Column: Van Morrison Irish concert was meant to be

By SCOTT SAALMAN

TRIM, Ireland — “I didn’t tell my wife that there was a five-course meal involved or she would’ve wanted to come along,” said this Irish guy, Aidan, sheepishly, as we indulged in identical racks of bloody lamb, a complimentary pre-show feast before the real main course: Van Morrison. “But she would’ve wanted to go home before Van played.”

Aidan was on his fourth or fifth Sunday night Guinness. His beer-breathed brogue inched closer to incoherence. The last I saw of him, he was crawling on the floor looking for his billfold.

As long as too much beer wasn’t involved, the English spoken by the Irish was fairly easy to follow during my long weekend in Ireland, with one exception: during a 5 a.m. taxi ride to the airport. The sleepy-eyed, elderly driver was prone to slipping into his ancestral Gaelic in midsentence, at first alarming me that he was at the onset of a stroke while we sped down the dark, deserted country road toward Dublin — driving on the left side of the road, mind you, the wrong side in my mind (I don’t care where you live, left is wrong, right is right) — flying past the spectral glow of sheep in fields, but then his tongue untwisted, the Gaelic vanished and his sentences concluded in muttered English. I simply replied, “Wow, sheep!”

Even slurring, Aidan discussed Van’s music in a scholarly way. It was like sitting next to an Irish me. In the States, mention Van and a person responds, “Oh, I love ”˜Brown Eyed Girl,’” and then the conversation typically stalls. I know they are sincere — who doesn’t love “Brown Eyed Girl”?—but there’s much more to Van than those sunny sha-la-la singalong parts.

Van has released more than 30 albums of new material since “Brown Eyed Girl.” Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, his music is a melting pot of genres: soul, R&B, folk, jazz, country, big band, classical, blues, gospel and even skiffle.

He is why I visited Ireland recently. I’m still surprised I got a ticket, this based on my failed attempts to see him during his rare stints in the States, not to mention the seat count for the Trim show was 300. Yes, only 300! I couldn’t nab a ticket for a 3,600-seat venue in Chicago, but I had no problem getting one for a 300-seat show in Van’s homeland at the lovely Knightsbrook Hotel & Golf Resort.

The resort is on the outskirts of a little village, called Trim, near Dublin. Also there that weekend was the Irish Deaf Golf Union, a group of deaf golf enthusiasts. Their Saturday evening awards ceremony was conducted entirely in sign language, and I was fascinated by their enthusiastic flashes of fingers and hands. When the first golfer went to the podium to accept an award, I was startled by the sound of his peers clapping. I had not expected their claps to make noise. I returned to my room wondering, “How do they effectively signal ”˜Fore!’ after an errant shot?”
When the black-clad Van took the stage Sunday night, I clapped along with the other 299 lucky ones there, speechless, for there I was 100 feet from the greatest song man alive in an intimate nightclub setting.

Those who know Van only for his early music will likely not recognize his voice now. His lyrics launch from the belly, not the throat, sounding deeper, richer, a soulful snarl here, a roar there, his voice having aged gracefully like fine bourbon.

His first vocal at Trim, once his lips parted from the reed during his introductory sax solo, was during “Close Enough For Jazz.” He then sang “Only a Dream,” and the night became dreamlike, scores of little white lights on the black backdrop shining like stars. This was followed by “Magic Time,” and it was just that, a magic time, the backing horns and finger-snap rhythm of the seven-piece band lifting and lofting my spirit like a magic carpet ride through the Irish night.

He jazzed up “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance.” A rollicking harmonica-juiced “Baby Please Don’t Go” made our heads bob. He played “Gloria,” “Jackie Wilson Said,” “Here Comes the Night.” From the piano, he sang “Have I Told You Lately,” one of his loveliest compositions later radio-ruined by Rod Stewart. Of the 17 Trim songs, one was “Days Like This,” arguably my favorite: “When it’s not always raining, there’ll be days like this; when there’s no one complaining, there’ll be days like this; when everything falls into place like the flick of a switch; well, my mama told me, there’ll be days like this.”

I chatted with an awestruck American couple afterward. “We stopped questioning our good luck over getting tickets, let go of the mystery of it all,” one of the Ohioans said, “and happily agreed that it just was meant to be.”

Like Van sings, sometimes there are days when “everything falls into place like the flick of a switch.”

What more can I say about my Ireland trip, my best long weekend ever, other than “Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da.”

Scott Saalman and the Will Read (and sing) For Food Players will perform a benefit show for Community Food Bank at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 6, at Snaps. Admission: a canned good or monetary donation.




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