Van and Bryn

As a birthday treat my partner took me to the Van Morrison concert at the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) on Tuesday, one of a number of enticing musical delights taking place in venues across the city throughout June in the inaugural ‘Festival of Voice’.

If this year’s programme is anything to go by, Cardiff’s newest event has a good chance of putting down solid foundations in the competitive global scramble for the cultural kudos that all cities are supposed to be straining for. Hitherto, only Singer of the World and, to a lesser degree, Artes Mundi and Sŵn have managed to carve out lasting niches on the events circuit, and then only modestly and only in the specialist areas of opera, conceptual art and rock. Festival of Voice, on the other hand, has vaulting ambition, wide scope and high quality built in from the outset and, rather than feeling imposed by elitist coteries, chimes congruently with Wales’ abiding, and still accurate, identifier as the ‘Land of Song’. Moreover, the WMC has the resources and, under artistic director Graeme Farrow, increasingly has the ideas to use its hugely influential and privileged status within Wales to deliver something of truly ‘international’ clout.

And it doesn’t get much better than Van the Man in the Donald Gordon Theatre. I’ve been a fan since first hearing Here Comes The Night as a spotty pre-pubescent elf in 1965, and Astral Weeks will always be among my all-time top 10 favourite albums. Having not seen him live since the 1990s, I can report that his powers remain intact – in fact they have matured into an even finer vintage, the Belfast maestro finding a deeper timbre and philosophic tone in his late-period work. His performance skills remain superb and, with trademark Van intensity and seriousness, gripping songs followed one after the other without a single pause for the usual banal patter, applause-milking, product-plugging and choreographed encores. At 70 he still blows a mean sax and, as dominant and magnetic as ever, he’s still the consummate musician orchestrating, improvising and collaborating with a tight backing band.

About half way through the gig, Bryn Terfel came on stage for two duets: Van’s own The Beauty of the Days Gone By and American folk standard Shenandoah. It was a privilege to be there for this spine-tingling experience, to witness two superlative artists and huge Celtic personalities inspire and almost goad each other to new heights of vocal interpretation, inventiveness and intuition. It turns out that Van can stretch into operatic zones and Bryn can shift into bluesy gears! Who knew?

The concert ended, naturally, with Gloria, Van’s theme song since he wrote it in the 1960s when with Them. The open-ended soul classic allows him to sidle off stage without a fuss while the band plays on. He will always leave us wanting more.