Van Morrison fans close to tears at Belfast Cyprus Avenue gigs
On the magical tree-lined east Belfast street which fired up his youthful dreams, Van the 70th birthday Man turned the tables on thousands of his fans from 18 different countries yesterday by giving them the unforgettable gifts of two of the most remarkable concerts he has ever played in his home town.
Although Van Morrison disappointed some devotees by not playing his classic song Cyprus Avenue at the place which inspired it, he brought things to a close by going back - going way, way back, to quote the words of one of his songs - to evoke his mystical memories of his birthplace in his ethereal anthem On Hyndford Street.
The lyrics include a fleeting reference to Cyprus Avenue, and Van emphasised the name in his delivery of the song, which was almost spiritual in its connection with the audience at his second concert who were only a few hundred yards away from the locations that he was singing about.
"It was like being in church," said actor, writer and cleric's son Tim Loane as he fought off tears. And he wasn't alone.
After the end of the first concert, a smattering of fans burst into a rendition of Happy Birthday for Van, but by that stage the musician was already on his way back to a hotel to prepare for the next show.
However, he couldn't have missed a banner in the audience that wished him well on what had been unofficially designated Van Morrison Day.
Movie star Robert Pattinson, who is filming in Northern Ireland, was among the VIP guests for Van's birthday bash.
The singer certainly appeared to be in the mood for a party. He told a joke about the Dalai Lama and a hot dog during the first show and finished part of one song by saying "that's the end of the comedy section".
By the second gig, Van had clearly warmed to his joint role as stand-up and singer.
He introduced Carrying a Torch with his tongue firmly in his cheek as he called it his latest hit - and he told a man in the front row he was a sitting duck for the gunfire actions he was doing to illustrate the song Parchment Farm.
During It's All in the Game, when he sang the words "once in a while she will call", he bemoaned the fact that nobody ever called him, so he didn't call them back.
He later asked the audience if anyone remembered Fusco's ice cream parlour in Holywood, which raised a cheer in the affirmative, after which he said, "That's good".
And when he sang about listening to Debussy on the Third Programme he interjected, "I can't believe I put that in" - not his first quip about the BBC.
He also got in a plug for his book of lyrics, Lit Up Inside, before adding: "Man, I hate showbusiness."
But it wasn't all knockabout stuff. During the first set, Van dedicated the song Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child to Beirut hostage Brian Keenan, who was born just a few streets away from Morrison and who was in the audience.
Keenan said Van's songs had sustained him during his years in captivity and he added that he had been moved by Morrison's mention of him yesterday.
Two veteran singers from the 1960s joined Van on stage for a song each at the concerts - PJ Proby and Chris Farlowe, who changed the words of Stand by Me to include praise for Morrison and Cyprus Avenue.
As ever with Van, the two setlists were chalk and cheese, with eight songs from the first show replaced in the second set.
In the afternoon, Van played Brown Eyed Girl, but not in the evening.
His first encore - a rarity in itself for him - was No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.
Hundreds of international fans were at both shows and caught all the greatest hits of the great man.
The logistical operation to put on the shows had been mind-boggling and was designed to cause as little disruption as possible to residents on the tree-lined avenue, who had been assured that the stage at the end of their street would be put up before breakfast and taken down before dark.
Hundreds of Vanatics - the name adopted by Morrison's international fans - rounded off a week of partying and visits to the singer's old haunts by paying homage to him at the gigs, which will never be repeated.
The fans had literally travelled from right across the world.
Most were from America, but there were others from India, South Africa, Australia and all parts in between, including Englishman Mike Millard who has attended more than 700 Morrison concerts.
All day long, he and fans from nearer home had turned east Belfast into a huge party zone, with special Van birthday lunches particularly in the Ballyhackamore area, where restaurants and pubs had been block-booked by the organisers of the gigs, the EastSide Arts Festival.
A number of ministers from the trouble-torn Stormont Executive were entertained to lunch in Neill's Hill restaurant, and across the road at Horatio Todd's Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir laughed as he was issued with an Orange wristband to go along with his ticket "which I bought by the way".
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had tweeted a birthday message in Irish, and other greetings came from the best-selling writer Iain Rankin, himself a self-confessed Van fan.
On Cyprus Avenue, there was a rare show of harmony among the political gloom as the former East Belfast MP Naomi Long and Ian Paisley from the DUP posed together for a selfie.
Mr Paisley, whose family home is on Cyprus Avenue, took in both concerts and said his mother, Baroness Bannside, was listening in her garden and would have no difficulty hearing the music. "You can hear Ulster rugby matches from our house," he added. "This is the coolest avenue in Northern Ireland".
At times on the avenue, it appeared there were more non-paying guests at parties under marquees and gazebos than were at the gigs.
One house even had a pop-up inflatable pub, though a notice insisted it was a private party because alcohol was banned from the actual concerts.
Nearby, merchandise stalls sold Van T-shirts for £20 and replica Cyprus Avenue street signs for £40.
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who proposed Van as a Freeman of Belfast several years ago, said he was deeply moved by the concert. When asked if any more honours might be bestowed on Morrison, he replied: "Watch this space."
Author Glenn Patterson, a lifelong Morrison aficionado added: "Van was in great form. No one can have been disappointed."
Concert organiser Maurice Kinkead, who thought up the idea for transforming Cyprus Avenue into a Van venue, said the concerts had exceeded even his expectations.
"He really did appear to be enjoying himself, and the two shows were fantastic," he added.
As for Van, it is understood he headed to his own birthday party at a secret hideaway in Co Down.