(Photos By Ariel Soto | Words by Ross Drake)
LastNight: Van Morrison at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium
Better than: A trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though nearly as expensive
Download: Morrison’s vigorous performance of “Playhouse” at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for a glimpse of The Man in his vintage prime
You know the drill.
A living legend arrives in town, graces the stage just long enough to eke out a few of his greatest hits and disappears into the night, cash in hand. In the case of someone like Bob Dylan, whose defiant snarl has been reduced to an impotent whine over the years, there will always be a chorus of apologists ready to celebrate every second of the experience, however tuneless or unintelligible. If you’re witnessing a traveling circus act like Springsteen or the Rolling Stones, the praise might even be justified by some acrobatic vigor or bona fide showmanship.
Van Morrison, whose customary stage attire – a flashless gray suit and fedora – is, by now, as familiar as the hallmarks of his legendary catalogue, sauntered onto the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium stage last night and delivered what most fans should know to expect – a workmanlike set featuring a handful of greatest hits (“Moondance,” “Bright Side of the Road”) and blues standards (Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me”) delivered faithfully but with a minimum of gusto. It was enough to send one middle-aged fan into spasmodic fits, his head bobbing and arms waving frantically in a display of emotion that Morrison, ever the stoic bard, would surely frown upon.
Not that Morrison was completely unresponsive. Known as much for his thunderous wail as his distaste for stage banter, he addressed the crowd twice – once to express his annoyance with the discordant feedback that cut short his opener, and a second time to address an insolent fan. (“Who the fuck let you in here?” he barked, to raucous applause.) Mostly, though, Van the Man let his 10-piece ensemble do the heavy lifting, reeling off a couple verses before retreating into the shadows, allowing each of his supporting players ample opportunity to show off their solo skills.
Like Dylan, whose rotating cast of backup bands during the past two decades has made each tour something of a crapshoot, Morrison is at his fiery best when inspired by the musicians around him. His current group is formidable – organist John Allair’s nimble fingerwork and pedal steel guitarist Sarah Jory’s rollicking solos were particularly gratifying – but incapable, at least on this evening, of elevating their boss to peak form. They are polished and impeccably well-rehearsed, a perfect fit for an upscale Vegas showroom if not for Morrison’s too-soulful-for-Sin City growl, which remains gloriously intact.
Yes, the voice was there, and it evoked memories of its owner’s early-’70s heyday during rousing renditions of “Playhouse” (from 2006’s country-tinged Pay the Devil) and “Help Me,” which an unusually animated Morrison seemed to relish more than his own golden oldies. (Then again, how many times could you sing “Brown-Eyed Girl” before wanting to drown yourself in Irish whiskey?) Elsewhere, the Man seemed more interested in toying deftly with his alto sax – a treat, to be sure, though slightly disappointing when he passed off vocal duties to a trio of background singers during a ho-hum version of “Moondance.”
By the time Morrison exited stage left after 95 solid if unexceptional minutes – leaving his band to finish an otherwise energetic take on “Gloria” – the crowd was on its feet, and that same middle-aged fan was flailing spastically in the aisles, grinning from ear to ear without even the slightest hint of irony. Too bad Van didn’t earn it.
Morrison will be playing the Nob Hill Auditorum again tonight. Tickets range from $100 to $200. His daughter Shana, who resides in Mill Valley and often accompanies her father for his Northern California dates, opens.
A Second Opinion
By David Goldenberg, creator of Gelf Magazine
Thursday, Dec. 27th.
Nob Hill Masonic Center
As someone who has secretly harbored the thought that the cheese-dick anthem "Moondance" is actually one of the best songs of all time, I am probably more prepared than most to give Van Morrison the benefit of the doubt as he enters his smooth jazz years.
So as I walked into the Nob Hill Masonic Center, I was unsurprised that my fellow concert goers seemed dressed more for the opera than a rock show. I was unsurprised when the lady behind me asked me to remove my hat. And I was even unsurprised when Van Morrison came onstage acting more like the grumpy old man he has become than the audacious performer he used to be.
But I was not ready for him to leave the responsibility for completing his songs to his backup singers. (Indeed, there was an egregious harmonization of Sha la la la la la la la la la la te das.) I was unprepared for the fact that he wouldn't be able to get any of his die-hard fans out of their seats for more than ten seconds at a time. I was unprepared for the show to end barely an hour after it started. And I was not ready for him to wander around aimlessly during an insipid MIDI-esque version of "Moondance" while a faceless announcer introduced individual members of the band.
Van Morrison still has the distinctive, beautiful voice that made him great to begin with (something that most rock stars of his generation have lost). And he can still play the harmonica something fierce. But there is no longer any lingering evidence of the scamp who stole the show with his "Caravan" cameo in The Last Waltz. Where there was once inspired genius, there is now only soul-sucking elevator music.