You have to wonder. In his teens as he walked down Cyprus Avenue and found it a place where, a few streets away from home, he could find transcendence, did Van Morrison ever imagine that he would one day play a concert on a stage looking up that entire stretch of avenue? It must have been an amazing way to spend your 70th birthday. It was certainly amazing for those of us privileged enough to walk down the avenue to see a moment of rock history.
East Belfast was buzzing. An area of Belfast not always on the bright side of the road was holding its head high and celebrating one of its most gifted citizens. Cyprus Avenue was a unique concert venue and as we walked down to our seats we looked into a garden and saw our friends David and Gillian who invited us in for drinks and nibbles. They had a gazebo up and a post gig barbecue sorted. Other friends were dragged off the street. This was a street party with an iconic rock star playing the soundtrack.
The atmosphere built and built and then exactly on three o’clock, just as Van hit the stage, the rain hit the street and didn’t take time to rain. It was making a heavier beat than the drummer on the opening Celtic Swing. Yet, not a soul was annoyed. The gardens of Cyprus Avenue were being made wet with rain but the crowd was so excited at the spectacle that they were transfixed to the stage and ignoring the weather.
For days I had been wondering what Sir Van would do? How would he approach such a moment in his own life and in his music making career? What songs would he sing? Would we get Astral Weeks in its entirety considering he had already done that at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008? Would he do Cyprus Avenue? Or would be be predictably unpredictable Van and ignore the song that caused this all to happen.
Well, we got neither of those possibilities but I believe we did get a narrative of a life threaded through a fascinating set of songs. I mean he re-released 33 albums on iTunes a few days before the concert so everybody was going to be disappointed by what wasn’t played. If we concentrated on what was in the set then it was as articulate as this chronically introverted genius might be about a life lived in a vortex of celebrity that he hates with a vengeance and yet a life that his genius hurled him almost violently into because of the era that he happened to be doing his art in.
Whatever Happened To PJ Proby sung as a duet with the actual PJ Proby gives some commentary on 60s pop. It is a conversational song filled with humour that Van is not renowned for but it says it is he sees it “There's nothing to relate to anymore/Unless you want to be mediocre/Ain’t nothing new under the sun/And the moon and the stars now chum.” When he asked where PJ Proby was and PJ answered back it was sweet comedy and not the last time we would laugh!
Born To Sing comes next this time with another Duets guest Chris Farlow and soon after that Mystic From The East draws local cheers. In between the last two he does a riff driven cover of Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child that he dedicates to his fellow Orangefield Secondary School alumni Brian Kennan who has spoken about the importance of that song in the time he was kidnapped in the late 80s. It’s sense of exile and struggle sits well alongside Mystic Form The East.
If there was a ‘hits’ section it came next. A very reworked Brown Eyed Girl acknowledged its place in Van’s career if ejecting the pop sheen that he so detested. Again one couldn’t help sense we were sitting in the streets where the song was set. Days Like This is 90s hit that became the anthem for the peace process in his homeland. The line ‘my mama told me there be days like this’ was alive with poignancy just a few hundred yards away from where Violet Morrison birthed the man at the centre of this happening.
The set then shifted back to the early days of Them. The blues standard Baby Please Don’t Go blends into Mose Allison’s Parchment Farm and then again into the very first Them recording and single, Slim Harpo’s Don’t Start Crying Now. Here was the section where we were given the ambition of the young Van who walked these streets. He only wanted to play the blues. He wasn’t up for and couldn’t have seen coming the fame or face in the spotlight and all those painful interviews. For me one of the standouts of today was his guitar playing. Here he stood as a bluesman doing what he loved. The bang bang drum smacks on Parchment Farm where he said he only shot his wife… once… twice… boom boom boom… were followed by ‘that’s the comedy section over.’ Our East Belfast mystic was enjoying himself, it seemed!
And so into the religious… In the weekend Irish Times Van had said he wouldn’t touch religion with a ten foot pole and we got Enlightenment with “I don’t know what it means”. My take is that the religious in Van’s first two decades was from the influence of his dad’s Gospel records and the signs outside Belfast churches. From 79 to the mid 90s it is a more intentional study of comparative religion. From then on it seems something he has had no more use for.
Yet, still the spiritual creeps through. His most blatant Christian statement Whenever God Shines His Light is right here in his big 70th year reflection and with Dana Masters’ amazing Gospel voice it sounds a whole lot better and more authentic than the Cliff Richard hit version.
And then… then… something happened… Van Morrison is always brilliant and professionally proficient but there are moments when he soars, when something inside him lifts the spirit into a zone that few musicians ever reach. When The Healing Has Begun had Van on the avenue and he suddenly got all lit up inside. Something deep seemed to click and he was ad libbing and playing his soul out.
After the blues of Things I Used To Do, Ballerina seemed to go even deeper and higher. This was his nod to Astral Weeks and the song during which he eventually mentioned Cypress Avenue. Again for anyone with ears to hear Van was reflecting on and sharing his life. Ballerina became a memory of his first trips to New York city and the difference between a 22 story block and where we are right now… “it’s a long way from Cyprus Avenue” he added. Make no mistake, as he threw his head back and let his voice sail up among the avenue of trees this was one of those spine tingling Morrison moments where you were “in another time… in another place…”
The encore of In The Garden didn’t stop there and again we were in a meditative, spiritual place where an artist was eking out very fibre of his muse and seemed to be really enjoying his 70th Birthday. One thing is for sure the crowd were. I have never been so sorry that a concert was over. I could have sat all night long. Of course some stayed on for the 6 0’clock concert and got a whole other show but I had to get back to ordinary time in, an ordinary land.