Van Morrison got his show at the Gentilly Stage started early to close the 2016 New Orleans Jazz Fest’s first Saturday.
Five minutes before the set’s scheduled start time, fans walking up on the packed dirt track could hear the gentle notes of “Celtic Swing” wafting on a cool breeze that might have been ordered up specially for the Irish troubadour and his band who, in their sleek dark suits, seemed too sophisticated to sweat.
Van Morrison has an astounding body of work, more than 30 albums. He seems to enjoy revisiting it as much as his fans do.
In 2008 and 2009, he toured the delicate and gorgeous psychedelic folk of his sophomore solo album “Astral Weeks,” 40 years after its release. His most recent release is spring 2015’s “Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a deep, diverse dive into his copious back pages with assists from guests like Mavis Staples, Mark Knopfler and Bobby Womack, among others.
The set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell followed a similar plan, picking and choosing out of his formidable body of work from his garage-rock days in Them (the closer “Gloria” and a growling blues medley kicked off with “Baby Please Don’t Go”) to the soft, heart-yanking ballad “Carrying a Torch” and the gospel soul of “Whenever God Shines His Light.”
Of course, he delivered the big guns, too: a rhythm-and-blues shuffle version of “Brown Eyed Girl” and a coolly shimmering “Moondance,” that briefly quoted Miles Davis’ “So What.” In tribute to New Orleans, he trotted out Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.”
His exceptional band buoyed the energy with articulate solos and fluent interplay that would have made them a joy to watch on their own (in fact, they kept going for a good 10 minutes after their leader left the stage.)
Van Morrison hasn’t really ever been a chatty performer; at Jazz Fest, behind gold-rimmed aviators, he remained inscrutably hip, a little standoffish and at the set’s start, even creaky.
But once he warmed up, and you could see it happen, the power was visibly radiating. By the time he sang the penultimate “Think Twice Before You Go,” the snarling John Lee Hooker cut, he was rocking back and forth, feeling the music down to his muscle and bone.