lot of the song instead of Van, and I have to admit that his contribution added something.

After they both left the stage on Wednesday, Johnny ended up playing his guitar Chuck Berry-style, but without the walk, and almost jamming with David Hayes on his bass guitar. Both nights, once the band left the stage, I turned to my friends, and we all just said, simultaneously, 'Wow!!'

I put down to my ignorance in technical matters of music my inability to be as critical of the acoustics as many others often are. I've actually heard the Albert Hall improve the delivery of some artists, and Elvis Costello was able to sing a cappella and without amplification at the end of his show there last year, as his voice was carried beautifully around the Hall. It depends on a lot of factors.

Whilst there appeared to be a slight and hardly noticeable sound problem that disturbed some people on Tuesday, I couldn't fault it on Wednesday. But perhaps, since I rarely can make out what Van is saying, it was just a case of me not noticing any difference! I am an old fogey who regularly frequents the Albert Hall, and sometimes I prefer, after an exhausting day at work, to just sit there and listen calmly, rather than have to stand for hours in a smoky club, crushed in a crowd against the stage (and worrying about my briefcase--most of us commute from too far away to return home before evenings out, nor can we check these things in the cloakroom as it might make us miss our last train home if we have to queue to retrieve it), as I have to at so many other venues. I think a lot of us Londoners are the same, and we're not so laid back as others; getting us to dance publicly would take a lot (though even I was surprised that everyone wasn't dancing to Gloria.)

Also, at the Albert Hall, they are incredibly strict about keeping to the terms of their licence and keeping the aisles free for fire safety reasons, so security will usually see that you are rapidly returned to your seat should you drift away from it. The only exception I've seen in the numerous concerts I've attended there was Jools Holland last Christmas, and I think the crowd was so strong and boisterous as they danced around the stage that no security guys could have coped any way. I can only say that the sound spoiled nothing for me, and fortunately, it didn't make Van grumpy either.

I would not say that I was disappointed by anything, though I had hoped to see Van finally play an instrument other than the harmonica, which I thought he might when promoting the Skiffle album, which didn't get a single nod during these performances. But I don't mind at all. I just had the most wonderful time at both gigs, as did the astonished and beaming friends I brought along with me. The man and his band put on an amazing show always, and this surpassed any I have seen. It was also terrific, as always, to see some absolutely lovely people who are on the Van discussion list--them's good people.

If anyone has hung in there and is still reading, simply dial 999 (or 911 in the USA) and the hospital is on alert to provide the necessary bed for you in recovery. Well done.

Copyright 2000 by TC. All rights reserved.
 

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