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Van Morrison & Linda Gail Lewis - Waterfront Hall, Belfast - 23 September 2000

I'll give you an account of the recent Van Morrison gigs at Belfast with Jerry Lee's sister Linda Gail Lewis, or the best I can do with my goldfish memory and lack of anorak knowledge of Van.  This 'review' will focus on 23 September, but I've added what little I know of the setlist of the gig on 22 September at the end.

I was a huge fan of Van's previous band, which was led by guitarist and strong backing vocalist Johnny Scott--seeing those musicians play was half the fun for me, to be honest. Van was the main reason for attending a concert, of course, but I loved watching each of the other extremely talented musicians on stage. I was shocked to learn that I had bought a ticket to a concert by a very different band, who did not appear to impress many fellow fans. I am also not a country fan at all. Well, I liked Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, and I own a Mary Chapin Carpenter and even a Trisha Yearwood album, but that is as far as I ventured into that genre. I also have a serious allergy to the steel or slide guitar. Blech, ick, it makes me feel sick to my stomach just thinking about it. But I was full of admiration for Van for having reinvented himself and trying his hand at yet another type of music, and I was willing to give it a go and support him as best I could.

Then, on Friday morning as I prepared to leave for my flight to Belfast, I put on the new single 'Let's Talk About Us.' I had been rushing around, and the single made me stop. Sadly, this was not because I was so moved by the music. On the contrary, I was so convinced that it was utter tripe that I started to wonder whether I should bother to make the trip, which I could ill afford, and I resolved to sell my London ticket. I hated the music. Linda Gail Lewis' voice grated on me, and it seemed to clash with Van's. I could find no redeeming features until, thank goodness, Van was joined on the third track by good old Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber.  In the end, since the flight was pre-paid and I wanted to visit friends and that great city, I braved the trip, fully expecting to detest the concerts. I was wrong; they were great fun.

Van was booked to play the wonderful Waterfront Hall, which is only three years old and seems remarkably intimate because of its sensible layout despite its 2,235 capacity. The building itself is circular, with a large side of it (the bars and the foyer) glassed in, so visitors have a lovely view over the River Lagan and the cranes of Harland & Wolff (builders of the Titanic) that serve as a landmark of the city. It is charming and comfortable.

The magnificent Bap Kennedy, elder brother of Brian and former member of Energy Orchard, which covered Van songs and opened for Van in the 80s, opened for Van on both nights with his band. Sadly, he began playing on the Saturday night before the time advertised on the tickets for the doors to open, so most people missed his set. I've long been a fan of Bap's, and I highly recommend his Steve Earle-produced Domestic Blues CD, which includes a guest appearance by Nanci Griffith (another tolerable country artist), as well as his next two CDs-one full of Hank Williams covers and the next full of songs inspired by Williams and Elvis Presley, sounding like the genuine raw article. Most people present seemed to be sold on Bap. He played the sort of 'country' that I can enjoy, and I have to say that his guitarist, Ed Deane, seemed to have infinitely more talent than the Red Hot Pokers' guitarist, and could have offered lessons to most guitarists I've ever seen. Incidentally, Bap said during his Friday set, 'Do any of you know my brother?' Girls cheered enthusiastically, assuming he meant Brian, until Bap added '...Jimmy at the post office?'

Before Van took the stage both nights, an announcer introduced a special guest: Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. No one really knew how to react. When he appeared on stage, it was clearly a comedian cleverly imitating him, then doing the same to Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and others. John McBlain is apparently fairly well known to the locals, and I am told he has opened for Van before. His jokes were, as you would expect, all political. The stranger I sat beside on Saturday who immediately struck up a delightful conversation with me, as Belfast souls do, told me that they always laugh at such topics--you've just got to, he explained. Some sample jokes (paraphrased badly owing to my poor memory) are: as Gerry: 'How do you pack a hundred Orange Men into a telephone booth? Tell them they're not allowed to march in there.' As Martin: 'People ask how I can be the Education minister when I have no qualifications, but in fact I have two A-levels. A-levelled a police station and A-levelled an hotel.'   Regarding elections: 'As we always say, it doesn't matter how many votes you get. It matters who counts them.'

His act was pretty much the same both nights, and on the second night, which I shall detail first, since I was more aware of it and it was slightly more fun, the Red Hot Pokers took the stage as he was finishing. I was thrilled to bits to see the magnificent Leo Green was with them, albeit without his usual radio pack mike (no leaps into the audience tonight, then). That promised to make the show exciting even if the country formula did not work, and also I could not picture a Van show with a horn section of one. This made the horn section two, which the accountants among you will know is one better. A sax with a radio pack did rest in front of Van's spot all night, but he never played it.

The Red Hot Pokers (RHP) were four men dressed in Hank Williams-era grey suits with long jackets that had velvet lapels. You could tell that Leo was only an imitation RHP as he was missing the velvet. I would like to digress briefly to explain that, whenever I've been to the Waterfront, there have been people collecting for charities at the door. For Brian Kennedy's shows, I believe the charity was a youth one with which he is involved. For Van's concerts, the charity was Age Concern, and I feel that this was an appropriate choice. The RHP were not elderly, you understand, but I think their big 3-0 birthday celebrations were memories in the distant mist. The Welsh guitarist--he is the only one who ever spoke--called Ned Edwards looked like a balding Frank Burns from M*A*S*H, the bass guitarist (Pete Hurley) looked like George Roper from the UK series George and Mildred, the drummer (Colin Griffin) was represented in my vision only as a piece of scalp above a cymbal (above a hi-hat, ha ha), and the youngster of the group was the multi-instrumentalist (Lee Goodall) who primarily played baritone saxophone. He looked just like Paul Double, but then those of you who don't work in my office won't find that to be a useful reference. As the baby of the group at about age 45, he looked a bit like a softer, more attractive version of Brad Garrett's brother cop in Everyone Loves Raymond. In comparison to Van and the others, Leo was practically playing from his pram.

Some wonderful things I can say about the show right off:-

(a) I got to see Leo and Van play together finally;

(b) I finally got to see Van play an instrument other than the harmonica;

(c) Van was in a great mood and chatted more (or more audibly!) than I'd heard before, and all of the performers had a fair amount of energy;

(d) I got to hear Van perform a lot of songs that I'd not heard him do live before, such as Jackie Wilson Said [even if you hate the 'greatest hits' lot, you must admit that is a wonderfully constructed song in terms of making you want to jump up and sing along];

(e) there were no steel guitars!!!;

(f) the show had clearly been changed so that it was once again a Van show with special guest Linda Gail Lewis (LGL), rather than a joint venture including numerous songs by her.  Realistically, I think very few if any people anywhere were spending that kind of money to see her perform. Another plus, of course, was that the show provided an excuse to revisit magnificent Belfast for many of us--loads of people I bumped into had come from England, Ireland, Belgium and the States.

Now, I'll finally get on with the show. Bear in mind this is the second night, ie Saturday, 23 September.

At 8.35pm, the RHP, including Leo Green, took the stage and gave a lively performance of Jump and Jive, as opposed to the Jumpin' Jive involving hep-hep's and the like. As usual, thanks to Van's eternal mumblings and his vast back catalogue, I must warn you that I shall probably get most of the set list wrong.

Ned then introduced LGL as if she were her brother Jerry Lee, ie that we were privileged to have her here all the way from Louisiana, and we cheered appropriately, as she strolled on and stood singing Here Ever After (unless it's called Love and Laughter) before taking her place at the piano. I must admit, this was quite a catchy, likeable, foot-tapping story-song, ie a tale of a couple that were young and happy against all odds like in Rod Stewart's Young Turks (or any happy country song, though most are miserable), but LGL's had a happier ending in that they won the lottery, which is coincidentally also my goal in life. Linda has a silly little girl's voice that often resembles a more powerful version of Minnie Mouse, but it is actually a decent voice live. I still maintain that the album--what little I heard of it over the weekend--sounds appalling because Van and LGL do not mix well on the recording. Live, however, things are vastly improved. It is worth seeing them live even if you detest the album, as I fully expect to even when I give it a more concentrated listen.  My problem is less about the type of music played and more with how it is played, ie with steel guitar (of course) and Minnie Mouse on vocals.

LGL was generally much more appealing than I had expected, as well. She smiled throughout and seemed to be having great fun performing.

After playing tambourine for the first number, Leo spent most of the second, a slower LGL number called the Dark End of the Street (I suppose), searching a box of reeds for the one that would work wonders on that amazing saxophone of his. The Paul Double character switched to alto sax during this song for an impressive solo. The other sax on stage remained neglected in Van's spot.

At 8.45pm, Van joined them for the fourth number. He stood in the wings (well, stage left without curtains), wearing a guitar and smoking a cigar, which he threw onto the floor as he came on stage, thus adding a certain, ugh, scent to the auditorium. He played electric guitar first, whilst the night before he never ventured from the acoustic.  But no matter how hard I tried, I could not hear his electric guitar contribution at all. Van and Linda launched into their new single, Let's Talk About Us, which was a hundred times better than the recorded single [should it be boosted to a rating of one out of 100].  Also, Van's voice is always spectacular, regardless of what type of music he sings, and it was in particularly grand form tonight.

When they finished, Van skipped the middle man, that is, the role previously played by Johnny Scott who would have taken Van's whispered instructions and passed them on to the band.  As he frequently did during these shows, Van told the band via his mike what they were to play next, rather than letting the guitarist do that part. You Win Again, he said, and even with LGL adding what sounded like whining rather than vocals, the song worked.

Van slipped into his usual mumble mode to introduce These Dreams of You, which he sang mainly backed by the guitarist's vocals, but LGL joined in more subtly from time to time. The crowd really welcomed a song they knew, and Leo's tenor sax duelled excitingly with the alto sax.

The seventh track, about the only successful suggestion on both nights by the guitarist, was Old Black Joe, which Van coughed and almost laughed into the mike at the beginning. It started slowly, with the minute horn section almost standing to attention playing nothing. When they joined in, blasting away, full of energy, the hall got excited and everyone started clapping to the beat, Ned pretended he was Chuck Berry with his solo, and LGL did the first of many excellent imitations of her brother Jerry Lee on the piano. The crowd went mad when the track finished. Whether these songs were supposedly country or not, everyone was having fun. The gig was a lot like a Jools Holland concert (in whose band Leo usually plays now, and who does the liner notes for Van's new album), where it doesn't matter what they play so much as how loud and fast it is and whether you can dance and clap to it.

At this stage, Van changed to acoustic guitar and took the band into In the Midnight. The crowd began to applaud once they recognised it, and he stopped to say 'thank you,' and then eventually finished the song with 'Stop up and see me sometime.'

Then Van said that he wanted to explain the next one as it was the first single he ever sang on. Mervyn Solomon was in the audience, he said, and he was the man who allowed him to make it. You can read all about the Solomon contribution to Van's career on the fabulous Van website. Could the song have been Don't Start Crying Now? It certainly had 'Cry Cry Baby' in the lyrics. It was played so fast that the row of seats I was in was shaking, thanks to an audience too restrained to jump up and dance as they wished to. As soon as the spotlight hit Leo at any time, he gave an amazing solo, usually watched and clearly admired by Van, and shook so much that he seemed in danger of combusting spontaneously like a Spinal Tap drummer. Every time he played, the audience loved it and applauded afterward, even if a certain someone had already begun singing. The show really should have been a Van Morrison/Leo Green feature, with special guest LGL.

Next was another classic, thank goodness: Rough God Goes Riding, complete with another amazing Leo Green solo and, bizarrely enough, that Van Morrison bloke wandering into the realms of doing Clint Eastwood impressions, chatting about sarsaparilla and saying 'Listen, Punk, make my day!!' Everyone loved this performance.  It occurred to me here that one of many reasons why LGL's vocals are welcomed with less favour than Johnny's was because we're not yet accustomed to hearing the likes of 'Ruff Gawd Goes Rahdin'  in these here parts.

The audience erupted when they recognised the first line of Cleaning Windows and continued to clap to the beat throughout the song. The guitarist was illuminated for a solo that was not that exciting, but the baritone saxophonist played a mean bongo (or two) during the song--and I know it makes no sense but I am certain that I heard Van yodel after one chorus.  I had not been drinking,  honest.  LGL was appropriately subtle with her backing vocals on this one.

Next came a sock-hop slow dance number called If You Love Me, which resembled All in the Game at times, and included a great harmonica solo from The Man and a fabulous baritone sax solo from the bongo-saxophonist. The band followed that with the bluesy Baby (You Got What It Takes) which was, again, vastly superior to the recorded version. The audience again clapped to the beat of the song, and even loved the verse Linda sang on her own. Personally, her vocal contribution here vividly reminded me of Sylvia of Mickey and Sylvia's Love is Strange (you know, that whiney voice...Some say lo-ove...). The bassist was superbly strong during this number, although the guitarist had another solo that just didn't seem that special, but it was certainly competent.

Van then said he was going to 'Pitch at Linda here--what are you going to do? ' and she led us into her song 1-2-3, I'm in Love Again, which could easily have been a Mary Chapin Carpenter song, at a very quick Jerry Lee Lewis pace, complete with Linda banging on the keys of the piano as her brother would. The guitarist added more Chuck Berry-type guitar, whilst Van remained just off stage, unbuttoning his jacket, removing his hat and allowing his sweaty and badly balding head to be affectionately wiped down by a woman who I could not see, but who was described to me later and surely must have been his long-time partner Michelle Rocca.

I am not sure of the title of the next song. It sounded like a Bill Haley type of classic, with LGL playing quickly on the piano, Leo blowing his sax so madly that he seemed to almost run permanently out of air at the end, Van returning with his acoustic guitar and singing about inviting someone over to his 'pad' and stammering out that I'm a Nervous Fellow.

Next, Ned Edwards (doesn't that name make you think of a Simpsons character?), whilst still wearing his guitar around his neck, began to play the fiddle, and the piano started a tune that sounded just like the Carpenters' On Top of the World, but somehow manoeuvred itself into The Healing Has Begun, I believe. This was the only song where Ned played steel guitar so it did sound countryish, but it was bearable, and his solo was impressive. A roadie ran on, as he did a few times, to add a sheet of lyrics to Van's music stand. Leo's thrilling sax solo ended up somehow sounding just like a Jimi Hendrix guitar masterpiece. LGL started to contribute more, and Van looked, for the first time that evening, noticeably yet perhaps coincidentally disgusted. In fact, his back was to her almost all night, which hadn't been the case the previous night, and he usually faced Leo and the guitarist, rocking side to side more than I have ever seen him do. When Van directed the band to get quieter, everyone did except perhaps the drummer and definitely LGL, who was still plonking away on the piano fairly loudly, but I expect she'll learn! On the previous night, she even interrupted his introduction to the song by hitting a few notes in the piano, then said 'oh, sorry' and then launched back into the notes again so that Van gave up talking.

On Saturday, Van then gave us some marvellous finger-picking on his acoustic guitar, which I had always assumed he could not play better than a few chords on rhythm, but he sounded like the great fellow-Belfast boy, guitarist Colin Reid. Wow. Again, when he quietened everyone so he could sing the middle part, he had to do so over the din of the piano, as LGL just didn't seem to understand that she should follow his directions and not always fight to be the star. I noticed at the end, as the baritone saxophonist blew his final few notes, that he reached out with another (third?) hand and jangled a dangling xylophone type thing; he was impressive. Similarly, I caught Leo later playing sax with his left hand and tambourine with his right.

Van impressed us with further finger-picking skills during the introduction to The Outskirts of Town. Van was in excellent voice on both nights, and here, he growled out at times in a method reminiscent of Them's original recording of Gloria, whilst other times switching to smoother, fuller B B King style vocals. Lee Goodall's alto sax solo sounded exactly like something that should be playing in a dark and misty alleyway in a Philip Marlowe film noir. This merged into, I think, C.A.D.I.L.L.A.C., with Van almost getting carried away on vocals.

We were treated then to a medley of Goin' Down to Geneva/Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35/Brand New Cadillac. Van introduced the first part by saying he'd written the song in Geneva--then saying, no, in Montreaux, 'near Geneva. It' s about a singer from way back, Vince Taylor, and incorporating some other stuff along the way.' The beginning was loud and fun, and VTM stood back to allow the attention to focus on LGL for a change, who offered another Jerry Lee Lewis type solo on the piano. During Leo's inevitable solo, Van kept shouting towards him, 'Yeh!' and rapidly rocked from side to side as if he were a child's toy charged by Duracells. His own mouth organ solo was amazing, and the only choppy part of the medley was when LGL had difficulty following Van whilst backing his vocals. If he held out a note longer than expected, it seemed to throw her completely. I know it is not easy, but the old band read Van so well, they were amazing musicians. Still, from the sound of reviews of the previous concerts on this tour, I think this band has improved considerably. This medley was wonderful and the crowd adored it.

Now, I know I've said it before, but sometimes I just cannot understand what the man is saying. But this time, I feel certain that I heard him clearly. I would swear that he said 'That one was dedicated to Palm Oil.' Seriously! Perhaps it was Palmolive, his new tour sponsors? Uh, or not.

Not for the first time, the guitarist suggested a song to Van, who refused it--in this case Van opened his arms and shrugged, as if asking how they could possibly do that. Sometimes Leo would suggest something to the guitarist, who would pass on the suggestion to Van using telephone game tactics, and Van would love the idea. In this case, the idea was Philosopher's Stone, including an amazing solo that surely sucked the breath out of Leo, and a lovely flute contribution by the bongo-saxophonist. LGL's backing vocals were not as abrasive as usual. I sound cruel; she sings great solo, but I don't feel her voice complements Van's.

Jackie Wilson Said came next, and the audience loved it. Leo ventured into his normal hip-wiggling now, and fired away on his sax at the appropriate moment. Linda's vocals were fine, but again, they seemed to have too much presence, and it just didn't work hearing 'Ahm en hay-ay-ven' for 'I'm in Heaven', which is not her fault.

Ned then made his one suggestion that Van welcomed, Precious Time. It sounds like I'm very anti-LGL, when in fact, I thought she was fine.  However, I do just absolutely hate her contribution to this song. The harmonies she tries to add to the chorus are so different and so loud that it is distracting to the point that it made me think the song would have been more at home on a Shaun Cassidy album, and that scares me! The guitarist adds sufficient backing vocals, really. Leo, despite his youth emerging almost as the elder statesmen who leads everyone with his wise words, played cheerleader and got everyone in the hall clapping enthusiastically to the beat and joining in as best we could.

Van then made the usual dreaded request for a big hand for LGL and 'big hand for the band,' and we knew he was off. Indeed, he went off stage and had his balding head wiped affectionately again. He returned after the band started the Rock and Roll Medley of, amongst other things, Shake Rattle and Roll and Roll Over Beethoven. The children--Leo and his fellow saxophonist--whipped the crowd into a frenzy and actually got us on our feet! You Americans may think that is no big deal, but it is to Brits. One man even actually danced. He was very camp, thin and bald, and he wandered quickly across the area between the audience and the stage with one finger pointed up, then returned in a similar manner with one hand purposefully behind his back. He was like something out of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert but without the elaborate costume. So that's how to dance to Van music. Van left during this number, and Linda finished off by playing the piano for two seconds with her foot. It wasn't quite Jerry Lee, but frankly, how many women in their 40s or 50s could lug their leg up that high without an hour's stretching first?

That was it. An exciting, delightful, fun show. Not a Van classics show, but thankfully lots of Van and not too much LGL, who was fine, but not my reason for being present. No, the band isn't as in tune with Van as the previous band--not at all. Still, they're not bad musicians, but neither are they striking musicians of an unusual quality, as you would expect to be playing with Van. The fun, fast and jamming, foot-tapping songs are welcome. I still think I will detest my copy of the album when I hear it, but no one should let that representation prevent them from attending a show. It is getting better, and if nothing else, it is terrific fun. Though, I was expecting something awful, so that might have tainted my view, ie made me like the show better than I otherwise would have.

Before I go, since this is long enough, I'll just mainly list the set from the previous night, as best I can. I was (and am) exhausted at the time and may have some songs mixed up.

Friday, 22 September 2000 (some are guesses)

bulletJump, Jive and Wail (RHP)
bulletYou Ain't Nothing But a Beggar (RHP)
bulletHere Ever After (LGL)
bulletYou Can Have My Husband, But Please Don't Mess with My Man (LGL)
bulletAt the Dark End of the Street (?) (LGL)
bulletBoogie Chillen?? (VTM & LGL) (eg 'Well if your hands start twitching' or something) [Van came on wearing an acoustic guitar, which he did not remove, and he didn't leave the stage again 'til the end]
bulletYou Win Again (after Van said 'It's nice to be back.')
bulletCrazy Arms 
bulletPhilosopher's Stone
bulletDon't Start Crying Now 
bulletIn the Midnight
bulletRough God Goes Riding
bulletReal Gone Lover
bulletI'm in Love Again (LGL)
bulletCleaning Windows (possibly; I initially thought it was The Healing Has Begun so I clearly had a momentary lapse!) 
bulletOne of These Days (Van knocked over the mike and its stand during this one)
bulletJambalaya (on the Bayou)/Goin' Down Geneva/ Brand New Cadillac
bulletBack on Top
bulletIrish Heartbeat (VTM & LGL) (how appropriate in his hometown, when he's back with his own ones)
bulletJackie Wilson Said
bulletPrecious Time (started very badly but improved)
bulletRock 'n' Roll Medley
bulletENCORE 1: I Can't Stop Loving You (VTM & LGL)
bulletShot of Rhythm and Blues
bulletENCORE 2: [Berlin Express??] (possibly Fast Train as I didn't know that one) (suggested by Leo)

I'd also like to say how much I loved meeting my fellow Van fans in Belfast and seeing old friends, not to mention visiting such a magnificent city once again.

Copyright 2000 by TC. All rights reserved.
 

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