Established artists and their managers over the last five years or so have agonised about how they will introduce new material live and build up enough nerve to avoid playing essential classic tracks. Van Morrison appeared to make a breakthrough. Morrison didn’t play critical staples such as “Brown Eyed Girl”, Sometimes We Cry”, or “Have I Told You Lately”. Furthermore, the entire set consisted of songs from two LPs he released this year: Moving on Skiffle and Accentuate the Positive.
When Van Morrison opened with the Johnny Mercer cover “Accentuate the Positive”, the audience was mute. It appeared nonplussed, but when Morrison finished, there was uncontrollable clapping and cheering as if they were held back following deep absorption and concentration of the opening song. With both 2023 albums consisting solely of covers of Morrison’s favourites and those of his and the majority of the audience youth, most knew that certain songs such as “Problems” were by The Everley Brothers and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was by Hank Williams. The thrill didn’t come from singing along, for the majority didn’t; the ecstasy came from Van performing these songs in his natural, unweathering vocals and unique style of blue-eyed soul with jazz, rock and folk.
Whilst the crowd didn’t move and dance much more as catchier numbers such as “Shakin’ All Over” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” were played, the applauses grew more rapturous. Although Morrison clearly showed more perchance to certain artists than others with multiple covers of the Everley Brothers, Hank Williams, and Big Joe Turner, the audience was more interested in Van’s vocals and interpretations of these songs. Van made these songs sound like Van Morrison without dialogue. Any chit-chat in-between about the songs or artists or visuals of the artists being covered would have potentially made the live experience for the audience less enjoyable. Van’s Shepherd’s Bush performance was about him and his deft seven-piece band.
Whilst it’s unlikely that other artists will be able to copy Van Morrison’s example and avoid playing their classic hits live, one learned from this performance that if artists are going to do covers, they need to make sure they own them and that the chosen songs can be assimilated into their unique style. Covers, solely to pay homage to someone else, using arrangements that don’t come naturally to an artist won’t be well received. Van Morrison gave the audience a Van Morrison Show. That is what fans came to see, and that’s what Van delivered.