Mild night

With a starting time advertised as “7 p.m. sharp,” a ticket price high enough (up to $250 per seat) to keep the rabble out, and signs at the bar advising patrons that, per the artist’s request, staff would stop pouring drinks once the show began, it was clear from the outset that no wild night lay in store for Van Morrison last Tuesday at the Austin Music Hall.

But there would be no “Wild Night,” either. No “Gloria,” “T.B. Sheets,” or “Brown Eyed Girl.” In fact, in the entire 90-minute set (which ended on the dot, with no whiff of an encore, as if planned by a man with bare-minimum contractual obligations in mind) there were only two songs drawn from the singer’s prime: “Bright Side of the Road,” which got an interesting new arrangement (that nearly fell apart in the middle) involving banjo and tambourine; and “Moondance,” which started with a beautiful lead vocal but evolved into the kind of ritual soloing and band-member introductions that are best incorporated into less sacred material.

There was no indication from the stage that 2008 has, out of the blue (with no anniversary or landmark to celebrate), been turned into a sort of Year of Van by his old record label, Polydor/Universal. A huge slate of 29 albums is being reissued throughout the year, all with new bonus material. (The first batch in January included the classic Tupelo Honey.) A fine opportunity, one might think, for a songwriter to cull through his old hits and dust off the ones that still mean something to him.

But cruising through the vintage concert clips excerpted on the Morrison installment in the Under Review DVD doc series — or for that matter, listening to the early live disc It’s Too Late to Stop Now, also one of January’s reissues — provides little indication that Morrison was ever much for kissing up to the crowd. He sings what he wants, often with his eyes closed, smiling rarely if ever.

Still, being stubborn and taciturn (he said practically nothing to the crowd in between songs) doesn’t make you lazy. The bandleader, fronting a total lineup of a dozen musicians, took his performance seriously even if he sometimes sat down while doing it: His fluid, scat-based vocal improvisations were vigorous, and when not singing he proved to be a capable soloist on the alto sax — the show’s jazzy instrumental breaks were enjoyable enough to make listeners want more.

The set’s tone stayed generally in the laid-back vein of Morrison’s recent records and his upcoming Keep It Simple (due on April Fool’s Day), work that has charm even when it seems completely free of the artistic ambition that characterized the songwriter’s early records. For instance, the new tune “Don’t Go To Nightclubs Anymore” sounds not only like an assertion of Van’s reluctance to tour, but like an admission that the outside world no longer holds much musical inspiration for him.

Understandably, then, the night’s highlight came from popular music’s distant past: Out of nowhere and for only one song, the band turned its ear toward New Orleans for a rendition of “St. James Infirmary Blues” that was almost as eerie sonically as the anonymous folk song is lyrically (“I went down to the St. James infirmary, I saw my baby there/she was stretched out on a long white table, so cold, and fine, and fair”).

Dedicated Morrison fans, had they written the set list, might have used that corpse-side lament to lead into the songwriter’s own “T.B. Sheets,” a moment of wrenching mortality in a career that has so often offered transcendence and joy. But we weren’t in charge, and one heartbreaker was all Van was prepared to do.


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