Van Morrison @ Forest Hills Stadium

QUEENS, NY—Born and raised in postwar Belfast, Ireland, George Ivan Morrison, later to be known as Van Morrison, grew up listening to his father’s vast collection of American blues, jazz, folk, country and gospel records. Morrison’s father bought him his first acoustic guitar when he was 11. A year later, the still pre-teen Morrison formed his first band, playing skiffle in local cinemas in the 1950s. He later talked his father into buying him a saxophone and played in several local showbands covering the popular hits of the day. In the mid-1960s, Morrison fronted the British Invasion band Them, in which he frequently ad-libbed and created his songs live as he performed; the band’s often-covered “Gloria” sometimes lasted up to 20 minutes. Morrison launched a solo career in 1967 with “Brown Eyed Girl.” He has received six Grammy Awards and the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution To Music, was inducted into both the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and this year was knighted Sir Van Morrison, OBE. Morrison’s 35th studio album, Duets: Re-working The Catalogue, was released on March 24, 2015.

Morrison headlined the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens tonight, the only United States show on his summer tour. Despite the warm summer night, Morrison came on stage wearing a sports jacket and hat—even an ascot poking out from the neckline of his button-down shirt. Eyes closed most of the time behind his tinted glasses, speaking minimally to the audiences and seldom moving from his spot, he seemed disconnected from everyone except his musicians. Morrison played saxophone, harmonica and guitar, but his mastery was in his singing. Morrison has an unremarkable tenor, but what he did stylistically with this voice was spectacular.

While his band played a blend of jazz, blues and rock, Morrison sang pop songs with rhythm & blues inflections. Whether calculated or instinctual, Morrison’s delivery, with its warbles, muffles, growls, hesitations, sudden starts and stops, silences, shifts in pressure and nasal tones, were all nuanced and yet were the majestic core of his two-hour 22-song set. He sang the hits, including reworked versions of “Moondance,” “Wild Night,” Them’s “Here Comes The Night” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” but also gave his musicians plenty of space to feed the arrangements. Perhaps too many songs were filled out with extended keyboard, guitar, bass and drum breaks, to the excessive point where for the final song, he walked off after singing about two minutes of “Gloria” and then let the band play for another eight minutes without him even present. In the end, the fine concert would have been exquisite if Morrison’s mellifluous singing had been more the centerpiece of the performance.

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