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Van Morrison - Expo Ireland, Kensington Olympia, London - 11 September 1999

I've just arrived home from seeing Van perform at Expo Ireland in Olympia, London, and I thought I'd give you my (vague) impressions of the whole event.

It was only the second time I've seen Van live, the first having been at the London Fleadh, and I have the memory of a goldfish. So for comparisons to a wealth of other shows, names of band members and a precise set list, you will have to look elsewhere to someone more reliable.  

Since I am also going on Sunday to see Brian Kennedy, I was anxious to avoid being stuck in a conference centre all weekend, so I didn't arrive at Olympia until 3pm on the Saturday, which was rumoured to be the latest time entry was allowed (I believe the doors opened at about 9am).

Sadly (sorry, sarcasm is seeping in), this meant missing the performance of B*Witched, who might be wonderful but are not my scene.  I did get see them, however, when they returned to the large stage that dominated Expo in order to apologise to the audience for the technical problems they had had during their set.  Rather than performing something at that time, they simply told the audience where and when (ie another day) they would next be performing their single.  Apparently they had only performed a few songs when the sound went off completely. 

Long before there was any sign of Van, various bands (with seemingly a lot of rappers, for some reason) appeared on the stage throughout the afternoon, all plagued by absolutely appalling sound quality.  This was followed by a truly cacophonous recorded accompaniment to a fashion show.  We were all terrified that Van was going to get wind of the sound problems and not bother to come on, or at least spend most of the time concentrating on his frustration and getting absolutely livid, as he appeared to do at Fleadh.  At least the technicians had the sense to begin testing the equipment about an hour before Van came on.

At 7:30pm, the band, with guitarist Johnny Scott taking the role of MC and principal backing singer in place of Brian Kennedy, came on and played an instrumental number (Connswater) long before Van joined them. (People always ask what he was wearing, but being a philistine, as far as I could tell, it was the usual black suit, black hat and black shades). Like I said, I cannot be depended upon for an accurate set-list, but I'm certain that I heard In the Afternoon, Back on Top, Philosopher's Stone, Georgia on My Mind, Precious Time, Dylan's Just Like A Woman, Help Me, and the Healing Game.  I'm sure there were others.... [In fact, what I left out was:  after Connswater, Johnny Scott growled out a wonderful Ain't That Lovin' You Baby?; then with In the Afternoon, Van sang a medley including Joe Turner Sings,  Don't You Make Me High, and Sex Machine; after Back on Top was a medley of Goin' Down Geneva and Brand New Cadillac; then Didn't He Ramble emerged from Philospher's Stone, and the penultimate song before The Healing Game was a merger of Help Me and Green Onions.]

Van was in top form.  I have little with which to compare him, but his voice was smooth and powerful, he directed the band by turning and pointing to whomever was about to do a solo (at the time, I naively assumed that was just for effect and he wasn't springing the duty upon them, when in fact he was), and he often closed his eyes and just breathed in the magnificent music being created.

The band seemed more cheerful and relaxed than at Fleadh, when they seemed to be more like terrified children in the presence of an angry bear. Van truly seemed to be enjoying himself, though he didn't smile, laugh or break into the twist or the bunny hop as he had done on his television appearance on Comic Relief.  He played the harmonica on numerous occasions, lit up what I assume was a cigarette (I could only see smoke billowing over the back of his hat as he turned away from us to enjoy it), and only left the stage once (whilst playing harmonica, which was plugged into something, so this worried the roadies as they seemed to fear him dragging an amplifier down the stairs and off into the sunset), when the band carried on playing until Van appeared in the wings and made a cut-throat gesture, and the band obediently ended the song.

The next time he left the stage, it was obvious that he was about to do so, as he switched to a radio mike. He played for about an hour, as expected.

Van's method of getting through a set in terms of what he plays always fascinates me. Having grown up in a University town and now living in London, I have seen hundreds of musicians perform in concerts.  Van is the only artist I have ever seen who seems to decide on a whim what he wants to play next, mumbles it to his guitarist, and lets the guitarist (Johnny Scott) announce it into the mike for the benefit of the other musicians, who then have about 10 seconds' notice of what song they must then play.  Fascinating, and it all goes smoothly.  I'm enormously impressed by the skill and flexibility of all of the musicians, who clearly enjoy a challenge.

Puzzlingly, there did appear to be a lengthy set list taped to the side of one of the keyboards, but perhaps that was just to remind Van of his own repertoire so he could see what he had to choose from.  The band, to the best of my memory (which is lousy, particularly as they weren't my main focus), comprised someone on keyboards/organ [Geraint Watkins], another on electric piano [John Allair], guitar [Johnny Scott], trumpet [Matt Holland], sax [Richie Buckley], drums [Bobby Irwin], and bass [David Hayes].  A stand-up bass remained untouched on the stage throughout the set, although it's possible I just missed its shining moment by passing out from heat and dehydration without realising.

Throughout Van's performance, a couple of men stood leaning on the stage in the left make-shift wing.  One of them was the notorious boozing former footballer, fellow Belfaster George Best. 

Although it turned out to be a marvellous gig, I have to say that the event of Expo Ireland with its musical performers was quite an oddity. I cannot figure out why the organisers felt it would be appropriate to draw Joe Public into what appeared to be mostly a trade exhibition--and a minor, weak one at that--with the promise of performances by such admired talents...and B*witched.  Although killing the time before Van's appearance had been a difficult challenge, one delight was meeting the other Van fans who were present.  There was a fair sized deputation from the States, and some of them had come only for a long weekend to see this show and that at Nottingham.

Shortly after arriving at Olympia, a Van-fan-friend and I decided to kill the unpalatable four and a half hours we had to wait for Van by exploring the exhibition. We finished, having done upstairs and down, in about 15 minutes. It's difficult to understand the exact purpose of the Expo. Most of the ground floor was taken up with travel stands for businesses like ferry companies, and the first floor gallery was chock full of recruitment stands (for McDonalds, for example, that great old Irish firm). There were a few clothing stalls that were interesting, and fewer crafts stalls, but little else of interest.

The centre was not air-conditioned, and the temperature outside in London was in the mid-eighties. Inside, amongst the other bodies and without much ventilation, the heat was naturally much worse. There were only two places to get drinks. They and the mineral water stand had apparently run out of water early on. The bakery stand had nothing but a couple of soda farls left, and the one cafeteria-style restaurant (serving food that looked wholly unappetising, though I did not try it, to be fair) and the one coffee and biscotti stand had incredibly long queues, presumably because there was nothing else to do.

After waiting for ages at the latter, having been victorious in finding some water after a new shipment, I spent my life savings on that small bottle and a tiny biscotti, for emergency supplies.  One other stand sold food, mostly shrimp, and offered withered, slimy sandwiches that had given up life in the heat many hours, if not days, before, yet they still cost about half the exhibition entry price. My friend and I were thrilled that we'd had lunch before we'd arrived. I pity those who spent the whole day trapped in there (with no re-entry allowed) trying to scavenge for sustenance amongst those meagre offerings, and no doubt having to remortgage their house if they did manage to ever reach the head of a queue and procure a melted, bacteria-ridden sandwich.

Thank goodness for the wonderful company of the other Van-fans and the promise of seeing Van in--well, still several hours, as time crawled by.  Despite the shortcomings of Expo itself, this energetic, flawless, exciting performance by VTM and band was certainly worth the dull, dragging, hot struggle through the mundane exhibition with water-deprivation during the hours that preceded it, which we waited out stretched out on the floor upstairs as there were almost no places to sit. 

No doubt those fans who have seen Van perform dozens of times will view the performance in harsher terms, as I am relatively inexperienced in judging, but I am certain that, if nothing else, we all had a delightful time hearing the amazing man perform. Apologies for my typical verbosity....I guess the eternally slow pace of the exhibition has rubbed off on me.

Copyright 1999 by TC. All rights reserved.
 

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