There is something innately special about the thought of seeing a favorite artist or band play their hometown. Dylan in Minnesota. Bruce in Jersey. Wilco in Chicago. To see these guys perform where it all began, before all the hype and celebrity nearly guarantees a unique and powerful performance unlike any other.
Van Morrison, having long been revered amongst the extended Kane and Fitzpatrick family, would easily fit in this camp. I have fond memories of listening to “Wild Night” on repeat while drinking Tahitian Treat by the case load and battling my brothers in NHL ’95 over and over again at my dad’s house nearly 20 years ago. He has since stayed on my short list of favorites through the years; with a more recent highlight being able to witness, along with 100,000+ of our closest friends, Morrison deliver a blistering set to close out the 2010 New Orleans Jazz Fest.
So last week when I discovered Van was playing an intimate show in his hometown of Belfast, it was a no brainer: I was hopping a bus and heading north. What made this gig even more compelling was the venue of choice, the historic Europa Hotel. Known as the most bombed hotel in the world after suffering nearly 30 attacks during The Troubles, it has persevered through the years and is now a main tourist destination and top hotel for Belfast City. President and First Lady Clinton stayed here in 1995 and 1998 while working on the peace process in Northern Ireland. NOTE: I unsuccessfully tried to book into the Clinton Suite for my stay on Saturday night, although the fine folks at the front desk did put me just down the hall on the 10th floor.
After a five-hour journey with connecting busses from Galway to Dublin and Dublin to Belfast, I arrived at the Europa Hotel Saturday evening just in time for the pre show ballroom dinner. Yes, when you book a ticket to see Van Morrison in a 300-person room in the most famous hotel in his hometown, you get a full course meal and all you can drink wine before the show. Who says Van is a total curmudgeon?
At my table were a great group from Belfast who had all seen similar shows from Van at least four or five times previously. They were pleasantly surprised to hear my story of why an American living in the West of Ireland decided to travel north for the night to see the show (when it was established that no one at the table was familiar with Pearl Jam or Wilco I decided to hold off on describing any of my other previous rock n roll pilgrimages) and remarked how they were fascinated by the amount of people they have met who travel from all over the world for a chance to see the legend play his hometown.
Moments after the final plate was cleared the band took the stage, launching into the instrumental “Celtic Swing,” with Van leading the way with his signature sax.
What struck me most about Morrison last night was his effortless skill as a bandleader. Directing his seven-piece group with both a casual persona as well as a striking professionalism of someone who has been at the top of his game for over five decades. He truly appeared to be enjoying himself on stage too, remarking halfway through his set, “Hey I’ve finally got a pulse tonight!”
Whether it was because it was a hometown show or just a lucky Saturday night, the crowd was treated to two hours of amazing music from one of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. With a songbook as rich as his to pull from, there was no sign of the massive chart topping hits that are played at karaoke bars every night the world over, and I don’t think the crowd would’ve had it any other way. If you told me some 20 years ago that one day I’d witness Van The Man perform in such an intimate and historic venue right in his own backyard, the word “surreal” would immediately come to mind. Last night confirmed it, a night I will not soon forget.
And for you history buffs out there (looking at you Kev Murph and Dan Fitz) check out this BBC documentary on the history of the Europa Hotel during The Troubles. Fascinating stuff.