Artists: Van Morrison, Taj Mahal
Venue: The Hollywood Bowl
Date: October 2, 2021
It’s fairly well-known by now that the famed Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison is prickly (at best), so I went to Saturday’s show at the Hollywood Bowl with tempered expectations. There is no doubt the man is one of the greatest rock songwriters of all time, with an enormous catalogue of unbelievably untouchable songs – the main question was whether he would play any of them. Putting aside his recent controversial decisions to speak out against Covid restrictions and his “protest” songs released with Eric Clapton to complain about the conditions, Morrison is the type of artist who plays the songs he wants to play, audience be damned, and that for the most part stayed true during this recent show.
Sadly we arrived most of the way into blues singer Taj Mahal‘s set, only able to catch the last few songs. Even still, the man’s guitar playing was a thing of beauty, and his two-man band accompanied him with perfectly. They group moved from blues to soul to calypso styled songs with an envious ease.
Van Morrison‘s band took the stage first, getting into position to be ready to jump right into things when the man came out. And once he did, with his familiar hat and sunglasses on, he jumped right into “Latest Record Project”, from the new album of the same name, without a word to the audience. The next four tracks played also all came from his latest album (“Deadbeat Saturday Night”, “Double Agent”, “My Time After A While” and “Thank God for the Blues”). These songs were a perfect showcase for all the musical realms Van Morrison has explored in his career: rock, jazz, soul, bebop and the blues. Morrison’s band were a true expert crew, following their frontman’s lead with little showiness.
And of course, Morrison’s voice is as perfect as it ever was. The pure soulfulness of his tenor harnesses something ancient and enduring, capturing a feeling that few of his peers match. It’s one of the reason why so many of his songs have endured the last fifty years.
If only he had played some more of those long-enduring tracks. That’s not to say that there were no hits in the set. 1995’s “Days Like This” was a welcome bellowing sing-along, and “Moondance” and “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)” inspired dancing in the aisles. But unlike most of the artists Morrison came up with, he clearly feels no obligation to play the fan favorites he’s played hundreds of times before just to please his fans. The majority of songs from his set were tracks from his 90’s, 2000’s and 2010 albums. And even as someone who has continued to listen to most of the man’s recent output (anti-covid restriction songs excepted) and who has liked a handful of his newer songs, most of his song choices were still unfamiliar to myself, and I’m guessing most of his non-die hard fans.
Perhaps to avoid leaving his fans with too much disappointment, he did close out his main set with a slightly jazzier version of his iconic hit “Into the Mystic”, which still had the power to carry listeners into another world, followed by an encore of the early rock hit from his Them days, “Gloria”. This ender was elongated into a full-on jam session for the band, which continued long after Van the man himself had left the stage for the good. It gave his talented players a chance to shine out of his spotlight, but left myself and many an audience member asking “What, no “Brown Eyed Girl””?
Much like fellow mercurial artist Bob Dylan, with Van Morrison, what you get is what you get, so appreciate it for what it is. Tight, non-flashy musicianship, a perfect voice, and songs that run the gamut of music’s stylistic history…which for the most part you may not know well enough to sing along to.
If you would like to become more familiar with the man’s most recent work, you can start listening here: