For many, the prospect of catching Van Morrison live offers multi-level lures — a chance to bask in a great songbook of hits and “deep cuts,” pay pilgrimage to a living legend (going strong at 74), and access personal nostalgia. My Morrison-in-concert trail goes back to The Granada Theatre in the early ’70s as an impressionable, already-smitten young teen.
But when Morrison stopped in at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, his show — more generous and emotionally loose than the last Bowl visit — proved deeper and more cosmic than expected. Emerging in a blue fedora and shades and with his saxophone, Morrison was in tight cahoots with his skilled seven-piece band. His vocal gymnastics sometimes involved poetic, improvisatory side trips: freely associative, even mildly Joyceian culture/language/spirit channeling, included bows to Big Joe Turner alongside references to the “ancient highway” and “golden sand … your God and my Lord.” Elsewhere, he alluded to having unclear thought trains before blurting out the non sequitur “Here come da fuzz,” plucked from TV’s Laugh-In.
There were the usual sampler-plate radio hits, from the crowd-juicing one-two punch of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Gloria” to close to a rendition of “Moondance” with extra swing sauce, “Days Like This,” and “Have I Told You Lately.” He ventured down various idiomatic pathways making up his sound, including vintage R&B, Chicago blues, epic folk rambles, and heaping doses of gospel spirit. A few of those ingredients go into the magical stew, for instance, that is “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” a concert highlight.
The band played on, jamming on “Gloria” right up to the 10 p.m. Bowl curfew, long after Van the Man left the stage. His mystical vision continues to beguile.