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Van Morrison Does It His Way... Surprised?

Before we went to Van Morrison Saturday night - yep, we managed to score tickets, basically through dumb luck (thanks, Stuart!) and not Morrison's sudden benevolence toward the media - Aftermath and our dad were talking at dinner about how tedious it must be for veterans like Morrison to play the same songs night after night on tour after tour. Some, like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and AC/DC, don't seem to mind doing note-for-note reproductions of the songs that got them there at all, while others like Bob Dylan deal with it by tinkering with the arrangements until even "Like A Rolling Stone" or "All Along the Watchtower" are nigh unrecognizable. On the other hand, our brother pointed out, our dad has been driving the same car since 1967, the same year Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" hit the Top 10 and attached itself to him like a frolicsome folk-pop albatross. And to be fair, Morrison dispatched both "Brown Eyed Girl" and his only other Top 10 single ever, "Moondance," within six songs of coming out Saturday night - the former an obviously perfunctory but still singalong-worthy rendition, the latter an extended suite of swinging, Brubeckian jazz. But that was it, at least as far as anything casual fans who only own Van Morrison's Greatest Hits might recognize. Aftermath, though far from a Morrison die-hard who can instantly identify anything from Saint Dominic's Preview besides "Jackie Wilson Said" or recite the lyrics to T.B. Sheets from memory, knew one or two of his "hits" was all we were likely to get (if that), and his choice of set list did not lessen our enjoyment of the evening in the slightest. As for his onstage behavior, Morrison is many things, but entertainer, per se, is not one of them. First and foremost, Morrison is a musician, which means if he wants to face the drummer during the entire guitar solo of supper-club waltz "Fair Play," that's exactly what he's going to do. Musicians get miffed when either their or one of their side men's microphones cut out, and that seemed to happen a couple of times as well. Plenty of jazz players come and go without saying as much to the crowd as Morrison did Saturday: Introducing Rodney Crowell's "Til I Gain Control Again" (hardly a coincidence, we think, since he was in Crowell's hometown, and which he sang the hell out of) and then "big hand for the band" as he left the stage - perhaps in a huff, perhaps not; we really couldn't tell, but we could tell he meant what he said. From a purely musical standpoint, watching Morrison alternate between piano, alto sax and guitar for 100 minutes as he and his six-man band alchemized soul, R&B, jazz, folk, reggae and country, with an Irish lilt here and there, was about as captivating and satisfying an evening as Aftermath can remember in a long time. It felt like peeking into the studio as Morrison and his players - all of whom played at least two instruments, counting different types of guitar and bass - were cutting an album. And although last week we thought it was kind of a prima donna move for Morrison to suspend alcohol sales shortly before he went onstage, it didn't feel like that Saturday. It was nice to be at a show, in fact, where people weren't constantly getting up and down to go get more beer, and although the crowd's lowered alcohol intake didn't eliminate all the annoying chatter going on around us, it certainly lowered it to a level that was at least tolerable. Plus, Morrison's earlier-than-expected exit (even if not by much), made it possible for Aftermath to catch even more of The Dead Weather than we anticipated, a show that blew us away in a different way entirely.

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