Okee dokee folks… Friday night at the Providence Performing Arts Center was night one of what was a full weekend of legendary music at the theater. It started with the first of two nights for Van Morrison, followed by an evening of Johnny Mathis slipped into the middle of the Morrison shows.
It was an early 7pm start to the show at PPAC when Shana Morrison, daughter of Van, warmed up the crowd for her father. Backed by her father’s band, the singer began her mini set with one of dad’s hits, “And It Stoned Me”.
She followed with two country-tinged songs and then closed with an Afro-Carribean sounding number that featured solos from many of the members.
Shana as a performer is okay, but not someone who would fill seats. Her presentation is somewhat stiff and appears forced. The crowd seemed to think differently and gave her a warm reception and abundant applause.
After about 20 minutes, the band returned and began to play. Van was introduced and walked on stage to the starting number “Steamline Train,” to which he played a bit of harmonica. He was decked out in a bright blue suit, hat, and dark sunglasses. I had looked up his set list from previous shows and he stuck tightly to it for the first half of the show. This portion contained a myriad of cover and traditional songs such as, “Sail Away Ladies,” “Come On In,” “Greenback Dollar,” and Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” His large and talented band consisted of two guitarists, bass, keys, drums, percussion, saxophone, and two female backup singers.
About mid set, he started to mix it up a bit by going out of order,deleting, and adding songs. At this point of the evening Morrison still had not uttered a word to the audience other than lyrics of songs. No, “Good evening, thank you for coming” or even acknowledgement of applause. The rather aloof performer was partially obscured by a large music stand in front of him and was semi-sandwiched in by stage gear and set a bit back from the front stage.
After a few more traditional and cover songs, Morrison finally performed one of his more recognizable songs, “Wild Night,” which got the crowd going. He finally spoke, but only to call out the name of the next song, which was more for the band’s sake. More bluesy songs followed and then another hit, “Days Like This.” I was surprised when I heard the first few notes of “Into The Mystic.” It wasn’t on the list and I thought surely I was not going to hear it. For me, it was a treat. “Baby Please Don’t Go” and a bit of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” closed out the set. He returned to the stage and sang, “Gloria” from his days with band Them. Morrison ducked out before the end of the song in a Vegas-like exit and left every member of the band to play solos during the lengthy version of the song. He was probably already back at his hotel by the time they finished!
During the set Morrison added some sax, guitar, and harmonica. He directed the band throughout the night and pointed frequently to them for solos and endings. When he varied the set list he started by just saying the song title into the mic but then began yelling it to the drummer who called the songs. Van shared the stage with these performers but was in subtle control the whole time.
Morrison was a subdued presence onstage, other than the blue suit. He seems to be hiding behind his dark sunglasses and music stand. He really made no connection with the audience. Occasionally he got more upbeat with his activity but at 78 years old he was pretty mellow and stationary throughout the night.
It was satisfying to finally hear Morrison live, especially after these shows were rescheduled from the early spring. The audience seemed to appreciate the music but did Van appreciate the audience? You can view my photos from the show on the Motif Facebook page!
Show number two at PPAC was the legendary Johnny Mathis. I was torn as to whether I was going to attend this one but I was very happy that I did! At 62 I was in the younger demographic of the audience, though occasionally I spotted someone younger. I went mainly to experience the music that my parents enjoy and they were at the show as well. This was billed as Mathis’ birthday show; he turns 88 at the end of this week.
Mathis took the stage in an all white suit and turned with open arms towards the band. He began singing “When I Fall In Love” with his 20+ piece ORCHESTRA backing him. He at first seemed to be moving a bit tenuously but kept the pace moving to and fro across the stage for the entire night. During the first half of the show he sang 16 songs that included “Morning Of My Life,” “Gina,” “Let It Be Me,” “It’s Not For Me To Say,” and of course, “Chances Are.”
Mathis worked the mic, bringing it up close and moving it far away as he sang, his voice carrying above the orchestra when away from the microphone. His voice has not wavered in his 70 year career and is still as strong and sweet as ever. He greeted and thanked the audience several times for coming and said “I am blessed to be here!” He also mentioned how he came from a big family and was thankful that they lived in San Francisco.
Mathis concluded his first set and welcomed comedian/singer, Gary Mule Deer to the stage. Most people did not know who he was but I did. I remember him from his many appearances on late night tv and other talk shows. It was an added treat to catch this great comic!
Mule Deer entered, his hair in a hair-sprayed coif, and started playing “Ring Of Fire” by Johnny Cash but quickly dropped his pick inside the guitar and comically made a big deal out of it. He went right into his barrage of jokes. One I recall mentions that politicians should serve two terms: one in office and one in prison. Much of his comedy focused on senior citizens. Gary was thankful to Mathis for having him on the road with him for the last 29 years. He mostly told jokes but occasionally sang lines of songs that led into jokes. Gary did include one serious moment when he beautifully sang a song written by Toby Keith and inspired by Clint Eastwood called, “Let The Old Man In.” Mule Deer’s 25 minute set was well appreciated by the crowd. I certainly enjoyed it!
Mathis returned for the second half of the show and had changed into a black tux for this portion. Before he could start his performance the crowd spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to the legend. He gave a big smile to the crowd, obviously overwhelmed by the love. This half of the evening began with “Secret Love,” followed by “A Certain Smile” and the best song to describe the night (as my mom wrote in her Facebook review) “Wonderful, Wonderful.” Honestly, it was! He sang more classics like: “Misty,” “12th Of Never,” “Bet You By Golly Wow,” “Days Of Wine and Roses,” and “Moon River.”
Of course he received a very generous standing ovation that brought him back for a VERY lively blues number that had me questioning whether he was really 88 years old. He belted out this last song with the power of someone less than half his age and wiggled his butt a few times for the crowd. He accepted gifts and flowers from folks in the front row and shook a few hands before leaving.
To my own surprise, I enjoyed the Mathis show over Morrison’s. Mathis was inspiring, grateful, fun, and it was full of great songs performed by a true entertainer. While I was glad to have finally seen Van Morrison in concert, I am happier that I was able to catch a legend who has been at the top of his game for over 70 years. I know, go figure! If you haven’t already please listen to the podcast I did with Mathis in advance of this show.
Listen to the podcast here: motifri.com/rootsreportpodcast/episode-78-johnny-mathis.
That’s it for now. Don’t forget you can listen to my podcasts at: motifri.com/rootsreportpodcast. You can also find my concert photographs at motifri.com/fuzeksfotos. Thanks for reading and listening. For more, check out johnfuzek.com.