A little glory in the Black Hills

Van Morrison invited to open the Hay-on-Wye literary festival? It's more of a masterstroke than a mistake. Shun the spoken word as he might, The Man is loved by the bookish.
Van Morrison is both the most and the least appropriate pop star to be the opening attraction at a literary festival. On the one hand, no other musician's work aspires so purely to the condition of literature. He wrote "Rave On, John Donne", and wasn't "TB Sheets" about John Keats? On the other, festivals require artists to gabble about their work. Van is very un-Irish about gabbling. He'll howl into the microphone, he'll moan, he'll screech for the notes at the peak of a register that's a good deal thinner than he is; he also gives exceptionally good Coleridgean trance. But he shuns the spoken word with practically Trappist rigour, except to make important announcements such as "give it up for Pee Wee Ellis" after another of the great saxman's sobbing solos.

But give it up for the Hay-on-Wye organisers for having the balls to invite him. His acceptance sets a daunting precedent. How does Cheltenham top this? Bob Dylan wows Gloucestershire: it just doesn't sound right (and anyway, Dylan's heart condition has put him out of the loop, enforcing the cancellation of the tour he was about to embark on with Morrison). But Van on Wye does sound right. His hosts will have pored over the lyrics, spotted the promising references to ancient roads and Celtic mystics and guessed that he might just fancy performing in the sort of wilderness he sings about. Their invitation may have mentioned that Offa's Dyke is just next door.

The auditorium of the Carlton Marquee holds no more than 400, which may be a stadium-size venue for Beryl Bainbridge (due on tomorrow), but it's a potting shed for Van. So the show took the form of two sets, one at 7.15pm, another at 9.15pm (and two more at 11.15pm and 1.15am would have just about met demand). By the end of the first set, with the sun bowing down behind the Black Mountains, it was way past half the audience's bedtime. One little mite was bobbing in the arms of its mother deep into the first encore - a woozy version of "Moondance", which has never sounded more pagan.

This is now an established rite among neo-quasi-quondam-hippies. Bearing small children aloft to the lip of the stage where the shamanistic old strop completely ignores them has become a kind of non-Christian benediction: it gets them on to the bottom of the "Vanlose Stairway" (which he sang, by the way, gloriously). In years to come, a bunch of festival-goers born this side of Hymns to the Silence will be able to say the first concert they ever went to was by The Man. Presumably, it was for them that he bounced through "Domino", not normally thought to be a song about a children's tile game.

There was some entertainment for adults too - from the opening "Days Like This" through to a heroic "Summertime in England" (sung, for perhaps the first time, just a few yards inside Wales), on which he and his three horns exited druidically in a procession. In between came quotations from all over the Morrison canon, plus a couple of respectful nods to his eclectic roots in George Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come".

It should be noted, incidentally, that when the great man made his initial entry, in grey suit and black fedora, the only people who stood to clap him in were the novelist Sarah Dunant and the poet Brian Patten. Both of them scheduled to talk at the festival, they may have wished to encourage the notion that all performers at literary events should be thus greeted.

Van Morrison will be performing at the Fleadh on 7 June in Finsbury Park, London

Comments