mon 27/05/2024

Van Morrison, Sligo Live | reviews, news & interviews

Van Morrison, Sligo Live

Van Morrison, Sligo Live

Van the Man goes deep into the mystic on a night where the emphasis falls on the words

The poetic champion goes for broke

Sligo Live is Europe’s most westerly music festival, and its mix of indie and traditional is unique. For four nights and days, cracking traditional players fill the town’s many excellent pubs - Kennedy’s, Foley’s, the Snug, Mchugh’s and Hardagan’s - with the headliners: Wallace Bird, Lau, accordion queen Sharon Shannon, Joan Armatrading.

But one name stood out on the marquee, that of Van Morrison, coming to Sligo with the promise of a very different kind of show – “Lyrics and Poetry: Emphasis on Words”, with readings of his own work and that of Yeats.

As it was, any hopes the audience filing into Knocknamara Arena had of Van forgoing singing for recitation were to be disappointed. The show, however, was another matter. The venue is named after the famous landmark south of Sligo, Hill of the Moon, topped by the 5,000-year-old cairn that is Queen Maeve’s Tomb. Arena may be too large a word; it’s actually the gymnasium of the town’s Technological Institute, but invested with good sound design and a great PA.

He was still singing as he left the stage – even saying a thank you

Before Van’s set, his daughter Shana opened with some big-lunged, big-hearted torch song rhythm and blues. Then she stepped back from the spotlight to the backing singer’s mic, and out strode Dad blowing his horn, his mouth and neck billowing at the mouthpiece, eyes hidden behind whisky-tinted glasses and sporting a boxy, dark brown enforcer’s suit and matching titfer. He’s got stage presence, for sure. The word is intimidation as well as inspiration. One wrong note, one stupid move – from audience or band – and you get the distinct impression he’d be off without a backward glance.

Morrison is an artist capable of poetry, tenderness, beauty and lyricism, but renowned as much for his ill humour and difficult temperament. It’s as if he carries an electric charge of unstoppable rage; maybe it’s that dichotomy of humours that makes him capable of greatness. And his set at Sligo transpired to be a truly great one.

A big hand, first, to his eight-piece band – two brass players handling sax, tuba, trombone; pianist and band leader Paul Moran, also handy on the trumpet; a drummer and percussionist, a bassist switching between double and electric, and dexterous guitarist Dave Keary. Both he and Moran seemed to get the bulk of unexpected, in-the-moment onstage commands – Van conducts his band as if wired to a lightning conductor in a thunderstorm, channelling passion and rage in an impulsive display of demonstrative jabs, slashes, pokes and finger-pointing around the stage as he pulls in the next soloist. “Try electric. Electric”, he barks at the guitarist at one point, in mid-solo. He does the same with keyboardist Moran.

So there’s that edge-of-the-seat thrill of improvising on the spot, allied to a precision-drilled band that could turn on a dime and play the songs backwards if required to. They provide a consummate, largely acoustic surround for Van’s vocals, and Van was in the mood to play, opening out rather than closing down and turning sour, adding silvery, punctuated sax lines throughout and taking on guitar duties for a beautiful reading of “Tir Na Nog”, from 1986 album, No Guru No Method No Teacher. Another five songs from that album – “A Town Called Paradise”, “Foreign Window”, “Oh The Warm Feeling”, “Got to Go Back”, and the half-sung, half-spoken “In The Garden” – also studded the set, the performances matching and even bettering the 27-year-old recordings.

Just two songs featured from his new Blue Note album No Plan B: Born to Sing – the title track, and the syncopated rhythms of “Open the Door to Your Heart”. “Coney Island”, a beautiful meditation on the singer’s Northern Irish childhood, gets one of the night’s biggest cheers, and it’s the closest he comes to the poetry promised in the program.

He and daughter Shana duet on “Sometimes We Cry”, and three career classics – “Into the Mystic”, a spot-on “Moondance” (it was a full moon), and “Crazy Love” lead to a magnificently extended “The Days Before Rock 'n' Roll”. Poet Paul Durcan wasn’t on hand to share vocals, but Van has it covered, culminating in ecstatic vocal abstractions moving through and over and beyond the words; he was still singing as he left the stage – even saying a thank you – while his band vamped on the riff long enough for the singer to be out of the building, out of the car park and back on the road before the audience – up on its feet from his departure onwards – admitted to themselves there would be no encore. The band starts to pack away their instruments. Job done, and done spectacularly well.

Van was in the mood to play, opening out rather than closing down and turning sour


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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"Europe's most westerly music festival"? That sounds unlikely to me.

That's a euphonium isn't it? - not a tuba.

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