Lit Up Inside

Van Morrison launches a book of his lyrics in London joined by Michael Longley, Edna O'Brien and Ian Rankin

The hoarding and billboards outside the Lyric Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue in London are festooned with images of Michael Jackson. Photos of black hats, white socks and spangly single gloves abound.

Presumably they’re there to lure passing punters into the musical based around the tunes of the so-called 'King of Pop' that usually fills this historical West End venue week in and week out. Tonight, however, for one night only, an altogether different kind of thriller is unfolding inside its walls.

Billed simply as Lit Up Inside – Van Morrison Presents An Evening Of Words And Music, it’s ostensibly a night to mark the publication of the east Belfast singer’s first ever volume of collected lyrics, also entitled Lit Up Inside.

More than that, though, it is an opportunity to hear what the man himself thinks of his own songs, a chance to hear a few stories about the roots behind his art and maybe even witness something outside your standard Van Morrison gig experience. As such, it’s the hottest ticket in town and the event has been sold out for weeks.

Such is the potential for something different this evening that an air of almost tangible nervous expectation hangs heavy over proceedings way before the designated start time of 8pm.

In the busy foyer a knowledgeable mix of interested parties, literary types and hardcore believers – call them Vanoracks, if you prefer – are keen to crowbar themselves into the old velvet seats of the Lyric as early as possible.

Things kick off sedately enough with a few words of context provided by the book’s editor, Eamonn Hughes, and some vintage visuals of Morrison jamming with Bob Dylan and chatting with the poet Michael Longley before Van himself is introduced and wanders to his appointed seat centre stage with all the wariness of a man approaching a dentist’s chair after several decades on the sweet stuff.

Novelist and long term fan, Ian Rankin, then guides us through a thoughtful and revealing Q&A. Pleasingly casual in tone, the subjects raised jump from early blues heroes to Morrison’s first poetic scribblings. Referring back to the Dylan clip, Rankin opens with the reasonable remark that 'Not many have had Dylan as an accompanist'. 'Well,' Morrison replies, peering from behind his shades. 'Harry Belafonte, for one.'

And he’s right; as always there is no arguing with Morrison’s knowledge. Ever the one to keep his feet on the ground, he swerves the more 'where do you get your ideas from?' type questions and bats back anything he is not really interested in.

There are plenty of clues for fans to chew over, though, as everyone from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Sonny Boy Williamson are credited as inspirations, but when Rankin remarks that the likes of Beckett and Joyce feature repeatedly in his work, Morrison swiftly fires back: 'And George Best and Alex Higgins.' It’s a typical 'man of the people' moment that makes me love the old boy and his music just that little bit more.

With the allocated interview time over, Morrison retreats to prepare for the second half of the show. Meanwhile, his old friend, the aforementioned Mr Longley, arrives on stage for a stately read-through of the lyrics from both 'Coney Island' and 'Into The Mystic'.

If Longley’s gentle take on the words beguiles, then Edna O’Brien’s delights. Making her way through the epic 'Tore Down a la Rimbaud' and drawing comparisons between the author and his subject matter endears her to many in the room, but the real treat is her fruity reading of 'Madame George'.

Delivered with a verve that belies her 83 years, O'Brien – author of the seminal novel The Country Girls, and so often described as the 'doyenne of Irish literature' – gives us the first true high spot of the evening and leaves us hankering for a little more of the same.

A short interval later and Morrison returns for a 45 minute set to illustrate the musical side of the evening. Exposing those tiresome 'grumpiest man in music' jibes for the lazy journalistic clichés they are, he is relaxed and engaged throughout. Perched mostly on a Dave Allen style bar stool he sings, takes solos and happily leads us into songs with easy asides that suggest he is a man very happy in his skin at the minute.

Accompanied by a stripped back version of his regular touring band that consists of Dave Keary (guitar), Paul Moore (bass), Paul Moran (keyboards) and Bobby Ruggiero (drums) the singer – who turns 70 next year, lest we forget – takes us through a set that echoes many of the pieces we heard as readings earlier in the evening, with a few well-chosen gems thrown in for good measure.

That means a vibrant version of 'Foreign Windows', and heartfelt renderings of 'Tore Down A La Rimbaud' and 'Wonderful Remark'. Some sublime sax from Morrison on 'Celtic Excavation' gives way to a broody and magnificent 'Into The Mystic'.

There is even room for some moments of genuine mirth among the mystic moodiness, with a beautiful rendition of 'Coney Island' – always one of Morrison’s most evocative and nostalgic poetic pieces – offering up a little off the cuff lyrical readjustment as the line 'And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking' is followed with 'Shall I just drop you off at the next corner?' Delivered with pinpoint comic timing, it garners a belly laugh from the room that is both genuine and oddly touching.

By the time he casually rolls into the majestic 'Madame George' – prefaced by a brief geographical lesson that traces the song's roots in both Belfast and London (Notting Hill Gate, to be precise) – the man and his band are fully in the moment.

Before we know it, Morrison is wrapping up 'On Hyndford Street', that deeply heartfelt ode to the lost Belfast of his childhood, by chanting the word 'peace' over and over again like some kind of possessed Pentecostal preacher. Then suddenly it’s over, the house lights rise and we make our way dazed but delighted into the cold London night. Lit up inside indeed.

Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics is out now, published by Faber & Faber.