Belfast rocks to the Van and Bob show

First Night: Van Morrison and bob dylan, botanic gardens, belfast
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The Independent Online
UP TO a year ago nobody could have accused Belfast Civic Authority of being an institution driven by fun, but, like everything in Ulster these days, strange things are afoot.

The open-air concert event has been a rarity in Northern Ireland's past, but last year's U2 concert - attended by 40,000 in these very botanic gardens - set in motion a trend as irreversible as the peace process. People want a little fun and last night, as bizarre as anything else in these times, they wanted it with two of the infamous old curmudgeons in rock.

Fronting a five-piece band, with no keyboards but a tall guy in leather trousers doubling on dobro and mandolin and a shimmering guitar sound- scape, Bob was here to confound the sceptics with a performance this time that, if not inspirational, was never less than energised and never embarrassing.

He even spoke to us - introducing an old Irish folk song "Stephen's Green" that, to judge from the expressions of his band, had been introduced on the spur of the moment. "Never tried that before," he said. Hey, it wasn't bad.

And neither were the classics he let us hear - "It ain't me babe", "Don't think twice", even "This Wheel's on Fire". The bulk of the set was big and electric - a pulsing, consistent ZZ Top-ish behemoth that lent a sort of freshness to the likes of "Serve somebody" and "Under the Red Sky". The highlight was a gloriously extended "Tangled up in Blue".

Van was up for a good time too. He opened with "Days like this" - unashamedly a song everybody knew, since it was used by the government in a series of television peace commercials. After it he speaks. This is a man who gets through entire concerts without doing so.

"That was from the peace gig we did with Bill Clinton," he said. "This one's from the last record." He even told us what it was called.

His brand new band were fabulous, swathing everything with a light, airy, soulful shimmer. Most of the set was genuinely uplifting. "Satisfied", from the blissful Common One album, set the tone. "Any requests?" he said, and he really meant it. Fifteen thousand people roared. The 1989 hit single "Whenever God shines his light" resulted. When Morrison wants to be - like tonight - he is unquestionably a brilliant inspirational entertainer. If this night was any indication of the rest of the UK tour (Glasgow tonight to Wembley arena next Saturday), you'd be well advised to make the effort.