Van Morrison returns to Memphis, Beale Street Music Fest stage

Van Morrison returns to Memphis, Beale Street Music Fest stage

The ever-contradictory Van Morrison — visionary and reactionary; recluse and rock-and-roller — apparently has performed in concert in the Bluff City only twice, both times at the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival.

The first time, in 1996, was not judged a success by most of the concertgoers interviewed by The Commercial Appeal at the time. Instead of performing popular songs in familiar arrangements, Morrison experimented, admonishing his band members to “chill out” and stretch out with jazzy digressions. A mocking cry of “Play a song!” was heard from the crowd. “I thought he was terrible,” one festivalgoer said. “He laughed during ‘Moondance.'” 

Friday night, Morrison returned to Memphis and the so-called “Beale Street” music festival, this year relocated from Downtown to the Fairgrounds in Liberty Park near Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, while redesign continues at the festival’s traditional Mississippi River-side home of Tom Lee Park. (This also was the first Beale Street Music Festival since 2019, due to two years of COVID-cautious cancellations.)

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Lauded for the blend of Irish mysticism and blues appreciation that made him a shoo-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Morrison in recent years has emerged as something of a crank, recording anti-lockdown songs and espousing what Pitchfork called “cherished paranoid theories.” Recent songs by Morrison include “They Own the Media” and “Why Are You on Facebook?”; the cover of his upcoming album, “What’s It Gonna Take?,” depicts a pair of giant puppeteer’s hands manipulating the strings attached to the fleeing forms of a man and woman whose images were borrowed from the poster for that 1956 paranoid classic of literal replacement theory, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” 

A perverse part of me wished that Morrison would indulge himself Friday night with performances of “Fodder for the Masses” and the strikingly titled “Sometimes It’s Just Blah Blah Blah,” among other new songs that might affirm the “crank” label. But, in fact, what Morrison and his veteran nine-member band delivered was 90 minutes of largely classic and expertly if un-urgently rendered Van Morrison material, spiced with the occasional sax, guitar, organ and even vibraphone solo. I don’t know if any folks who attended the 1996 show were there (other than myself), but if they were, they probably said, “Better late than never.”

Introduced as “Sir Van Morrison” (a reminder that Van has joined Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Rod Stewart, Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Elton John and even Sir Ray Davies in the ranks of knighted rock-and-rollers), the 76-year-old troubadour opened with an oddity, “Latest Record Project,” a song from 2021 that asks, repeatedly and not unreasonably (considering the man has recorded 43 solo studio albums since 1967): “Have you got my latest record project? … It’s not something from long ago/ It’s not something that you might know.” It’s a witty song that wouldn’t be out of place on a Randy Newman or Sparks disc.

But after that reminder that he still produces new work, Morrison was the bandleader of a show that was a crowd-pleaser — and that pulled material from throughout his career and the careers of his influences. Wearing a blue suit and his signature dark glasses and fedora, and sometimes performing on saxophone and harmonica, Morrison led the band through 20 songs — more, if you subdivide the medleys.

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Morrison sang “Precious Time,” from 1999. He sang “And It Stoned Me,” his William Blake-meets-Ma Rainey masterpiece from 1970. He did “Wild Night,” from 1971. He dug deep into that alternative Great American Songbook that consists of blues and soul classics rather than pop standards: He covered “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson (the one who died in Helena), and Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” immortalized by Ray Charles; and he did a blues medley that blended “Baby Please Don’t Go” with “Parchman Farm” and “Got My Mojo Working.”

He performed a song from 1995, titled “Raincheck”: “I won’t fade away… I don’t fade away / Unless I want to…” Seemed appropriate.

The show could have ended with “Brown Eyed Girl,” his only Top 10 U.S. hit, from 1967, with its audience singalong chorus (“Sha-la-la, la-la, la-la, la-la, la-la tee-da”); but actually it ended with the immortal “Gloria,” a 1964 garage-rock spelling test of a song originally recorded by Morrison’s pre-solo stardom rock band, Them. In other words, Morrison bookended the concert with original compositions that represented his newest and his oldest work. 

As in 1996, not everyone was pleased. “He didn’t give us any personality,” one young concertgoer told his apparent date, after the show. “He didn’t say hi. He didn’t say hello.” 

True enough. But me, I’ll take “Gloria” over “hello.” 

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