March 14, 2008
South by Southwest music festival - March 12, 2008
By DARRYL STERDAN - Sun Media

AUSTIN, Tex. -- Change is good. Even for Van Morrison. Perhaps especially for Van Morrison.

Anyone who's seen the Irish legend live knows he's an inconsistent performer. He can be brilliant. He can be brutal. He can be boring. And you never know which one to expect.

Thankfully, the 62-year-old singer-songwriter wasn't phoning it in at his showcase to kick off the SXSW music festival. But maybe that's because he wasn't on familiar ground. Instead of slogging through Gloria for an arena crowd, Van the Man was previewing new fare for a few hundred lucky fans packed into an Austin nightclub.

Crowded onto the small stage with his 10-piece band, Morrison seemed engaged, moving swiftly through 14 songs in a one-hour set, with the bulk of the tunes taken from his forthcoming 35th CD, Keep it Simple. Cuts such as Lover Come Back, End of the Land, Song of Home, No Thing and the ironic Don't Go to Nightclubs Anymore ("like this one" he quipped mid-song) lived up to the album title, emphasizing unfussy blues, soul, Americana and gospel over big arrangements. Perhaps more telling, the performances were free of the endless round-robin band solos that he often uses to pad his shows.

Even Morrison -- who switched between sax and ukulele for much of the set -- seemed to enjoy the novelty of the situation. In his own dry way, of course. "I'm glad we're getting somewhere," he cracked at the halfway point. "I got other things to do tonight."

From a prickly curmudgeon like him, that's practically a hug.


Of course, even that didn't stop him from inching toward the back of the stage while scatting his final song and bolting after exactly 60 minutes, leaving the band to clean up. Hey, some things never change.