EUROPA HOTEL, BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
MARCH 16, 2013
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Europa Hotel. Tonight, this is the best place in the world to be.”
Truer words were never spoken. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I discovered Van Morrison would be playing a) during my trip to Ireland, b) on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, c) in his hometown of Belfast, d) in a tiny 250-seat venue and e) that I was able to get a ticket. Granted, it was £140, but seriously, was there ever a question?
It was an eclectic crowd, pretty much the norm for a Van show. Some were dressed to the nines to honor the occasion, some looked to have paid nine dollars for their duds. My hopes, though, were that they were all actual fans who would appreciate the event properly, not just there to be part of something. I guessed that I might be the only single at my table, but my seatmate was Alan, who had flown over from Denmark for his first Van concert, a definite fan. I thought perhaps I’d traveled the furthest, from Northern California, but apparently there was someone there from Australia. More fans, a good sign.
Shana Morrison was there to help out pop and she “opened” the show with an abridged version of the band, doing three quick numbers, including “And It Stoned Me” and a kickass “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” With barely a break, the rest of the band was onstage and broke into the intro for “Only A Dream.” With a simple “Van Morrison” from one of the band, the man appeared—and magic happened.
Morrison has been doing these smaller gigs for a year or so now, in and around Ireland and the UK, and they’re apparently suiting him quite well. He says he’s performing his work “as it was meant to be heard,” and tonight seemed quite comfortable and at ease with both the band and the audience. He interacted with band members, rather than just calling the tunes and pointing for solos. He introduced songs and spoke to the audience, at one point even going on a bit of a rant about how some “grumpy” people (including the Queen) manage to get away with being grumpy. In short, tonight we got the happy Van. Big bonus!
The music was nonstop. As a member of Van’s band, you’ve got to be paying attention at all times. He doesn’t work from a setlist, and when he calls the tune and counts it off, you’ve got to be ready to go—lest you get one of those “looks.”
The second tune out of the gate was “Makin’ Whopee,” with Shana adding some nice interaction to a very jazzy version of the song. He went to the new album, Born To Sing—No Plan B, for “Open The Door To Your Heart,” and a bit later for “Goin’ Down To Monte Carlo.” He introduced “Monte Carlo” by saying, “This is off the new CD. It’s not being promoted at the minute, so who cares?” Ah, Van, still at odds with the music industry…
There were classics, to be sure. After a brief discussion with the keyboard player, he introduced “Got To Go Back” by saying, “If this doesn’t work, it’s your fault!” The whole band had a part in a gorgeous rendition of “Standing In The Garden,” and the beginnings of “Beautiful Vision” got a gasp and a whoop from the audience.
There were also the covers that Morrison makes his own. His country side came out with the Don Gibson classic “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” And his introduction of, “We’re getting too serious here, I’ve gotta get back to the Las Vegas set,” preceded “That Old Black Magic.” (Glenn Miller, eat your heart out.)
There were two high points in the show for me. The first came five songs in, when Morrison did an incredible rework of “Wavelength,” dropping the speed of the original a bit, twisting it into a jazzy shuffle and mesmerizing the crowd. He followed that with “Sometimes We Cry,” from 1997’s The Healing Game. Brian Kennedy and Georgie Fame, a couple of Morrison cohorts, did some of the vocal work on the original, but Van and Shana have been performing it live together recently. I had heard about it, but never heard it. Father and daughter were never better together.
The other high point ended the show. The evening was seasoned mostly with a jazz feel, but as a lover of Morrison’s blues side, I was thrilled to hear the intro guitar licks of “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Van gave credit to Big Joe Williams, who penned the song back in the 30’s, and then tore through alternating harmonica licks and vocals with a vengeance. And with a nod to Sonny Boy Williamson, he said, “We’re gonna stay with the blues here,” and went directly into a 10-minute version of his live-show staple, “Help Me.”
Morrison left the stage, which usually signals the end of the show, but the unmistakable three-chord intro of “Gloria” brought the man back out for one more. As much as I’ve disliked the version of “Gloria” that I’ve heard at other Van shows, this one was special. Everybody got up from their tables and made their way to the front of the room, thereby decreasing the size of an already small space. It was like seeing the band at the corner pub. The fans loved it, the band members loved it, and I think I even saw Van himself smile a bit. No really—I think I did.
We got the standard 90-100 minute show length, but under these circumstances, at this venue, on this night, it seemed much, much longer.