Coinciding with Tuesday's (March 7) release of his country album, Irish-born singer-songwriter Van Morrison capped off his first-ever visit to Nashville with a triumphant concert at the Ryman Auditorium.
The Nashville show was the sixth of Morrison's seven-date concert tour to support Pay the Devil, his first album for Nashville-based Lost Highway Records. Recorded in Ireland, the 15-track album features Morrison's versions of several country classics, including songs popularized by Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Connie Smith and others, along with three new originals.
The Ryman's seating capacity is less than 2,400, and tickets to the concert sold out immediately when they went on sale several weeks ago. In the hours leading up to the concert, scalpers on the street were asking as much as $1,000 for tickets with a face value of $125.
Morrison's band hit the stage promptly for the 7:30 p.m. show time while many of the fans were still stuck in the line to enter the auditorium. Martina McBride, Dierks Bentley, Terri Clark and Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn were among those attending.
After a one-song warm-up from the band, Morrison strolled onstage with a saxophone to open with "Did Ye Get Healed." Following it up with "Stranded," a track from last year's Magic Time album, he then moved into hardcore country with "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and "There Stands the Glass." Both of the songs sounded even stronger in concert, but the album and the show were highlighted by the somewhat obscure cover tune, "Big Blue Diamonds." Jacky Ward's original recording of the song barely cracked Billboard's country Top 40 in 1972.
Six songs into his set, Morrison returned to his more familiar original material, including a lengthy version of "Moondance." At times, Morrison's band featured as many as 14 musicians and background vocalists. With Morrison leading the band while helping out on saxophone and harmonica, the arrangements were razor sharp, and the quality of the musicianship second to none. Most of the players were Morrison's longtime associates, but the country songs got an additional air of authenticity from Texas mainstay Cindy Cashdollar on Dobro and steel guitar and Asleep at the Wheel member Jason Roberts on fiddle.
Later in the show, Morrison did another three-song country segment with an emotional interpretation of Rodney Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again" and his own originals, "This Has Got to Stop" and "Playhouse." Given the quality of Morrison's latest work, the next logical progression would be for him to record an album of his own country songs. Don't hold your breath on that happening, though. We're talking about someone who has spent his entire career puzzling the world with what his next musical move might be.
As the 90-minute show began to wind down, he offered "It's All in the Game," a Tommy Edwards pop hit from the early '50s that has long been included in Morrison's live shows. It's essentially a country song, and when you factor in Morrison's fascination with Ray Charles, it's obvious his country roots run deep. (In fact, Morrison's brief time in Nashville included a private viewing of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's new exhibit, I Can't Stop Loving You: Ray Charles and Country Music, that officially opens later this week.)
Given Morrison's reputation for general grumpiness and a penchant for serious songs, it's almost hard to believe that he's the guy who wrote and recorded "Brown Eyed Girl." More surprising, perhaps, is that he actually closed his show with the 1967 pop smash. On the other hand, Morrison seemed to be in a playful mood throughout Tuesday's concert. Maybe part of it had to do with Mayor Bill Purcell declaring Tuesday as Van Morrison Day in Nashville.
After "Brown Eyed Girl," Morrison returned to the stage for a one-song encore -- "Celtic New Year" from Magic Time.
The Nashville concert followed shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas. Morrison's U.S. tour concludes Wednesday (March 8) in Boston.