- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

Van Morrison brought a different sort of class to the Patriot Center Sunday night.

Some in the near-capacity crowd, though, didn’t expect the revered Northern Irish rock and R&B; singer to do it while adding a certain twang to his torch songs, brooding reveries and swinging diatribes.

Mr. Morrison, resplendently cool throughout in a black suit and white hat, led a seven-piece band through a breezy and bluesy 90-minute set that marked his first concert appearance in the Washington area in 16 years.

He moaned about “going down the drain” in the show-opening “All Work and No Play” after name-dropping Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. Maybe so, but what other white bluesman ever went to pieces in such gut-wrenchingly glorious voice?

This time, Mr. Morrison’s musicians — also dressed to the nines in black and white, as were a trio of backing vocalists — included a fiddler and a steel-guitar player. They helped apply a Nashville varnish to the arrangements for most of the night’s 19 selections, including the three from “Pay the Devil,” his latest album: the percussive bile of the original “Playhouse,” the loping, boozy misery of “There Stands the Glass” and the sparkle of another cover, “Big Blue Diamonds.”

Also getting the makeover were such staples of the latter-day Morrison songbook as the gospel-fired “Bright Side of the Road,” the slow-burning lover’s yearn of “In the Midnight” and even “Precious Time,” a jaunty reflection on mortality in which the singer na-na-na’ed like a nasal buzz saw.

“I Can’t Stop Loving You” was a big-hair natural in this context, although the Don Gibson classic first surfaced on Mr. Morrison’s lips way back on 1991’s “Hymns to the Silence.”

Come to think, it’s a wonder it took this long — nearly 40 years and 33 studio albums — for Mr. Morrison, who turns 61 this month, to release an entire CD in a country style. He has long since recorded extensive excursions into blues, jazz and gospel as well as traditional pop vocal forms. One major influence, Ray Charles, made a pioneering foray into country.

The countrypolitan polish was less pronounced as Mr. Morrison’s band — including such returning veterans as keyboardist John Allair, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, guitarist Ned Edwards and bassist David Hayes — tore through the punchy, semi-autobiographical “Cleaning Windows” and the Sonny Boy Williamson rave-up “Help Me.” Mr. Morrison fused a bit of Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula” with the former and smoked on harmonica in a duel on the latter with singer-guitarist James Hunter (who opened the show), bringing the house down.

“Stranded,” from last year’s “Magic Time,” found Mr. Morrison caught “between the devil and the deep blue sea” but lifted on a swell of organ and doo-wop vocals. He then raised some Cain on harmonica while counting the cost of being “Back on Top,” provoking some tasty picking by Mr. Edwards.

Mr. Morrison blew more than a few other well-received harp or saxophone solos, including the sax line that raised cheers at the outset of the uplifting “Have I Told You Lately.” But he again proved to be a leader who generously showcases the chops of his supporting players. One rarely hears so many succinct slide trombone solos, much less backing singers who take over the lead on a verse while the boss backs off even as the audience hangs on his every scat.

If “Moondance” strayed perilously closer to self-parody, “Crazy Love” was a stripped-down erotic gem newly charged with dramatic pauses. Righteous and mellow, all right.

Most of those not already on their feet for the one-two punch of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Wild Night” got up to chant “G-L-O-R-I-A” amid bursts of orange spotlight, as if the author of “Gloria” needed any further support to secure its place among seminal rockers for at least another 40 years.

And then Van the Man was done and gone at 9:10 p.m., not returning for an encore though it wasn’t quite bedtime for the baby boomers.

Still, he had been in bracingly strong voice. “I’m a working man in my prime,” Mr. Morrison first sang in “Cleaning Windows” some 24 years ago. No argument this morning.

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