None more blue

Van Morrison/ Bobby 'Blue' Bland | Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

It may be dangerous to pitch your hopes too highly when approaching aged blues heroes, but the sense of anticipation among diehards gathered early to witness a rare London appearance by Robert Calvin Bland was palpable.

The 70-year-old veteran of Memphis's Beale Street strolls on stage in a white silk suit and patent silver boots - an impassive but imposing presence at odds with the high, slightly nasal pitch of his voice.

At first, he seems a little shaky, as his voice adapts to the venue's cavernous echo, but soon the regal setting becomes him as readily as his MC/band leader introduction - "the greatest blues singer in the world". Of all his Fifties contemporaries, only BB King is still on the road, but Bland is still capable of summoning a power and delicacy rooted in the gospel flash of the Dixie Hummingbirds and the urbane style of Big Joe Turner.

Sadly, the showbiz element in his performance sometimes overshadows the still potent talent; an introductory run through his trademark "I Pity the Fool", "That's The Way Love Is" and "Everyday I Have the Blues" was too rushed for the finer points of his delivery to catch hold.

Similarly, a singalong audience participation gambit on Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" was a wasted opportunity. It was only with "If You're Gonna Walk On My Love" and "House Rent Blues" that his wily charms and lion-lung roar really made an impression.

Just as dignity and grace was unfolding, Bland's set was at a close. "Don't forget who I am. When you hear the name again say 'Oh yeah, I caught him once. He's that blues singer'," he said, leaving the stage. He soon returned of course, two songs into Van Morrison's vibrant up-tempo set, bringing a leavening calm to Morrison's lustlorn imprecations on the mighty "Ain't Nothing You Can Do".

No stranger to the potentially stultifying surrounds of the Royal Albert Hall, Morrison decided to tackle it head on with a blasting attack which served him well through to the midway highpoint - a dramatic reworking of the standard "It's All in the Game". Morrison has been recasting this heartplay for many years and tonight it was both a high comedy and unnerving show of emotional candour - the blues singer's equivalent of method acting.

This mighty set piece served to illuminate rather than overshadow rare outings for "I've Been Working" and the rabid "Naked in the Jungle".

The only blight on the landscape was the recurring appearance of Chris Farlowe, the strutting "Out of Time" ogre whose histrionic duets almost ruined the entire evening. Almost, but not quite.