The local paper reports that Sir Van Morrison said ‘Thank You’ before leaving the stage on this pleasantly warm evening in Cologne. The only words I can recall from Ireland’s celebrated and knighted (2016) musical son all evening were song names, barked more for the band to follow than for listeners to hear. Ultimately though, with such a legend, it’s the music that should do the talking; and it did so perfectly in front of a sold out Roncalliplatz audience.
There’s something about an OBE that makes it’s owner seem somehow a part of the establishment. Except when your name is Van Morrison that is. Despite now being a ‘Sir’, he seems as irascibly rebellious as ever. Immaculately turned out in pinstripes and fedora, Morrison fires his music at you as if on a record, and with almost the same brief pause. Not even a ‘Good evening’, or ‘What a beautiful Cathedral’ or ‘How are you?’ comes from the Man’s lips. He walks onstage and the band launch into ‘Hold it right there’. Short pause as Van stoops to pick up his saxophone and they launch into ‘I Can Tell’. So it goes…
The set remains downbeat initially- religious even, with ‘How Far from God‘ and ‘All Saints Day’. The original of 1970’s ‘Moondance’ had a nervous edge about it. Here in Cologne, with a hand-picked band that leans heavily to Jazz, it’s a lush affair. Morrison’s voice is deeper than it was and for such songs even better. One of the few other Superstars to play on a Roncalliplatz stage was Frank Sinatra. He would have loved singing that one. A fairly recent favourite of mine (2005) ‘Magic Time’ was good to hear live, but I was relieved that the set got some additional swing at last with ‘Have I Told You Lately’ and here a deserved mention for the excellent additional vocals of Dana Masters.
The nearest we got to any sign of whether the Man was enjoying his evening behind the trademark dark glasses was a brief smile during the umteenth refrain on ‘Broken Record’ – a brief bit of pop with chime bells and bass solo. The band was, of course, excellent, and note-perfect(would you be in a Van Morrison band otherwise?) and for my money shone best on ‘New Symphony Sid’, which was pure swing jazz and pure magic. Listening to Van Morrison records you don’t get to see who plays what, so I was both extremely surprised and impressed by Van’s saxophone playing – something he returned to regularly throughout the set.
There was no doubt now that Sir Van was in the swing as much as the music was. ‘Precious Time’ he calls out and I momentarily think he’s saying something deep about the concert this evening or even about the frailty of our life on Earth. It turns out to be either a reminder or an instruction to the band for the next song to be that very one. Is the set really being put together as the show evolves? If so, the band handle the instruction perfectly of course as they handle the next two numbers called abruptly out ‘Wild Night’ and the effervescent ‘Jackie Wilson Said’. The latter giving everyone in a seated audience the chance to at least wiggle their toes and clap along.
It seemed a shame to just look at the stage when it was in such a dramatic Cathedral-side setting. With all that toe wiggling reminding me I had legs, I decided to take a walk from my seat and hear/see the show from other angles. A good time to do so. The sky was reddening and the stage lights making themselves known in the fading light. A large number of the seats on the Forum side of the stage were empty – their occupants preferring to stretch their legs and enjoy the show from the back of the showground. Here it was possible to really enjoy the entire spectacle of the show. Onstage the evening closed with some classic music. Veering from the Sinatraesque ‘The Party’s Over’, into John Lee Hooker territory with ‘Think twice before you go’ and, inevitably, into ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ with a Caribbean flair about it and, again, excellent sax playing from Mr Morrison.
Straight Blues has not been a key feature of the evening – it has though made a few brief appearances. A medley comprising ‘Baby please don’t Go/Don’t start/Mojo Working’ got an early airing and the Hooker tune already mentioned. NIce then after an evening of numerous lush semi-orchestral arrangements to hear Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’not just get an airing, but a fresh coat of paint with Van Morrison eschewing the expected Blues-harp in favour of a scat-style rendition.
Finally, with the sun down, the stage lights compete with the Cathedral walls for spectacle. Everyone at the back is dancing merrily to Gloria – for the first ten minutes at least. Sir Van Morrison has left the stage and the band have taken over. It’s that time when the band get to show what they can do, and the singer can take a break. Except that this part of most shows happens around two-thirds into the show. This is the final number. After the guitar solo, the bass solo, and the drum solo, there are still a few people hoping Van the Man will return to the stage. Maybe even say ‘Goodnight’. The real fans are already on their way to the exits. They know their hero all too well. I suspect that Patti Smith and Joan Baez will have more to say about the location, the show and the audience on their concerts over the coming days. Would we have him any other way? Sir Van is still the Man, and like his 2012 release proclaims he’s ‘Born to sing – no plan B’.