One wonders how the famously litigious Van the Man — who for sure was "real, real gone" during Covid — was ever persuaded to give the green light to the Van Morrison Songbook, the perennial festivals' favourite which this year took place in An Chultúrlann on Sunday's closing night.
'Festivals' rather than 'festival', mind you, because this tribute night is unique in being included in both the Féile an Phobail (West Belfast) and EastSide Arts (East Belfast) festival programmes – an act of diplomatic bilocation which would bring a smile to Padre Pio's lips.
It's possible Van's blessing for this soulful homage was never sought on the basis of better to say sorry than to ask permission. Either way, this remains an unrequited love letter to Belfast's most famous singing son created by three of our most talented musicians: Ken Haddock, Anthony Toner and Matt McGinn, who have, to be fair, been caught more than once on Cyprus Avenue.
The three accomplished guitarists were joined on this occasion by Gaeilge chanteuse Gráinne Holland who performed translations of Van classics 'Days Like This' ('Laetheanta Mar Seo') and 'Crazy Love' ('Grá Gan Chiall') with a little help from skilful local novelist and translator Seán Ó Muireagáin.
East meets West le cheolchoirm den chéad scoth @EastSideArtsBel— Cultúrlann (@Culturlann) August 14, 2022
Van Morrison Songbook book le Anthony Toner, @grainneholland Ben Haddock, @MattMcGinnMusic @ATownNews @ArtsCouncilNI @ForasnaGaeilge @raidiofailte @FailteFeirste @FeileBelfast @belfastcc pic.twitter.com/EOLFxk5yOG
Highlights were many — in the sweltering heat of the Cultúrlann theatre, there was a special roar of recognition for 'Warm Love' — in a set which oozed with brilliance. This is not the first Van rodeo for Messrs McGinn, Toner and Haddock but each continues to rise to the occasion with just the right mix of reverence and revelry. McGinn is a wizard on guitar, Toner a consummate showman and Haddock a demolition man who knocks Van's songs down and then rebuilds them even better than the originals. Wait, that may be going a little too far: let's settle for as good as the originals.
And without the muse and mentor present, the rules governing a Van the Man concert can be discarded - for heaven's sake, Matt McGinn even led a Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-te-da sing-song. When did you last see that at a Van Morrison concert?
Haddock's high point was his own version of 'Into the Mystic' — repeatedly voted best Van song ever - prompting the observation from McGinn that "Ken's played that song five million times but never the same way twice."
Crowd-pleasers — and this was an easy crowd to please — 'Brown Eyed Girl', 'Bright Side of the Road' and 'Cleaning Windows' all made welcome appearances but for this veteran of these Van Morrison Songbook specials, Toner's 'St Dominic's Preview' won the day. Or rather, the night.
East and West coming together in a bilingual homage to a a singer both revered and feared by his fans? You don't get much more Belfast than that. Bravo!