This week MondayMemories turns to John Cherry whose excellent Bournemouth Beat Boom blog offers chapter and verse on the local music scene in the 1960s. Here, John recalls a run of Van Morrison shows across two centuries... 

Van Morrison gigs have always been hit and miss affairs and the three that took place at Lighthouse over a 13-year period are good cases in point.  

In June 1994 Van pulled into town on the back of his recently released album, A Night in San Francisco. The band he had assembled for the revue-style show was one of his best, packed with excellent musicians such as Georgie Fame on Hammond organ, Ronnie Johnson on guitar, former James Brown member Haji Akbar on flugel horn, the ace saxophonist Leo Green and two vocalists to help carry the load, Brian Kennedy and James Hunter, who was a regular on the London pub circuit in the guise of Howlin’ Wilf. The set list delved into Van’s back catalogue going way back to ‘Madame George’ from Astral Weeks, ‘Crazy Love’ and ‘Moondance’ and later offerings like ‘Raincheck’, ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’ and ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’. Throw in a few choice rhythm and blues and jazz covers ranging from Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘I Believe to My Soul’, Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’ and ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’ to Johnny Kidd’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’, Rodgers and Hart’s ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid’ sung by Georgie Fame and the repertoire was enough to satisfy any Van fanatic.  

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Over the years audiences expected the introverted, serious side of Van as he delved deep into his psyche, extracting extraordinary performances out of the ether, but during this run of shows Van the showman was to the fore, as he joked and bounced off his band members, especially Mr Fame. The energy and exuberance permeated the whole auditorium and after three lengthy encores and two-and-a-half hours plus of non-stop musical brilliance, everybody went home happy.  

Fast forward six years and Van returned, but the omens were not good from the time of reaching the venue. For whatever reason, the standing concert had been switched to an all-seater and tickets had to be re-allocated before entering the building, consequently the show started later than billed. What we were about to witness was the first concert in an ill-fated collaboration with Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister, Linda Gail Lewis, and a quartet from Cardiff called the Red Hot Pokers. The gig started in a competent enough fashion with Lewis and the band running through a couple of country standards, before Van strode on with a guitar and proceeded to duet on hoary old chestnuts such as ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘You Win Again’. It wasn’t until the band struck up a Morrison original, ‘Vanlose Stairway’, that most of the crowd realised there was a problem. I couldn’t have been the only one hoping this was the first half of the show and that his usual band would take over after the interval, but it suddenly dawned on me that this was it!  

A typical Van band is a tightly run ship with a musical director and a drummer who closely studies Van for hand signals to dictate the pace and dynamic of each song, which can change from night to night. In the Red Hot Pokers, we had what appeared to be a semi-pro bar band that was in way over their heads. Sure, they could carry off a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll number and a three-chord country tune without too much of an issue, but with anything that needed light and shade or a subtle nuance, they just couldn’t hack it. By the time the concert had reached the home straight, the majority of the audience were shuffling in their seats, greeting each song with polite applause and probably miffed at shelling out good money for what appeared to be a paid rehearsal. Needless to say there was much grumbling as disgruntled punters trudged home. Apparently the hook-up with Lewis improved as the tour progressed and musicians of a higher calibre were added to bolster the struggling Pokers, but it all ended in tears with a mediocre album, claims of sex discrimination, unfair dismal and a court case which was settled privately.  

Happily, Van returned in August 2007 and made amends with an excellent show with Chris Farlowe (pictured) as his foil. The band had changed yet again with violin, pedal steel, banjo and backing vocalists, adding a different texture to the songs. As usual, there was a good spread of material, although most of the songs were from fairly recent albums except for ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and ‘Bright Side of the Road’, which were inserted to please the casual concert goers that like to hear the hits. Van’s duet with Farlowe on Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’, which he originally recorded with his band Them back in 1966, was a welcome highlight along with the more recent ‘Sometimes We Cry’ and ‘I’m Not Feeling it Anymore’.  

I have always thought Lighthouse was a perfect setting for Van Morrison, not too large and a nice intimate atmosphere and thankfully on his last visit he salvaged his reputation with the venue’s regulars, just a pity he hasn’t visited more often.   

Tickets courtesy of John Cherry

Published 24 August 2020