After more than four decades of performing, Van Morrison has discovered a way to enter the most rarefied of zones — one in which he can take to the stage before an audience of thousands and not even recognize their existence. That’s not to say that Morrison is disrespectful of his fan base; he’s simply able to enter his own world on cue, all the better to venture, as he puts it in one of his most timeless songs, into the mystic.
The Irish singer-songwriter, looking rakish in gray suit and black fedora, spent a fair amount of the 90-minute set channeling departed icons. Morrison waxed particularly lustful on a dirt-under-the-fingernails rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” but managed to shift gears for a champagne cocktail take on “That’s Life” that would’ve surely brought a smile to Frank Sinatra’s face.
While he touched on his stellar new Blue Note album “What’s Wrong With This Picture,” Van the Man seemed most interested in presenting his history his way. An extended version of “Wonderful Remark” was punctuated by some of his more passionate sax playing; he later wrung some surprisingly fine-spun lines from an acoustic guitar as well.
Buoyed by his slowly simmering horn section, Morrison masterfully pushed the edges of “And the Healing Has Begun,” splitting the difference between jazz scatting and ecstatic moan. He stuck more closely to the jazz element on a version of “It’s All in the Game” that interpolated riffs from both Mose Allison and Ella Fitzgerald. Morrison was in fine voice throughout, eschewing the backing singers that sometimes served as a crutch on recent tours.
Band, anchored by winning keyboardist John Allair, did a fine job of anticipating Morrison’s twists and turns, churning out brass and sass when called on and bringing things down to a churchly hush when that was appropriate.
Perhaps gratified by aud’s eager response to the left-field offerings of set proper, Morrison steered the encore toward familiar territory, stringing together a by-the-book take on “Brown Eyed Girl” and a heavy, more extemporaneous “Gloria.” He could’ve waltzed through those numbers with his eyes closed — and at certain times in his career, he did just that — but this perf proved Morrison can do more with a simple, well-placed change of inflection than lesser singers can manage with a bottomless cache of gimmickry.
Morrison will lead an evening of Blue Note musicians at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 1.