Last night I had the extreme pleasure of being in the presence of Sir Van Morrison. I got to see him perform at the Wang Theatre in Boston, MA, with my parents and my neighbor Sue.
Van’s daughter Shana Morrison opened the show with a delightful set of songs, culminating with a tremendous cover of “Purple Rain.” The tribute to Prince, who died less than a week ago, got the crowd hollering. After a brief intermission (and just enough time to visit some of my family in the crowd), Van the Man walked out on the stage and started playing saxophone. It was an abrupt and stirring entrance, and set the tone for a very special night.
Morrison opened with “Celtic Swing,” an instrumental track from his 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. He then went right into “Close Enough For Jazz” from 1993’s Too Long In Exile. Up next were “Magic Time,” “By His Grace,” and “In The Midnight,” (spanning from ’91 to ’05).
Van Morrison has for decades had a reputation of being reserved onstage, almost to the point of weirdness. He has been known to not a say a word to the crowd, and even turn his back to them, all stemming from stage fright. But on an unseasonably cold Tuesday in Boston, he was shockingly animated. This first came to light when he brought out English singer Chris Farlowe to duet on “Born to Sing,” a 2012 cut from the album of the same name. When Van introduced his “friend” who “happened to be in Boston,” it was very surprising to hear him interact so casually with the crowd. He seemed like he was actually having fun!
After he bid Farlowe farewell, he brought his daughter Shana back out to duet on “That Old Black Magic,” an old standard popularized by Glenn Miller in the 1940s. Van’s shocking good mood continued while singing with Shana, and he rode it right into his cover of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and his own 1987 ballad “Someone Like You.”
Up next were his 1978 hit “Wavelength,” 1997’s “Sometimes We Cry,” and 1990’s “Enlightenment.” He followed these up with one of the night’s showstoppers: a long, loose cover of the Big Joe Williams classic “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” For some sections of the song, Van made a hand/harmonica/microphone concoction that gave his voice a very cool talkbox-y sound. During one quiet moment, after a fan yelled “I love you, Van,” he shocked the crowd (again) by singing into his contraption: “You love me? You don’t even know me!”
The “Baby, Please Don’t Go” jam included snippets of “Parchman Farm,” “Don’t Start Crying Now,” “In The Afternoon,” “Ancient Highway,” “Burn Baby Burn,” and “Raincheck,” and treated the crowd to the incredible sight of Van scatting, lost deep into the music. At one point he also told the crowd that he didn’t write this song, giving fair warning before launching into some provocative lyrics about legs, thighs, and higher…
Morrison launched into his 1971 classic “Wild Night” next, leading a singalong of one of my favorite songs. Next was “Whenever God Shines His Light,” which he originally recorded as a duet with Cliff Richard in 1989, followed by a mashup of “It’s All in the Game” and “Burning Ground.”
The next song he played absolutely floored me: he did “Brown Eyed Girl.” Van has been notorious for his longstanding disdain for this song, after he went through publishing/royalty battles over it many years ago. It was a foregone conclusion that he does not play “Brown Eyed Girl.” But he’s also supposed to be grumpy and not look at the crowd, and tonight he was practically jovial, so the inclusion made sense. The sold-out crowd of 3,500 was ecstatic to hear such a rare gem. This was a truly special night.
Van kept the magic going with “Into the Mystic,” a cut from his seminal 1970 masterpiece Moondance. (The couple next to me sang along pretty loudly and terribly, but they must have really been feeling the music. And hey, they knew all the words!)
The Man brought Chris Farlowe back out for the closing number, a sprawling take on Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” Morrison left the stage toward the end of the song, letting his incredible band finish without him. And just like that, he departed back into the shadows…
Well, not yet! On our way out, my dad took us down a side street to get away from the crowd, and we wound up next to the stage door. Our timing was perfect, because moments later, Sir Van came out and got into a waiting car. The small group of people waiting applauded and the car sped away, only to stop at a red light a few feet later.
All in all, this was a truly fantabulous night, to borrow a word from the Man himself. Van Morrison and his band were outstanding. We are very lucky to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience. A wild night, indeed.