Overlaid on the song titles on the back of this live double CD are the words ballads, blues, soul and funk & jazz. Conspicuously absent are rock & roll. That’s probably a deliberate omission of a style that, in Van Morrison’s eyes, has become corrupted by commercialism and compromised by an ignorance of its own roots. Morrison seeks to redress that imbalance on A Night in San Francisco with a jaw-dropping performance. It furthers a process of re-engagement on Morrison’s part — begun with Too Long in Exile — that finds him grounding his spiritual questing in earthier stuff. A Night in San Francisco is the culmination of a career’s worth of soul-searching that finds Morrison’s eyes turned toward heaven and his feet planted firmly on the ground.
The program opens with “Did Ye Get Healed?” in which horns and voices playfully rise and fall behind Morrison’s vocal. It closes, some two and a half hours later, with fluegelhorn player and emcee Haji Ahkba asking the crowd, “Did you get healed?” in the wake of a medley of “Shakin’ All Over” and “Gloria.” In between, Morrison intersperses august pastoral meditations (“Beautiful Vision,” “It Fills You Up,” “In the Garden”) with lithe blues and soul make-overs. Songs frequently flow into one another in medley form, with Morrison originals such as “Vanlose Stairway” and “Trans-Euro Train” linked with the likes of Ray Charles’ “Fool for You.” Such conjoinings — Sam Cooke, James Brown, Doc Pomus, Sly Stone and Rodgers and Hart are among the other references — reinforce the notion of a musical and spiritual continuum at the heart of this undertaking.
Another key facet of this performance is the sense of community fostered from the stage by Morrison, whose temperament heretofore (apart from his music) hasn’t exactly been endearing. An array of guest artists — most notably John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Jimmy Witherspoon — is warmly welcomed by Morrison in duets that result not in hysterical one-upmanship but in revealing give-and-take. He is generous also with his superb cast of musicians, giving them room to breathe and letting them coalesce around him, anchored by guitarist Ronnie Johnson and organist Georgie Fame. Morrison addresses the audience with surprising gusto, identifying band members after solos, heartily disbursing thank-you’s and gamely attempting between-song patter.
The capstone to this magnificent performance is a lengthy new arrangement of “Moondance” that audaciously remakes that classic. For Van Morrison, on the evidence of this resurgent testimonial, it would appear that it’s far too late to stop now.