VAN MORRISON – ELECTRIC BALLROOM, LONDON 14.1.23
Tonight’s show is no normal Van Morrison gig, and it’s status as not being such has been widely publicised. For tonight’s show at the Electric Ballroom (184 Camden High Street, London, NW1 8QP) is one of a number of intimate low-key launch shows for Van’s new album, ‘Moving On Skiffle’, which is released on 10th March. This album (and indeed tonight’s show) finds Van taking the 1950s skiffle style and interpreting it with a degree of soul and sophistication that it rarely had the first time around. Tonight’s show very much represents Van returning to his musical roots.
This isn’t just a different kind of gig for Van. As a veteran of many gigs at this venue for over twenty years, I can confirm that this is the first time that I have seen the place configured as a seated venue. I’m not sure how many tickets were available for this sold out show, but it’s considerably less than the venue’s usual 1,500 capacity. The areas around the bars are very sparsely populated. Getting a drink here has never been so easy!!!
The band take the stage and begin playing ‘Freight Train’, an Elizabeth Cotton cover that I remember my mother singing when I was small. Van joins the band onstage a minute or two later, after being announced by his guitarist, precisely at 8pm, as advertised. Almost immediately Van demonstrates that he is so much more than just a singer, as he blows a mean harmonica solo. The band is beyond well drilled. Including Van there are eight of them. Van does introduce them later on, but his introductions are drowned out by applause. The only name I catch is Sticky Wicket on percussion. I somehow doubt that is the name his parents gave him. In addition to the band there is also a man who changes the music on Van’s music stand after most songs.
One of the road crew later tells me that the band don’t have set-lists. They have rehearsed a large number of songs, and Van decides after each song what is going to be played next. This is quite astonishing, and only goes to show how well rehearsed the band are. By and large there is barely breathing space between the songs, with Van keeping the tempo of the show decidedly brisk. At one point after Van has decided on the next song, there is much frenzied changing of instruments onstage. Talk about being kept on your toes! Van seems incredibly relaxed throughout. Well he would be: he’s calling the shots!
Van clearly has a band of virtuosos here. The guitarist also plays a lap steel on a stand. On ‘Come On In’ the rhythm guitarist plays a trumpet with a mute. This is before we consider what Van plays. As well as harp he plays electric guitar, acoustic guitar (on which he solos), and some really quite incredible saxophone as well. Van is very much the bandleader, and all eyes are on him. On ‘Take This Hammer’, which Van tells us is a Lead Belly cover, he conducts the band at the beginning of the song. However, when the various band members take their solos, Van shuns the spotlight. Well, until it’s time for him to take his harp solo!
Van’s voice remains a wonderful musical instrument. It’s rich and powerful, but can be tender too. Apart from having become slightly deeper than before, his voice has hardly changed over the decades, which is more than can be said for some of his contemporaries, one of whom I saw recently could now barely carry a tune in a bucket. Van’s vocal cords appear to have many miles left in them yet!
Tonight’s show has been wonderful. As far as I’m aware the set has been almost made up entirely of covers from sixty or seventy years ago, but they’ve all been played in very much a Van Morrison style. At the end of the show there are some people moaning that there has been no ‘Moondance’, ‘Cleaning Windows’,’ Into The Mystic’ or ‘Gloria’. Well more fool them! They should have done their homework. This has been an absolute masterclass in terms of both singing and playing, and quite frankly, if you can’t enjoy a show like this, then you don’t really enjoy music.
Van Morrison setlist:
‘Freight Train’ (Elizabeth Cotten cover)
‘Sail Away Ladies’ ([traditional] cover)
‘In The Evening (When The Sun Goes Down)’ (Leroy Carr cover)
‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys cover)
‘Mama Don’t Allow’ ([traditional] cover) (reworked as Gov Don’t Allow)
‘Take This Hammer’ ([traditional] cover)
‘I Wish Was an Apple On A Tree’
‘Careless Love’ ([traditional] cover)
‘Streamline Train’ (The Vipers Skiffle Group cover)
‘Come On In’
‘No Other Baby’
‘Greenback Dollar’ (The Traditional Fools cover)
‘I’m Movin’ On’ (Hank Snow cover)
‘Travellin’ Blues’ (Jimmie Rodgers cover)
‘Yonder Comes A Sucker’ (Jim Reeves cover)
‘The Gypsy Davy’ (Woody Guthrie cover)
‘Green Green Rocky Road’ ([traditional] cover)
‘Cotton Fields’ (Lead Belly cover)
‘Worried Man Blues’ ([traditional] cover)
‘This Loving Light Of Mine’