Occasionally those of us deeply invested in the music industry or this business they call “show” become a little jaded, world-weary and cynical. I’m the first to admit I’m one of those people and had the opportunity to be entertained by a man not adverse to grunting through an interview or walking off a stage. This could be a momentous occasion or could go down in Folk and Tumble lore as what we call “another Steve Earle night“.
The occasion is huge. It’s the closing afternoon of what’s been a hugely successful EastSide Arts Festival, it’s the 70th birthday of the recently knighted Sir Van Morrison and the tree-lined enclave of East Belfast serenity on Cyprus Avenue has been transformed into something akin to a mini festival or a mammoth street party. The buzz is tangible, up and coming indie journalists jockey for position with national broadcasters and living legends like Jill Furmanovsky to catch a glimpse of the local boy done good; the teenage tearaway who once departed his Hyndford Street home to enjoy the peace and quiet of the avenue. A new generation of cheeky scamps are leaning on the hedges to catch a glimpse of the likes of Robert Pattinson, Kim Cattrall and Chrissie Hynde as they mingle with the widely-travelled and hugely excited crowd.
Peace and quiet is the last thing on the mind of Cyprus Avenue today.
Sir George Ivan Morrison, Van to friends and foes alike strides on stage at three o’clock clutching the iconic saxophone. Despite his lack of theatrics and sometimes dour demeanour, he commands every stage. A few tense, thumps of a gold-plated microphone later the band are easing into ‘Celtic Swing’ and ‘Close Enough For Jazz’. Cameras snap, TV crews atop cranes and turrets sway in time with the music and the heavens open above East Belfast.
And all the leaves on the trees are falling to the sound of the breezes that blow.
It really is a marvellous night for a ‘Moondance’ and as the rain subsides, a glimmer of sun sneaks through the branches of the Cyprus Avenue backdrop. That old question of ‘Whatever Happened To PJ Proby’ is answered as the sixties legend joins Van on stage for a rendition of the song penned about him. Van also welcomes Chris Farlowe to share vocal duties on ‘Born to Sing’, both tunes which can be heard on the latest ‘Duets’ album.
Like Dylan sixty years ago, Van’s gone electric riffing through the Paul Robeson classic ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’, dedicated to former Beirut hostage and resident of the nearby streets Brian Keenan. It’s widely stated that Van’s music got Brian through some of those toughest times and today it’s more of an anthem of empowerment complete with the funkiest of bass line grooves and Hammond solo. A ripple of applause greets ‘Mystic of the East’ and some rise to their feet to greet a jazzy reworking of ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. The sun’s finally out, there are drum solos and the international crowd have found their voice. The band seem to revel in the party atmosphere.
‘Days Like This’ has always been a favourite of mine. Something about that brass intro to someone of my generation will always conjure up images of tumbling boys in football tops, smiling soldiers and the hope of the late 90s peace process. Today it stands defiantly as the soundtrack to a truly global event. There’s a smattering of bright blue tourist board ponchos throughout the crowd. It’s a beautifully branded, stunningly soundtracked advert for the new Northern Ireland, for peace, for East Belfast and the vision of Maurice Kinkead and the team that brought this whole thing together. Politicians are posing for selfies. No one’s mentioned a flag or a symbol. Van cracks a rare smile at the lyrical mention of “freeloaders”. We all know there are a few here. Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time.
When it’s not always raining there’ll be days like this.
The older residents of the surrounding streets have been waxing lyrical, outdoing each other’s stories of Van the Man with aplomb. One elderly lady on nearby Martinez Avenue declares “I mind him when he was running ’round the dances”. Despite the trademark sunglasses and tacky gold stage accoutrements Van is still a bluesman at heart and takes us back, way back, to the music of Mose Allison and beyond with a medley of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Parchment Farm’ and ‘Cry, Cry Baby’. Snare drum crashes resound eerily like gunfire, Morrison leads the band with a conductor’s arm. Bang, bang, bang. “That’s the comedy section over.” he cries.
Indeed it seems the “comedy” has given way to the complex transcendency of Van the mystic. ‘When God Shines His Light’ takes on a new gravitas in the shadow of the spire of Beersbridge Presbyterian Church. Van’s congregation is of all faiths and none. ‘Enlightenment’, ‘The Things I Used To Do’ and ‘And The Healing Has Begun’ follow in quick succession. Stand up Van makes a brief appearance cracking the type of Dalai Lama joke your dad would be proud of.
Like some American Evangelist, Van has cleverly taken us on a long journey ending up on ‘Cyprus Avenue’, that gruff transatlantic accent narrating a time when we will “walk down the avenue again singing songs”. Mini standing ovations now greet the end of each song. There’s no room for grandstanding here and perhaps ‘Cyprus Avenue’ and ‘Madame George’ are too obvious choices for the seventy year-old master. ‘Ballerina’ comes close as standout track from the wonderful ‘Astral Weeks’ record. He riffs on the buildings of New York City and the tranquility of the avenue in a stream of consciousness, much like the opening to ‘On Hyndford Street’ but today the avenue is more than a song. It’s a show. It’s a conversion for some and a celebration of genius for others.
A rare encore of ‘In The Garden’ is the final benediction. The sun’s dropped behind the church tower. The band are introduced and applauded for a stellar performance and frantically outro with all the pseudo-religious fervour deemed fitting for such a moment and as the birthday boy and crowd join together for a chorus of “no guru, no method, no teacher” you get the feeling that you’ve been schooled.
Schooled in the blues. Educated in the art of understated showmanship. Demonstrated to that there’s much more to East Belfast than tattered flags and sinking ships.
Happy birthday Sir and thank you EastSide Arts.