TO START his latest English tour Van Morrison has chosen an out- of-season seaside theatre where the upcoming attractions include Hinge and Brackett, Roy "Chubby" Brown and The Chuckle Brothers. Though it seems an eccentric choice of venue, Morrison is very much at ease. His long- held reputation as a grouch and curmudgeon seems unwarranted as he tells jokes, asks for requests and delivers a series of surprises to savour.
He springs the first surprise by arriving on stage to join unadvertised supporting act and recent collaborator Lonnie Donegan. The pair duet on Leadbelly's "Midnight Special" and Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues" but not in a throwaway let's-bang-out-an-old-chestnut fashion.Van's full- bodied but sensitive vocal gives both songs a profound sense of longing and displays a lightness of touch, a dancer's way with notes and elisions.
It's a taste of things to come and indeed something of a relief. In recent years, cushioned by the increasingly tired accompaniment of Georgie Fame and high-range vocal foil Brian Kennedy, Morrison has often coasted on overplayed routines. Tonight there's no Kennedy, no Fame but his band boasts two drummers andguest guitarist Mick Green - a gentle giant whose delicate picking is central to the fine new album Back On Top.
The result is a finely etched musical landscape - inviting the singer to let loose on "Rough God Goes Riding" (imagine WB Yeats backed by a Memphis soul band) and an astonishing "In the Afternoon". Looking like a grizzled Chicago blues gangster, he blows frantic harmonica on the latter, climaxing with a hushedepiphany where he improvises lines about the moon rising over the trees and car lights fading along the underpass.
Such moments are what really bring a Morrison performance alive, the recorded song merely a sketch for what develops in the heat of the moment. Though he only once dips into his own 1970s "golden era" ("Moondance"), two much older, non-original tunes - Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" and Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" - showcase his unique phrasing and hair-trigger dynamics beautifully.
Perhaps giving the band more solo spotlights than necessary, the Back On Top material was rushed. Still, the balmy organ and aching horns of "The Philosopher's Stone" allowed him to get beneath the bitterness in the lyric and locate the tenderness that lies within - vintage Van.
There was respite from the soulful intensity - he laughed (and smoked) a lot, told a shaggy dog tale involving Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro and delivered an elegantly salacious tribute to the late great blues shouter Big Joe Turner. Returning for an encore, he claimed to have recorded "so many albums and written so many songs that I don't know what to play". Of course, he knew what to play - "The Healing Game", where he's back in the Belfast street-corner choir of his childhood, looking for transcendence in a rather unlikely place.