“I know he doesn’t like this version,” Patti Smith said, with a grin, of Van Morrison before launching into her iconic transformation of “Gloria” for the finale of Thursday’s Carnegie Hall tribute to the Belfast singer. “But I’m thanking him anyway.”
The same could probably be said of many of the standout performances at this year’s edition of promoter Michael Dorf’s annual benefit tribute concert, which raised money to provide music education to underprivileged youth and gathered a wide, multi-generational group of artists — lifelong soul men, country troubadours, adult contemporary hit-makers, rowdy punk rebels and folk eccentrics — to honor one of rock’s most distinctive, if notoriously picky, singers.
As might be expected for a vocalist as sui generis as Morrison, his half-century–spanning catalog doesn’t easily lend itself to interpretation. It can be almost impossible to divorce the singer’s quintessential statements — from “Caravan” to “Madame George” — from the voice that first recorded them.
And yet his songbook, grounded in the blues, inspired by jazz, informed by folk, gospel and country, and communicated in his fierce Celtic R&B, is surprisingly flexible, and, as made evident by the impressively wide range of thrilling performances at Carnegie Hall, endlessly adaptable.
For the most part, it was the younger artists who understood this best, the ones who likely grew up with Morrison’s music as part of their musical foundation, their parents playing his records on heavy rotation. Thursday’s highlights, from Josh Ritter’s breathtaking folk-noir spin on “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” to Valerie June’s mystical rendition of “Sweet Thing” and Anderson East’s transcendent country-soul version of “Purple Heather,” didn’t so much radically reinterpret Morrison’s music as simply adapt it to the performer’s own singular style.
The brightest moments at Carnegie Hall were, accordingly, the ones that showed just how far the tentacles of Morrison’s pop influence have spread over the years: from emo-folk, on Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon’s fittingly melancholy take on the late Nineties chestnut “High Summer;” to Anti-era Rihanna R&B, on local high school singer Jayri Alvarez’s thrilling duet with Amy Helm on “If I Ever Needed Someone;” to Texas barroom country, on Robert Earl Keen’s lively performance of “Wild Night,” which traded in horns for mandolin and fiddle. “We’d like to thank Van,” said country-soul duo the Secret Sisters from the stage, “for making the kind of music that brings two Alabama rednecks to Carnegie Hall.”
The two-hour-plus show, which featured veterans like Lee Fields and David Johansen alongside next-gen upstarts Low Cut Connie and East, was anchored by an impeccable house band comprising bassist Tony Garnier, drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Smokey Hormel and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis alongside the horns from the Brooklyn Afrobeat collective Antibalas. Most of the material, predictably, drew from Morrison’s earliest years: more than half the selections on the 21-song set list were released by 1971.
Of course, then, the evening featured requisite greatest-hits reenactments from the bill’s elder-statesmen: Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin trading verses on “Into the Mystic,” Richard Marx belting out “Domino,” and, perhaps most jarringly, Todd Rundgren leading the crowd through a sing-along of “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Yet it fell to other performers to provide the precious few moments that even Morrison himself might have approved of. Master interpreter Bettye LaVette delivered, once again, with a spellbinding “Have I Told You Lately,” while the Blind Boys of Alabama offered a fitting five-part gospel harmony version on the 1991 obscurity “By His Grace.”
The show concluded with consecutive performances from Glen Hansard and Patti Smith, the two performers at the show best known for their consummate Van Morrison covers. Smith brought out the complete cast of the night’s singers for her Horses-era “Gloria” finale. Hansard’s penultimate solo-acoustic take on “Astral Weeks,” complete with a seeming technical glitch that resulted in the singer ending the song at the lip of the stage without amplification, enraptured the sold-out crowd.
“When you sing from the heart,” he screamed out loud, urging the crowd to join in an unlikely sing-along, “it’s never out of tune.” Another statement Morrison might see fit to dispute. But on a night when risk-taking and genre-hopping yielded the biggest thrills, it rang true.
Brian Fallon, “High Summer”
Blind Boys of Alabama, “By His Grace”
Shawn Colvin, “Tupelo Honey”
Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin, “Into the Mystic”
Amy Helm and Little Kids Rock, ”If I Ever Needed Someone”
Lee Fields & the Expressions, “And It Stoned Me”
Robert Earl Keen, “Wild Night”
Josh Ritter, “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights”
Resistance Revival Chorus, “Days Like This”
Richard Marx, “Domino”
Anderson East, “Purple Heather”
Valerie June, “Sweet Thing”
William Elliott Whitmore, “Real Real Gone”
Low Cut Connie, “Here Comes The Night”
Bettye LaVette, “Have I Told You Lately”
John Paul White, “You’re My Woman”
David Johansen, “My Lonely Sad Eyes”
Secret Sisters, “Precious Time”
Todd Rundgren, “Brown Eyed Girl”
Glen Hansard, “Astral Weeks”
Patti Smith, “Gloria”