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Van Morrison at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium (Review)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

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Morrison and his 10-piece ensemble delivered a solid if not-quite-inspired set at the Masonic.

Van Morrison
Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco
Dec. 27, 2007

You know the drill.

A living legend arrives in town, graces the stage just long enough to eke out a few of his greatest hits and disappears into the night, cash in hand. In the case of someone like Bob Dylan, whose defiant snarl has been reduced to an impotent whine over the years, there will always be a chorus of apologists ready to celebrate every second of the experience, however tuneless or unintelligible. If you’re witnessing a traveling circus act like Springsteen or the Rolling Stones, the praise might even be justified by some acrobatic vigor or bona fide showmanship.

Van Morrison, whose customary stage attire – a flashless gray suit and fedora – is, by now, as familiar as the hallmarks of his legendary catalogue, sauntered onto the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium stage last night and delivered what most fans should know to expect – a workmanlike set featuring a handful of greatest hits (“Moondance,” “Bright Side of the Road”) and blues standards (Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me”) delivered faithfully but with a minimum of gusto. It was enough to send one middle-aged fan into spasmodic fits, his head bobbing and arms waving frantically in a display of emotion that Morrison, ever the stoic bard, would surely frown upon.

Not that Morrison was completely unresponsive. Known as much for his thunderous wail as his distaste for stage banter, he addressed the crowd twice – once to express his annoyance with the discordant feedback that cut short his opener, and a second time to address an insolent fan. (“Who the fuck let you in here?” he barked, to raucous applause.) Mostly, though, Van the Man let his 10-piece ensemble do the heavy lifting, reeling off a couple verses before retreating into the shadows, allowing each of his supporting players ample opportunity to show off their solo skills.

Like Dylan, whose rotating cast of backup bands during the past two decades has made each tour something of a crapshoot, Morrison is at his fiery best when inspired by the musicians around him. His current group is formidable – organist John Allair’s nimble fingerwork and pedal steel guitarist Sarah Jory’s rollicking solos were particularly gratifying – but incapable, at least on this evening, of elevating their boss to peak form. They are polished and impeccably well-rehearsed, a perfect fit for an upscale Vegas showroom if not for Morrison’s too-soulful-for-Sin City growl, which remains gloriously intact.

Yes, the voice was there, and it evoked memories of its owner’s early-’70s heyday during rousing renditions of “Playhouse” (from 2006’s country-tinged Pay the Devil) and “Help Me,” which an unusually animated Morrison seemed to relish more than his own golden oldies. (Then again, how many times could you sing “Brown-Eyed Girl” before wanting to drown yourself in Irish whiskey?) Elsewhere, the Man seemed more interested in toying deftly with his alto sax – a treat, to be sure, though slightly disappointing when he passed off vocal duties to a trio of background singers during a ho-hum version of “Moondance.”

By the time Morrison exited stage left after 95 solid if unexceptional minutes – leaving his band to finish an otherwise energetic take on “Gloria” – the crowd was on its feet, and that same middle-aged fan was flailing spastically in the aisles, grinning from ear to ear without even the slightest hint of irony. Too bad Van didn’t earn it.

Morrison will be playing the Nob Hill Auditorum again tonight. Tickets range from $100 to $200. His daughter Shana, who resides in Mill Valley and often accompanies her father for his Northern California dates, opens.

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