Classic country tunes fill the bulk of Van Morrison’s latest album, his 36th overall and his strongest in years; disc beats the pants off his recent forays into a jazz-jump blues hybrid. He sings with a drinkin’ ‘n’ cryin’ conviction on “Pay the Devil” (Lost Highway), and that emotional milieu carried through much of his 100-minute perf at a sold-out Wiltern. But just as Morrison has never let the blues get him down, the Belfast Cowboy turned in a spirited and raucous performance, delivered clean and meticulously. It topped anything he’s done locally in the last 15 years.
Morrison’s approach to country — we’re talking Hank Williams and Webb Pierce hits like “There Stands the Glass” and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” plus his own variation on a George Jones theme, “Playhouse” — is summoned from the mid-1950s, when Nashville was looking to ramp up its level of sophistication in arrangements and melodies. Much as Morrison likes a lyric he can sink his teeth into, he also prefers the setting of a large band cushioning his mumbles and shouts with pedal steel, a choir-like trio of femme singers, fiddle, dobro and organ.
Eight songs from “Pay the Devil” turned up in the 22-song set Saturday as Morrison bounced between the crisp, horn-driven band he has been using the past several years and his new twangsters. What Morrison doesn’t do is follow the path of his idols Ray Charles and Mose Allison and assimilate the blues with the jazz and the country. If Morrison goes into a country song, by god, it will sound straight from Nashville. And if it’s a seven-minute, solo-filled swing version of “Moondance,” then it has the polish of a Memphis soul revue from the ’60s.
Morrison’s voice — in key and forceful all night — and John Allair’s organ supplied the glue between the two worlds preventing a stylistic schizophrenia. Yet when the twain met on “In the Midnight,” a ballad from 1999’s blues-oriented “Back on Top,” Morrison used his army of instrumentalists to create a masterpiece layered in do-wop vocals, a wash of organ and scat-singing, accented with mournful sax and guitar solos. Like so much of the night, it proved that when Morrison’s impeccable instincts are matched in the execution by his band and his voice, there are few who can top him in the world of pop music.
Having already played San Francisco, Morrison is taking the show to Dallas, Nashville and Boston before heading to the U.K. and Europe.