Van Morrison review, Royal Albert Hall: When it’s good, it’s great – when it’s bad, it’s still Van Morrison

There’s a quiet irony in Van Morrison’s entrance into the Royal Albert Hall, as the band plays him for a prosaic cover of “You Are My Sunshine.” His face is hidden behind dark sunglasses and a brimmed hat, and his mouth is fixed in an almost unwavering frown. He seems allergic to the very idea of ​​sunshine.

But that’s the whimsical appeal of Morrison, perhaps the biggest and most confusing miser in the history of popular music. After briefly rebranding as an anti-lockdown campaigner during the height of Covid, the 78-year-old is back touring with his latest album, Emphasize the positivea record of covers of classic country and rock ‘n’ roll songs.

After “Sunshine” he launches with considerably more enthusiasm into a cover of the Everly brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved”, which playfully compensates for a rather plodding arrangement – ​​albeit with a few guitar licks that fleetingly evoke Linda Ronstadt’s peerless Version from 1974. The band (seven men and two female backing singers) are all excellent, and come to life on the more uptempo songs, such as the cheerful “I Wish I Was An Apple on a Tree”.

In all his splendor, Morrison was able to grab a cover by the neck and really put his own spin on it – think back to the mid-1970s when, freshly divorced, he recorded Sam Cooke’s ineffable love song “Bring it On Home To Me ” slowed down to a bitter, growling cry. Tonight, however, many of the covers have been picked Emphasize the positive are little more than boring reinterpretations of all-too-familiar oldies. Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ has been completely butchered, with the original’s off-kilter melancholy replaced by a too-fast, hanging bounce.

And yet, on a completely unpredictable, song-by-song basis, Morrison shows that he can still turn it on whenever he wants. A rich and purposeful restyling of the traditional folk song ‘Green Rocky Road’ is enhanced by Morrison on guitar. (Throughout the evening, he also supplements his still-solid vocals with some functional noodling on the saxophone and harmonica.) A barnstorming guest appearance from Chris Farlowe on “Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket” finds Morrison flashing a rare grin.

As you would expect from a Van Morrison performance at the Royal Albert Hall, the audience is getting older. There is some grumbling about the lack of original songs – big names like “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Moondance” do not appear – but the reception is generally enthusiastic and mildly impressed. (Anyone who expects Morrison to release a crowd-pleaser set in 2024 is honestly living in some sort of fantasy world.)

For those close enough to the stage to see it, it’s fun to watch Morrison make demanding gestures to his band — especially the drummer, to whom the singer’s old-fashioned gestures seem less like showmanship and more on public discipline.

Van Morrison performing on stage at Music For The Marsden 2020 at the O2 Arena in London in March 2020
Van Morrison performing on stage at Music For The Marsden 2020 at the O2 Arena in London in March 2020 (Getty)

When Morrison begins introducing his original material, perhaps two-thirds of the way through the set, there is a palpable change in energy. “Crazy Jane on God,” a somewhat deep cut from Morrison’s back catalog, is perhaps the standout song of the evening – big and purposeful. The unusually optimistic “Days Like This” is followed by the spirited “Wild Night,” here performed with a section of spare vocal chatter that goes on a few dozen bars too long.

The encore-less set concludes with a final, drawn-out rendition of “Gloria” – perhaps Morrison’s best-known song, first recorded by his early band Them when he was a teenager. As is now common at Morrison performances, the man himself shuffles off halfway through the song, leaving his band to wrap things up with a succession of virtuoso solos, while he presumably gets into a taxi. “I want it every night / I want to scream it every day,” Morrison sings. The words don’t seem true right now – but after six decades of GLORIA, who can blame him?