Van Morrison in Concert
United Palace Theater
New York City
March 15, 2008
The air was cool and the streets were filled with middle-aged transplanted white folks from the suburbs, all making there way to the upper reaches of Manhattan island175th Street and Broadway, to be precisethe area known as Washington Heights. The occasion for this excursion was a much anticipated and somewhat rare performance by the iconoclastic singer/songwriter Van Morrison at the magnificent United Palace theater.
The real story of this evening of entertainment was the venue itself, originally built in 1930 as one of three Loews Wonder Theaters designed specifically for vaudeville and theatrical acts. The AIA guide describes its design as "Cambodian Neo-Classical," and New York Times writer David Dunlap calls it an "Oriental palace of Jewels." This 3600-seat landmark edifice was the inspiration of famed theater architect Thomas Lamb, whose architectural credits include the original Madison Square Garden on 26th Street and Madison Avenue as well as the famous Ziegfeld theater on 54th and Sixth Avenue. The Palace, as it should be rightfully called, was restored to its original, magnificently excessive opulence in 1969 by the current ownersand what an eyeful to behold. The acoustics, moreover, were exceptionally good all the way to the balcony, where the ornamentation included everything from the Bodhisattva to Joan of Arc.
It was Van Morrison who seemed to come up short of expectations.
The seasoned crowd had come to honor and enjoy the veteran Irish crooner and partake in a little nostalgia but unfortunately were likely disappointed. Garbed in a gray double- breasted suit and with his now trademark fedora and dark glasses, the man they call Van was joined by a 12-piece orchestra that included a drummer, a percussionist, two guitarists, a violinist, an electric bassist, a Hammond organist, a keyboard player, and two back-up singersone who doubled on trumpet and the other a pedal steel player tripling on dobro and guitar.
Throughout the evening Morrison sang and played saxophone, ukulele and some harmonica. His voice was in fine form and his backing musicians were all accomplished but never allowed to stray from the precise program. The leader's penchant for control was apparent in the relative absence of spontaneity from these capable but harnessed musicians. He never introduced any of them to the audience, plowing through one song after another in a way that left one feeling he had better things to do later on that evening. His apparent control problem manifested itself even in an unbending insistence on starting the show at the precisely appointed time of 7:30 pm. The near impossible task of all 3600 patrons finding parking spaces in this vehicle-unfriendly location and then making opening curtain meant that many in the audience were finding their way to their seats through much of the first half of the show, to the distraction of those of us who were already seated.
When all is said and done we came to hear the man sing and inspire us with jazz-influenced, soulful renderings of his memorable songs. The music he did play was apparently from his upcoming new release Keep it Simple and leaned heavily on traditions that spanned country, blues, Dixieland, rock and roll, gospel, Celtic and a touch of jazz.
Even though an artist is always changing and should not be expected to remain frozen in time rehashing old gems just for old times' sake, an audience deserves some acknowledgment from the artists they have loyally supported over the years. With musicians it usually comes in the form of playing some classics for those who have a special connection with the artist and a particular song. As a long-time fan with several albums I was unable to identify any of the music that he did perform with the exception of his finale, which included a quick-tempo version of his famous "Gloria."
In speaking with some of the patrons afterwards, it became clear that I was not the only one unfamiliar with the music he played. In fact, most people I talked to found the performance less than thrilling if not a downright disappointment. This is not to say he didn't sing masterfully, which he did, but there was something severely lacking on this evening. In fact, the lack of spontaneity and disconnect with his fans bordered on indifference. It seemed that in an effort to "Keep it Simple" Morrison had gone to the extreme of keeping it uninspired. The crowd came to hear the man they had grown up with, and while they got a journeyman's performance, they ended up giving more than they got. With ticket prices going for double face value, the whole experience left a number of formerly supportive fans feeling totally taken.