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Sober Life
by Sinclair Newton



Sober Life

He used to be the master of rock and growl.

Van Morrison, who once did a complete concert with his back to the audience, has turned to vaudeville for his new incarnation.

He wore an ill-fitting suit for his unusually lively performance at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, the purpose-built concert arena for the Halle Orchestra. They spent a fortune on the acoustics so you could hear a cellist picking his nose and it was worth every Euro.

Poor Van has always been the subject of criticism for his posturing, never for his sublime voice, cutting through the ether like a broken bottle coming at you in a Belfast alley, and here I am doing it again.

But the trousers and cuffs on his new suit were too long and at times, singing jazzy, up-beat versions from his powerful back catalogue, he resembled nothing more than George Melly on a good day. You'd think he could have had a seamstress come to the dressing room.

He had barrel-chested former blues singer Chris Farlowe as a support act, which is where he should have stayed instead of being treated so reverentially. Van has a history of doing this, once with Lonnie Donegan, and it makes him seem pathetically modest.

Then there was the voice. Critics can say what they like about Van Morrison, but in these surroundings the voice was just his. He went down Cypress Avenue, with the childlike visions coming into view, and that voice was there. He rambled on the Vanlose Stairway and it gripped your head and pinned you to your seat. It was just so good to know he was still there and well and he could sound just so, just like that.

It's a bit of a bummer really that he has lightened up so much. I have to confess I liked him when he was cantankerous. And what was this? A smile? No, a grin. He was actually enjoying himself.

I was jokingly thinking he would be asking for requests next, when he did. Then he sang "Brown Eyed Girl" and the sweet things in the audience clapped their palms rhythmically as if they were at a Cliff Richard concert. It was embarrassing, but I even forgave him that because he deserves it, dammit! Quite what he was doing performing here for the ladies who lunch and the couples who are regular attendees for classical concerts is a different point. They seem to have been first online, gobbling up the £30 and £40 seats like hungry geese, so it may not have been intended.

But real Van followers were paying double those prices to the ticket touts. The one-off concert had sold out in hours a month ago and it felt more like a gala performance with everybody dressed up. There were men in ties and four housewives next to me who had very sensibly ordered two glasses of wine each for the interval.

I have to say though how remarkably sober the audience was and they didn't make a quick dash for one of the excellent real ale pubs nearby.

Earlier that day I had been held up in a queue at the Town Hall by an old man telling his life story to the lady behind the counter. I was getting fidgety when a thought came to me rather like the one Paul had on the road to Damascus.

"Be patient," I thought. "He's not going to see Van Morrison tonight and this is the highlight of his day."

It was a sobering thought then and it has stayed with me since. That, and the sound of that voice.

Sinclair Newton