Van Morrison was worth the wait

Gray Areas

Van Morrison appears in this part of the country only slightly more often than Haley’s Comet.

According to the website setlist.fm, Morrison’s last show in Cleveland was 1978 and his last date in Pittsburgh was 1973. There are some gaps in that site’s concert listings, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t skipped a chance to see Morrison since I moved here in 1984.

For whatever reason, a blues / jazz / rock / soul singer from Northern Ireland has decided a country-leaning outdoor festival is the best showcase for an act that seems tailored for an intimate jazz club, and this is the second year he’s appeared on dates for Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival, which played KeyBank Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa., on Friday.

I’m not complaining. Anything that brings Morrison within 250 miles of here is welcome. And Friday’s set didn’t disappoint.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Morrison played saxophone, harmonica and keyboard, but his greatest instrument always has been and always will be his voice. His tone and the way he’ll bend a phrase or repeat a syllable over and over for emphasis are gifts that haven’t diminished in his 73 years.

Seeing Morrison for the first time live, part of me wanted him to play the “Tupelo Honey,” “Moondance” and “Saint Dominic’s Preview” albums in their entirety back to back to back. But Morrison isn’t a greatest hits act. He’s always followed his own muse.

And as much as I enjoyed a jazzy “Moondance,” a rollicking “Wild Night” and other chestnuts like “Wonderful Remark” and “Jackie Wilson Said,” my favorite song of the night might have been “Broken Record” from his 2017 release “Versatile,” with Morrison and his band mimicking the sound of a needle stuck in the groove of a scratched record. “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a country standard that Morrison originally recorded in the early ’90s, also was a standout.

The show wasn’t perfect by any means. The sound was too soft for the first half-dozen songs or so, forcing the audience to strain to hear his vocals.

On at least three songs, Morrison stared back at the drummer and vigorously thrusted his right arm back and forth at the quicker pace he wanted the percussionist to match. The singer and the rhythm section never did seem in sync on “Brown Eyed Girl,” which was a bit of a train wreck.

Those dancing in the pavilion and on the lawn didn’t seem to care.

Morrison seemed to be the primary draw among the seven acts on the bill. The couple sitting behind me drove to the show from Cincinnati; a mother and daughter behind me in a concession line made the trip from Minnesota just to see him.

Brandi Carlile, who I knew primarily from the songs “The Story” and “The Joke,” won me over with a powerful voice, soul-bearing lyrics and an engaging stage presence. Alt-country favorite Sturgill Simpson channeled the Allman Brothers Band and other blues-influenced southern rockers with his set.

Willie, well, was Willie. These days he’s looking every bit of 85 years old. But while he had to cancel some tour dates earlier this year due to health issues, his voice sounded strong Friday. However, his beat-up acoustic guitar “Trigger” seemed to be tuned in an entirely different key than the rest of the band for opening number “Whiskey River.”

But for me and many at the amphitheater, the Outlaw Music Festival was a chance to check one of the greatest singers of all time off of our concert-going bucket lists.

I now have to come up with a new answer to the question, “Who is the performer you most want to see that you’ve never seen before?”

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com

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