Ray scores a Wembley winner

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Two legends played at Wembley Arena on Wednesday: one who has two first names, and one who has no proper first name at all. Protracted parleying must have been required to decide the order in which those names appeared on the posters, but in the end the billing was Van Morrison and Ray Charles. To win this privilege, did Morrison's negotiators agree to one concession too many? He had to go on first, at 7.30, when most rock stars still have a good few lines of cocaine to get through before showtime, and when whole sections of plastic seating were still vacant. He was the opener: Van the warm-up Man. And in this role, he was perfect.

He kicked off with a stream of R&B jams, the ideal thing to loosen us up without making the late- comers feel they'd missed anything. Then came "the classic songs of the Van Morrison Rhythm & Blues and Soul Revue" as the MC accurately put it: inflated, raucous versions of "Full Force Gale", "Have I Told You Lately", "Moondance" and "Whenever God Shines His Light", the happy-clappy duet that Van OBE recorded with Sir Cliff. And on some of these, the melody which Morrison sang had a coincidental resemblance to the original.

It was rollicking fun. But more importantly for an opener, Morrison didn't upstage the star. Indeed, he couldn't even upstage his own band. As dutiful support acts must, all 13 musicians squeezed into a few square metres at the front of the stage, so that stubby little Morrison was almost lost in the huddle. Musically, too, the band were given opportunities to tower above him. "Moondance" alone, transformed by Georgie Fame's Hammond into a jazz-funk extravaganza, also had solos from the piano, the double bass, two saxophones, two trumpets and a guitar, not to mention Van The Man's leonine protege, Brian "The Boy" Kennedy, whose clear soul-diva falsetto hit the notes that Morrison couldn't. Anyone who tried to moondance through that lot would collapse half-way.

The Man himself grumbled and scatted with gusto, taking a pair of syllables - "ease my" or "baby" - and repeating it 20 times in half as many seconds, like a stuck CD. He was, whisper it, enjoying himself. Last Saturday, on the first of his two nights at Wembley, his filthy temper got the better of him. On Wednesday, he displayed so much levity that you worried if he was feeling all right. He introduced the epic finale, "It's a Man's World", as "a tribute to the intergalactic soul universal overlord, Jaaaaames Brown", at which point I was fairly certain that I was hallucinating.

One interval later, Ray Charles eased himself comfortably into the role of Main Attraction. He took up the entire stage with a 16-piece big band, all in identical light-blue suits, all seated in rows, all reading from music stands with the boss's name signed across them, in time-honoured Broadway style. If Morrison's set was about lusty improvisations, Charles's orchestra kept to the script as faithfully as the five Raylettes stuck to their choreographed dance steps. Only Charles, in a silver tuxedo, was allowed to let himself go: so much so that he was in danger of tumbling off his piano stool.

If a delightful show had any faults, they were that the orchestra was a touch too slick for the Blues, and that Charles misguidedly acknowledged the second half of the 20th century by using increasingly horrible synthesiser tones. But even these were rendered bearable by bravura keyboard playing to which all other rock and pop pianists can only aspire. And although Charles is now 65, we could gorge on his voice's feast of nuances, particularly on "Georgia on my Mind": the papery brittleness, a crackle, a sigh, a sob, a laugh, a gasp. Just to make those who went to Saturday's show even more jealous, on Wednesday Morrison toddled on to duet with Charles, on "Believe in My Soul". And believe in it we did.

The links between the above artists and The Band are many. Van Morrison sang at his old friends' Last Waltz, for instance, and Morrison and Charles both contributed music to the film The King of Comedy, whose soundtrack was produced by Robbie Robertson. But it has been 20 years since The Last Waltz, and Robertson has not played in the Band since then.

Ten years ago Richard Manuel committed suicide. The Band play on, and have just released High on the Hog (Pyramid), but they sorely miss Manuel's high notes and Robertson's high ambitions.

The remains of The Band at the London Forum on Thursday were Garth Hudson, a hillbilly Santa Claus; Levon Helm, a Steptoe lookalike and a nifty drummer (but why the extra drummer adding to the clatter?); Rick Danko, an oaf who can't be bothered to stifle a fat yawn during "Blind Willie McTell"; and three recruits, about whom nobody in the audience could care less.

All there was to distinguish them from a proficient but drained and galumphing bar-room combo was some instrument-swapping, and Hudson showing off his baroque 'n' roll synth technique. Without Robertson or Dylan, The Band are just a band, a bit like the Beatles without John. Or Paul. Or George.

Van Morrison & Ray Charles: Birmingham NEC, (0121) 780 4133, tonight; Newcastle Arena, (0191) 401 8000, Mon.