The fact was, longer-time residents confirm, Van Morrison had never played Nashville before this night, ever, not in 40 years of appearing around the globe.
The fact that he was touring behind his new Pay The Devil album — full, as it is, of very Van versions of country tunes both celebrated and obscure — seemed to be the reason he made the city one of just seven U.S. stops on this tour. The mayor declared Van Morrison Day. It was reported that the entire Ryman sold out in twelve minutes — even with a lot of those hallowed Mother Church pew seats assigned for the night as the outrageous but, obviously enough, still-in-demand $135 variety.
Morrison showed up in natty shades, a fedora and a dark suit which gave immediate notice that it was not going to be “country only” tonight. His R&B big-band ensemble sometimes reached a dozen to fourteen members, what with backup singers coming and going, and the addition (when songs did call for a nod toward the rural) of Texans Cindy Cashdollar on pedal steel and Jason Roberts on fiddle.
Afro-American-inflected R&B is long since such a fully digested part of Morrison’s vocal attack that his extended, soulful excursions into country numbers such as Hank Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and Webb Pierce’s “There Stands The Glass” were more like witnessing latter-day Ray Charles or even Gatemouth Brown crossover turns on country than some “Belfast Cowboy” connection. (“It’s my fuh, fuh, fuh first one today,” Van’s playfully dramatic finish for the Webb Pierce standard went.)
A second short country-based sequence later in the show climaxed with a vocally stunning turn on Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again” (a closing surprise on the CD) that commanded a standing ovation.
(Standing ovations have so often, lately, become a sort of automatic, obligatory move by audiences to demonstrate to themselves that they’re having a good time, that I don’t much trust them, but this one seemed genuinely spontaneous. Three more after that, maybe not so much.)
In any case, this proved not to be, after all, predominantly a “Morrison Sounds in Country Music” sort of night. With all those horns on hand, there were inevitably instrumental jazz explorations on the likes of “Moondance”, his song that’s probably most established in those circles, with solo turns working their way across the stage. Tunes showed up, in fact, from most phases and stages of his career — Them-era “Gloria” excluded.
“I’m trying to do everything here,” he joked, halfway though the hour and a half show. “This is a workshop!”
That led into one of the evening’s many high points, a sometimes soaring, scat-filled turn on Tommy Edwards’ 1950s love ballad “It’s All In The Game”. But in truth, there were at least a few moments in an otherwise polished show where that fiddle, for one, seemed less than fully rehearsed and integrated into the full-band sound — workshop-like, indeed.
Overall, however, this was an immaculately paced performance, in a way not often seen in contemporary pop, and with the succession of songs needing no second-guessing. With that “Brown-Eyed Girl” finish, the crowd upstairs and down at the Ryman was on its feet, swaying, and providing the “sha-la-las.” There was a quiet, one-song encore, “Celtic New Year” from the recent Magic Time disc, and that was it. Van in Nashville.
Before leaving town, he headed over to see the new exhibit just opened at the Country Music Hall of Fame chronicling Ray Charles’ lifelong involvement with country music — his way. More perfect timing.