Van Morrison review – gently shakes, rattles and rolls back the years

Van Morrison has always ploughed a contrary furrow and as he heads into his twilight years, he’s bringing it all back home. His new album, Accentuate the Positive, finds him going back to songs that he first played in Belfast bar bands as a teenager a full 60 years ago. Morrison has said that he had been intending to re-engage with these rock’n’roll and R&B originals for more than 20 years. It was the Covid lockdown that gave him the headspace to tackle the project – somewhat ironic given that last year he put out an aggrieved album of conspiracy theory-fuelled Covid scepticism, What’s It Gonna Take?

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Launching the album tonight, Morrison stands stage centre of his seven-piece band, wrapped in his trademark Panama hat and sunglasses. The striking first impression is how strong his voice remains at 78. Close your eyes, and he could almost be the blues shouter who hollered Gloria with Them back in 1964. An astute cover of country standard You Are My Sunshine shows Morrison is still a subtle, supple interpreter of song, and his take on Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is correctly plaintive. But his gruff growl is no upgrade on the sheer harmonies of the Everly Brothers’ When Will I Be Loved.

Likewise, the reinterpretations of early rock’n’roll tunes lack the edge and visceral rawness of the originals. Morrison buries himself deep into the heft of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ Shakin’ All Over and Bill Haley’s Two Hound Dogs, but his band’s overly mannered arrangements reduce the tunes to bluesy chugs. Morrison is pitch-perfect on Lucille while wisely not attempting Little Richard’s camp vocal histrionics. Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny and Blueberry Hill – made famous by Fats Domino – both require a twinkle in the eye to perform, but the static, impassive Morrison never removes his shades.

A measured mooch through Shake, Rattle and Roll is wily where it should also be wild. It’s been an unabashed nostalgia trip, harmless if a tad cosy. The night is done and dusted by 9.30pm, and everyone shuffles home for a nice mug of cocoa.