Why I’d swap the heights of Bruce Springsteen for just one transcendent Van Morrison moment – Ralph McLean

At the age of 78, Van Morrison is still gigging hard, with intimate shows at the Culloden Hotel on Sunday and Monday ahead of a large open air concert at Botanic Gardens in May and the Royal Albert Hall in London in June. He keeps doing it because he’s addicted to the moments of communion and transcendence that come from playing live, says self-confessed ‘Vanatic’ Ralph McLean about the performer he believes is Ireland’s greatest living artist

Van Morrison is to play two gigs in Belfast next month
Van Morrison - usually controversial, often brilliant, 'Ireland's greatest living artist' finds communion in performing live

“It’s all about communion.” That’s what Van Morrison once told me when I asked why he still loved playing live after all his years in the game.

It was winter 2014 and we were at a modest after-show party upstairs in the Groucho Club in Soho, the only time I’ve ever darkened the bowels of that infamous showbiz retreat. It followed Lit Up Inside, a remarkable night of Van’s words and music in the nearby Lyric theatre, and the man himself was happy, albeit briefly, to expound on his favourite form of artistic expression.

The small top floor room was sparsely populated and the celebrity headcount was decidedly low. I seem to remember the poet Michael Longley devouring a burger in the corner but the usual array of minor celebs and vaguely familiar TV faces you might expect to clock at such an event were mercifully absent.

Van Morrison live on Cyprus Avenue on Monday Picture by Hugh Russell
Van Morrison in 2015 during his famous live performance on Belfast's Cyprus Avenue (Hugh Russell)

I’d enjoyed a pre-show pint with crime writer Ian Rankin, the evening’s genial host, in an adjacent hostelry earlier and bumped into the great Edna O’Brien, who had regaled us with an unforgettable reading of Madame George at the gig, as she hailed a taxi outside, but otherwise the London media set had long dissolved into the West End night.

Van himself would, perhaps predictably, only grace the gathering for a few brief minutes, arriving furtively via a side door and barely breaking stride before departing again, but I wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed the show so I quickly cornered him all the same – well, how often are you going to find yourself face to face in a late night London drinking den with the man you consider to be Ireland’s greatest living artist?

His eyes may have been darting round the room looking for the nearest exit sign as we spoke but he was clearly buzzing from the experience we had shared in that venue an hour or so before. That brief chat we had about the communal qualities of live music has stayed with me ever since.

You see, I’ve witnessed a lot of bands and artists live down the years. In some ways it’s an occupational hazard in my line of work but there are many acts I’ve gone to see in my own time and at my own expense, as well as those I’ve been paid to be in the presence of.

Very few, if any, have matched up to Van Morrison in terms of having that extra special something that sets them apart from the crowd. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen some truly phenomenal live acts down the decades.

Suddenly a light is flicked on and connection is made. It may be a mere fleeting moment in a standard performance when the stars align and the magic happens but it’s those moments that keep us, and presumably Van, coming back for more

Some, like Bruce Springsteen, never fail to impress. Every time I’ve been lucky enough to see The Boss - also a lifelong Van fan, by the way - in concert he’s delivered the goods and then some. I’ve watched him take packed stadiums to amazing heights of excitement and joy for hours at a time but I’d still swap the experience for just one transcendent moment at a Van gig.

A good Van Morrison concert - and I’ve had the pleasure of being at many down the years - can be a truly unique experience. I’ll be the first to admit that it certainly doesn’t happen every time the man takes to a stage; you’ll never get a guaranteed ‘all the hits and more’ package with all the stage managed emotion that entails from this particular legend, but it’s the possibility of those fleeting moments of magic that we hardened Vanatics, as I like to call us, crave constantly all the same.

Being a natural born jazzer, Van is always seeking to be ‘in the moment’ – “It’s all about the now,” he once told me enigmatically – and occasionally when the band hits a groove and the man they used to call the Belfast Cowboy stares off into the middle distance something truly magical happens.

Suddenly a light is flicked on and connection is made. It may be a mere fleeting moment in a standard performance when the stars align and the magic happens but it’s those moments that keep us, and presumably Van, coming back for more. For me it usually happens at the least expected times.

An intense take of Ballerina performed outdoors on the north coast as the sun went down in the shadow of Dunluce Castle comes to mind, as does a spiritually uplifting version of In The Garden in the decidedly less-than-spiritually uplifting surroundings of the SSE Arena some years back.

I still feel a little shiver of excitement when I remember a surprise rendition of Into The Mystic, thrown away almost as an afterthought, at an intimate jazz flavoured gig in the Europa Hotel and a triumphant Gloria thumped out with abandon in Warrenpoint town hall for the annual Blues On The Bay celebrations a good decade back.

There are many more moments of musical transcendence like that filed away in my memory bank and hopefully plenty more to come as well.

Raise the Roof
Van Morrison is still aiming to find those magical moments of communion between himself and the audience (PA/Suzan Moore)

I’m not old enough to have seen the young Van strut his stuff in sweaty Irish dancehalls with The Monarchs and Them in the sixties or when he was strumming his way through Astral Weeks in the basement clubs of Boston as that decade came to a close, or when his Caledonian soul vision was roaring away at full tilt in the early seventies, but I imagine the magical moments came around thick and fast back then as well.

He can’t help himself really. It’s just what he does. It’s why, despite everything, we keep on coming back to see him and it’s why I’ll be there when he plays Botanic Gardens in May.

If there’s even a glimmer of a chance of one of those communal moments coming my way, I want to be the very first in line.