Short and sweet
Brief but beautiful: Inscrutable Van Morrison lets his music do the talking
Houston fans of the musical icon Van Morrison have waited decades for his return to the Bayou City. On Saturday night, Morrison rewarded their patience with a performance showcasing popular favorites, deep album cuts, and even a nod to The Houston Kid, Rodney Crowell. Some may grumble because Morrison sang only 16 songs and hardly acknowledged the audience, but for the singer's diehard fans, it was worth every minute he was onstage.
Anticipation was high for Morrison’s show at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Motivated by advance warning from promoters that there would be no opening act and that no alcohol would be sold after the performance had begun, fans began filing in to the outdoor arena early on the balmy Houston evening.
The first arrivers appeared mainly of a vintage that might have embraced Morrison’s early albums when they were initially released in the Sixties. But by the time the show began, the crowd had taken on much more of an all-ages feel – testament to the lasting appeal of Morrison’s work.
The Belfast Cowboy took the stage promptly at 8:02 p.m., attired nattily in a bespoke black suit with pocket square, fedora, and aviator sunglasses. Perhaps surprised by such punctuality, many fans were still streaming into their seats throughout the opening song, “Northern Muse (Solid Ground).” The seats were all filled and the hill was packed when Morrison followed with a crowd-pleasing “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
During a show in which stage patter was virtually nonexistent and the only visible décor appeared to be a prominent intertwined “VM” on his mic stand, the inscrutable Morrison let his music do the talking.
Songs from his early works included “Fair Play” (from the critically acclaimed 1974 album Veedon Fleece), “Help Me” (from the 1974 live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now) and the 1970 classic “Moondance.” He also drew from more recent albums, including two songs from the 2008 release Keep It Simple (the title track and “School of Hard Knocks”).
Morrison was in fine voice, especially on highlights such as “The Philosopher’s Stone” and “All Work and No Play.” The latter was followed by a pleasant but inexplicably aborted version of “Choppin’ Wood.” The lone song from Morrison’s masterpiece Astral Weeks (reprised on a 2009 live concert recording from the Hollywood Bowl) was “Ballerina,” performed with gusto toward the end of the set.
Minutes later, after a quick check with his band— “Does everybody know this song?” he asked — Morrison uttered essentially his only comment to the audience all evening. “This is a country song by Rodney Crowell,” he said, launching into a beautiful version of “Till I Gain Control Again,” which he covered on his 2006 album Pay the Devil. Adding this popular favorite from a native son was a nice touch for the Houston audience.
Backed by a crack six-piece ensemble, Morrison switched from piano to saxophone to guitar to harmonica with ease Saturday. But as always, his rich, expressive voice created the magic.
In his new book, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison, cultural critic Greil Marcus describes how Morrison uses words within his songs as opportunities for performance.
“The only time I pay attention to words is when I’m writing a song, and after that, I let the words loose,” Marcus quotes Morrison as saying in 1978. “I’m not singing words, I’m singing syllables.”
Marcus notes, “He’s trying to find the moment in a song when words and rhythm and melody and orchestration come together and you can set yourself free from the words.”
For 96 minutes, it all came together for Van the Man on Saturday night. Sure, it would have been nice to hear more songs. When Morrison and the band left the stage, the audience, clearly eager for the show to continue, stood and applauded long after house lights came up and the technical crew began to break down the set. Even the shuttle drivers seemed surprised things had wrapped up so quickly. “I’ve never seen a show here end so early! And no encore?” one driver was heard to remark as the crowds filed out.
Nope, no encore. But after all this time, it was a welcome return by one of the most significant figures in the history of popular music.