(The story of how I got tickets to this show can be found by scrolling down to Part 1.)
Van Morrison. On the stage in an intimate setting. Just 200 people. I had high expectations – and they were surpassed.
The Rancho Nicasio has been described – not inaccurately – as a “roadhouse.” The show/rehearsal was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. I have no idea why. Security was tight, but relaxed. I arrived and gave the man at the door my name. He let me into the bar, where I gave my name again and received my receipt and wristband.
The bar was full. Full of people exactly my age. Seriously, I think everyone in the room was 48. There might have been one or two who were 51, but that’s pretty much the range. Although completely lacking in diversity, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the room. I also felt a sense of gratitude. I’m sure somewhere there were some jaded guests of the record company feeling bored, but most people I overheard or spoke to were almost giddy over what was to come, and felt blessed to be a part of the day.
I’ve heard Van play live only once before, at the Masonic Auditorium, which seats more than 3,000. This is the way to listen to him. In this small venue, I had a completely different experience of the power of his music in general -- and of his voice in particular. His singing is so elemental. Van can find the cry of humanity in every song he sings. Even when it’s a bouncy pop hit like his “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Van’s voice carries with it a primal longing, calling to mind a time when our species was first becoming self-aware, and we cried out in the attempt to communicate this giant leap we were making into consciousness. Or, he just listened to a lot of blues growing up. (Personally, I think it’s both.)
The band he brought with him was stellar. There was a horn player, an unassuming, somewhat doughy guy, who one minute could make his clarinet whistle a gentle little tune – and in the next coax huge, clear sounds out of his alto sax. (Speaking of sax, Van plays some himself – and he’s pretty damn good on that horn.) The two trumpeters killed me, and the guy on the old organ in the corner (I think a Hammond B3) tore it up every time Van went to him. The keyboard player was the only guy who couldn’t keep up. It was kind of sad – virtually every other musician who took a solo (including the bass player) got polite to raucous applause (raucous for Mr. Pillsbury on his reeds) – and the keyboardist got bupkus.
I was worried that since the new record is country and western (Van stressed country AND western when he began that section of the show), that those tunes might dominate the show. But they comprised only about 40% of the set. I loved them all. I’m ready to buy the record. His country and western players were fantastic (a male fiddler and a female pedal steel player) and his backup trio, the Crawford Bell Singers added a lovely sweet tone that balanced nicely with Van’s guttural soulfulness.
The show included two major hits, and he did great versions of both. “Moondance” especially was lovely. I love the song, but it’s always been a bit mainstream. Today’s show reminded why it became mainstream – because it’s a great song. People heard it, liked it, wanted to hear it again. The trumpeter tossed in a little reference to Miles Davis’s “Freddie Freeloader,” which I liked. In fact, he turned the song into a chance for most of the band to solo, which helped to reinvent one of Van’s classics. The other hit, “Brown-Eyed Girl” was described by Van as “the money song.” After he played it, he made some reference to “28 years of money” that I couldn’t quite understand.
40% the new record and 10% hits left Van time to explore his catalogue – and he came up with some of my favorites: “Healing Game,” “Did Ya Get Healed” (is a theme developing here?), “In the Midnight” (guess not) and “Tore Down a la Rimbaud.” The latter he dropped the tempo back a bit, giving the tune a more melancholy flavor.
He took the exact opposite tack with “Have I Told You Lately,” the closest Van comes to Hallmark sentiment. (Usually he’s much more oblique and poetic.) For that reason, it’s never been one of my favorites; but this time they picked up the tempo and turned it into (I think) a shuffle.
It was a fantastic experience.
Following is the set list. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all song titles. If I don’t know almost for certain that I have the name right, I’ll put a question mark next to it.
Did Ya Get Healed
The Magic Time
Have I Told You Lately
Fame (?) (Which had a great line: “There ain’t nothin’ fair about fame.”)
Tore Down a la Rimbaud
Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
There Stands the Glass
Big Blue Diamonds
Things Have Gone To Pieces
In the Midnight
Pay the Devil
This Has Got To Stop
More and More
Your Cheatin’ Heart
All Work and No Play (?)
In the Celtic New Year
(He also played "Don’t You Make Me High," I think right around "Big Blue Diamonds," but I'm not sure.)