Van Morrison review, Royal Albert Hall: When it’s good, it’s great – when it’s bad, it’s still Van Morrison

The 78-year-old singer treats the historic London venue to a characteristically mercurial night of covers

Louis Chilton
Tuesday 04 June 2024 15:24
Van Morrison is set to play a special one-off show at London's legendary Royal Albert Hall

There’s a quiet irony to Van Morrison’s entrance at the Royal Albert Hall, as the band play him on for a prosaic cover of “You Are My Sunshine”. Face obscured behind dark sunglasses and a brimmed hat, mouth fixed into a near-unwavering scowl, he looks allergic to the very idea of sunshine.

But such is the mercurial appeal of Morrison, perhaps the greatest and most confounding curmudgeon in the history of popular music. Having briefly rebranded as an anti-lockdown campaigner during the height of Covid, the 78-year-old is back touring his latest album, Accentuate the Positive, a record comprising covers of classic country and rock’n’roll songs.

After “Sunshine”, he throws himself into a cover of the Everly brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” with considerably more gusto, which gamely compensates for a rather plodding arrangement – albeit with a couple of guitar licks that fleetingly evoke Linda Ronstadt’s peerless 1974 version. The band (seven men, and two women backing singers) are uniformly excellent, and come alive on the more up-tempo numbers, such as the jaunty “I Wish I Was an Apple on a Tree”.

In his pomp, Morrison was able to grab a cover by the neck and really make it his own – think back to the mid-Seventies when, newly divorced, he slowed Sam Cooke’s ineffable love song “Bring it On Home To Me” to a bitter, snarling croon. Tonight, though, many of the covers plucked from Accentuate the Positive are little more than drab re-imaginings of overly familiar oldies. Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is completely butchered, the original’s off-kilter melancholy substituted for a too-quick, pendulous bounce.

And yet, on an utterly unpredictable song-by-song basis, Morrison shows he can still turn it on when he wants. A rich and purposeful restyling of the trad folk song “Green Rocky Road” is bolstered by Morrison on guitar. (Throughout the evening, he also supplements his still-solid vocals with some functional noodling on the saxophone and harmonica.) A barnstorming guest appearance from Chris Farlowe on “Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket” sees Morrison crack a rare grin.

As you might expect from a Van Morrison gig at the Royal Albert Hall, the crowd skews older. There are a few overheard grumblings about the lack of originals – big hitters such as “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Moondance” do not feature – but the reception overall is enthusiastic and gently awed. (Anyone expecting Morrison to wheel out a set full of crowd-pleasers in the year 2024 is, frankly, living in some kind of fantasy world.)

For those close enough to the stage to catch it, there’s good fun to be had in watching Morrison gesticulate demandingly at his band – particularly the drummer, for whom the singer’s antic gestures start to look less like showmanship and more like a public disciplining.

Van Morrison performs on stage during Music For The Marsden 2020 at The O2 Arena in March 2020 in London
Van Morrison performs on stage during Music For The Marsden 2020 at The O2 Arena in March 2020 in London (Getty)

When, maybe two-thirds of the way into the set, Morrison begins threading in his original material, there’s a palpable change in energy. “Crazy Jane on God”, a somewhat deep cut from Morrison’s back catalogue, may be the standout number of the night – grand and purposeful. The uncharacteristically sanguine “Days Like This” is followed by the punchy “Wild Night”, performed here with a section of freeform vocal warbling that goes on a few dozen bars too long.

The encoreless set concludes with a final, elongated rendition of “Gloria” – arguably one of Morrison’s best-known songs, first recorded by his early band Them when he was still a teenager. As is now customary at Morrison gigs, the man himself shuffles off mid-song, leaving his band to wrap things up with a succession of virtuosic solos while he presumably hightails it into a taxi. “I want to shout it ev’ry night/ I want to shout it ev’ry day,” Morrison sings. The words don’t seem true at this point – but after six decades of G-L-O-R-I-A, who could blame him?

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