Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Van at the Harp Bar December 31, 2013

Where's Wally?

To end 2013 in style, The Harp Bar hosted none other than Belfast, blues legend, Van Morrison to start the new year off with a bang.  The Harp Bar which opened in late September, sold only 120 tickets, all without the help of any mass advertising.  With many regulars from the Duke of York and surrounding bars adopting this bar to their repertoire, word of mouth solely drove this event amongst local Belfast drinkers.  Unsurprisingly tickets sold out within fifteen minutes. On the very frosty night prior to ticket sales, a queue had formed from midnight with fans waiting in cars and on pavements outside the busy bar.  As I swept the ground outside whilst finishing my own night shift there, some fans told me they were buying tickets for family in America, who were prepared to fly over for their chance to see “Van the Man” in close proximity.

I arrived on NYE at 6 o’clock to hear the final sound check and hear the extremely talented, American-born, backing singer Deena rattle off “Amazing Grace” into her microphone.  Little did I know what raw talent all members of Van’s band had; after more sound checks the staff were not only astounded by the ease at which the musicians performed but now eager to hear the man himself.  The stage was extended to fit in a small brass section and a keyboard for musical accompaniment but unfortunately the stage was still too small for Van’s ego.  After seeing a lengthy set list before Van entered the stage, the accompanying band and bar staff were astonished (but probably not really surprised) to find Van leaving after a 40min set.  I had asked to work the event, being a Van Morrison fan and was hoping to hear classics like Days like This and Into the Mystic.  The only songs I recognised were Brown Eyed Girl (classic but tedious) which was a quarter through the list and also “Moondance” which was nearing the end of his set.  An initially nervous audience had just started to loosen up and interact with the introduction of Brown Eyed Girl which little did we know would turn out to be his final song.

Nonetheless, after speaking with customers after Van’s performance the general consensus was satisfaction.  Many were just grateful Van showed up in the first place and were grateful to hear the ageing blues legend.  On reflection, I was too.  Due to Van’s requests such as no air conditioning (it hurts his throat) and particularly no alcohol to be served during his performance, I was free to watch him play a lukewarm albeit( physically) hot set.  Although initially disappointed with the set list, I considered that although people pay to hear their favourite songs, the appearance of this once great man was enough to sell tickets and keep punters happy.  It was a once and a lifetime experience to hear Van’s laid-back, bluesy vocals projecting into his golden microphone and of course watch him play his saxophone with ease.

Finally The Big Kahuna ended the night with a real high with their energetic and audience-rallying performance.  Jokingly thanking Van Morrison for opening for them, the Big Kahuna automatically sympathised with the audience and set the jovial tone for the night.  Van’s backing trumpet player (a haemophiliac whose wife makes Van a lovely lemon drizzle cake) stayed on for the first half of the performance and was nothing short of electric (and a nice chatty man as you can see.  Apologies for lack of names lovely trumpeter, I forgot to write them down L).  

The other stand out performer for me was Big Kahuna member and also Van’s backing saxophone player, Dave Howell.  Dave’s solos continually got the crowd on their feet with his amazing musical ability and was also extremely modest when being flooded with compliments from adoring fans.  Finally, the husband and wife (and baby bump) duo of Karen and Robin Martin on vocals made the audience feel at home with their natural onstage energy and inclusive performance.  The Big Kahuna played well known, dance rousing covers such as “Valerie”, “Mustang Sally” and “Proud Mary” with their own Kahuna touch.  Staff and customers alike were dancing, singing and hugging together, creating a lively communal atmosphere which ended everyone’s night in a smile.

What a lovely bunch to warm up the crowd after what some felt as a tepid performance from Van the man. All in all it was a hugely successful night.  Customers and staff both came away feeling happy, slightly boozy and definitely entertained.  Although it may appear to some that I may not have been so complimentary to Van, you must understand the singer’s infamous grumpy behaviour and diva-ish demands prior to performing.  But to give “the man” his dues, for a 68 year old (who has received world-round critical acclaim, including six Grammy Awards, the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, being inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame) to play in a small Belfast venue knowing his fame and age, was an honour to watch.

I had one of the best NYEs of my life despite the fact that I was working.  Have I changed my attitude to Van Morrison? No, not at all I still love him!  

(Footage from this night can be accessed at Youtube.)

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