Sir Van Morrison, one of the living legends, thirty-six albums in and age 71, playing the Primavera Sound Festival, Barcelona’s world-beating celebration of indie, rock and dance: we didn’t know what to expect. Last year, at the American Express festival at the O2, he’d been performing jazz sets with lengthy guest solos. Would he, could he, do that in the early evening in front of thousands of sunburned hipsters?
Wearing a natty purple suit with shimmering a green cravat, his trademark hat and shades, a gold-plated mike and mike-stand, with the sun beaming, Van took a dignified route through a twenty-song set, not quite a greatest hits but a representation of the broad sweep of his career, taking in broad sweeps his honed mixture of R&B, celtic mysticism, soul, country and jazz.
A stately and varied selection of songs was buoyed by mid-career album tracks more admired than loved, such as 1990’s moving Enlightenment - with its equivocations around the something else: "Chop that wood/ And carry water/ What's the sound of one hand clapping/ Enlightenment, don't know what it is"; and 1995’s Days Like This, the song that became the official anthem of the peace movement in Northern Ireland, holding its own as a bluesy ballad of human stoicism. Slow ballad In The Afternoon felt schmaltzy but duet Carrying A Torch cast a dignified light among airier classics.
Moondance twinkles along, with a segue quoting Miles’s So What! It’s not the only jazz touch, with Have I Told You Lately and Brown Eyed Girl each more swung and skatted than as per, but with no diminution of those infectious vocal hooks that set the huge crowd into peals of sha-la-la-te-das. The euphoric rush of Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile) and the rolling energy of Wild Night are undiminished, tightly melodic and swung and sung with gusto.
Van contributes agreeable saxophone spots and chewy harmonica. The band is decent but loose, especially on the mid-tempo numbers. It’s the rock and R&B material that tends to come across better than the ballads or lounging jazz. Van’s undiminished growl "how how how how" on John Lee Hooker's Think Twice Before You Go and his fierce harp-and-bark on a medley of hits he first recorded with Them in 1964 at the tender age of 19, Baby Please Don't Go / Don't Start Crying Now / Custard Pie / Here Comes the Night takes us right back, before God and Knighthoods, to the primal origins of that voice.
Gloria, in excelsis. Gloria was actually the b-side of Baby Please Don’t Go. Today she is an established garage band classic and without doubt the highlight of the set. The closing number is a joyous extended blast of glory that brings the crowd to an apotheosis of passionate singing-along and silly dad-dancing. By the time it’s over Van has long since left the stage, the intoxication of his timeless blend having done its work. It’s not that Van’s early work is necessarily better than the slower material, you might just say his bark is better than his croon.
1. Too Late
2. Moondance (with a So What! segue)
3. Have I Told You Lately
4. Days Like This
5. Precious Time
6. Sometimes We Cry
7. Think Twice Before You Go (John Lee Hooker/Al Smith)
8. Cleaning Windows (1982) (segue into Gene Vincent's Be-Bop-A-Lula)
9. Carrying A Torch
10. All Work and No Play
11. Baby Please Don't Go / Don't Start Crying Now / Custard Pie / Here Comes the Night
12. I Can't Stop Loving You (Dan Gibson)
13. Whenever God Shines His Light
14. Magic Time
15. Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)
16. Wild Night
18. In The Afternoon
19. Brown Eyed Girl