In a sprawling introduction to much of his new Pointblank album “Back on Top,” Van Morrison made an ambitious run at cementing himself as the Belfast Bluesman in front of an overly enthusiastic crowd. Morrison began by hinting at an evening of best-loved works — show started with a softly swinging “Moondance” and a straightforward “Days Like This” — but quickly turned to rarely heard music of the last five years, eventually thanking the audience for accepting his “eclectic set.” As he did with “Listen to the Lion” in the 1970s when Morrison was one of rock’s most significant artists, the singer added a healthy dose of vocal improvisation to his gently paced two-hour show.The first stretch came on song three, “In the Afternoon,” in which Morrison turned his gentle and sweet beseeching of “wanna make love to you in the afternoon” into a fugue for the vintage blues number “Don’t You Make Me High (Don’t You Feel My Leg)” and a lukewarm reading of James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” Along the way — this was the first of several songs that stretched beyond the eight-minute mark — he invoked the name of Big Joe Turner and rattled off some of his best-known numbers, harping on the brilliant “TV Mama.” Morrison, dressed in the black hat, suit and shades he seemingly hasn’t taken off in five years, posits himself as a cross between Little Milton and James Brown. The songwriting, however, is a unique mix of the spiritual and the secular delivered with an uncommon sense of bliss, a concept superficially difficult to reconcile with the blues. But Morrison, whose “Back on Top” album holds the attention start to finish, does so with aplomb these days after a dozen years of mixed success in the Polygram family. As usual, Morrison’s stage movements were compact and pretty much limited to him turning his back to the audience to chain smoke while his adept musicians took solos. Overall, the band excelled at the atmospheric works such as “Philosophers Stone” and “Burning Ground,” a track from 1997′s “The Healing Game” that he turned into an exercise in word play to close out the main portion of the concert. They lacked the grit, however, to milk the desperation out of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me.” Guest trumpeter Mark Isham, a member of Morrison’s band in the early 1980s who was in town for a gig with his Silent Way Project, provided several delicious solos that tilted those pieces to the jazz side. Geraint Watkins’ work on the organ was continually refreshing. Taj Mahal opened the concert with a grabbag of 20th century music that he turned into goodtime blues, Louis Armstrong’s Betty Boop hit from 1932, “I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You,” and Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” being the highlights.
Universal Amphitheatre; 6,243 seats; $43 top
Presented by Universal Concerts. Reviewed June 4, 1999.
Band: Van Morrison, Matt Holland, Richie Buckley, David Hayes, Johnny Scott, Geraint Watkins, Jon Allair, Bobby Irwin, Mark Isham.