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Concert review: Van Morrison was right on time at the James L. Knight Center in Miami

At a few minutes before 9 p.m. on Wednesday in Miami, Van Morrison asked his band for a time check. He was 12 songs into a 19-song performance at the James L. Knight Center, the first of two shows at the venue, and had less than an hour to go. Two songs later, the 72-year-old Irish singer stepped back from the microphone and checked his watch. Was he in a hurry? He could have fooled us.

On a stage crowded with instruments and musicians, everyone clad in black, Morrison’s suit striped with gray, the artist held down the center with the disposition of a man who is always right where he belongs. Behind gold-tinted sunglasses and under a suit-matching fedora, Morrison said little to the audience beyond “thank you.” By my count, he smiled once. He communicated plenty.

Favoring the blues and jazz tones of his recent albums, including the pair of recordings he released in 2017, “Roll With the Punches” and “Versatile,” Morrison revealed a continued interest in ideas that have informed his work since the 1960s: the risks and rewards in loving another person, our endless struggles with faith and mortality, the magic of nature, the absurd comedy of it all. Of course, none of it would ever have carried without that voice, an instrument whose reach seems divine simply because of how human it is. Don’t we all wish to express ourselves in this way, even if all we’re trying to say is “baby, please don’t go” or “whatever happened to Tuesday and so slow?”

Morrison’s set at the Knight Center didn’t ignore his hits, but it didn’t depend on them, either. “Moondance” arrived early, as the second song, and it revealed itself slowly, with Morrison and his six-piece band teasing out the melody until the audience caught on and responded with cries of recognition. “Days Like This” was as hopeful and lovely as always, if not more so thanks to the open and attentive playing of the band. The song was followed by “Broken Record,” an almost too clever blues original from “Roll With the Punches” that was delivered with a winking charm the recorded version lacks. “Brown Eyed Girl,” performed near the end of the set, was given fresh life, with Morrison jauntily leading his group on alto sax and then, as he did throughout the evening, stepping back to let the individual musicians solo. No one in the audience could confuse these excursions for showing off.

Mostly, the concert offered one surprise after another, with Morrison pulling songs from corners of his career only his most committed fans would have visited: “Little Village,” “Playhouse,” “In the Garden,” “Hey, Where Are You?” Nothing felt esoteric or out of place, and the set appeared to be navigated by mood more than stagecraft, with Morrison calling out titles to his band between songs, and the musicians repeating those titles to one another. “Versatile,” released on Dec. 1, is, after all, Morrison’s 38th studio album.

“You can call it nostalgia, I don’t mind,” Morrison sang about halfway through the show, in the 2005 song “Magic Time.” I wouldn’t do so then, and I wouldn’t do so at the end of the night, when Morrison shouted the chorus of “Gloria,” his 1964 hit with the band Them, walked offstage with a microphone in hand, continued to sing while out of sight in the wings and left the band to spend the next 10 minutes placing the song, and its listeners, squarely in the present.

Van Morrison will return for a second show 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, at the James L. Knight Center, 400 SE Second Ave., in Miami. Go to JLKC.com.

jcline@southflorida.com, SouthFlorida.com/MondayHitList, Twitter.com/jakeflorida, Facebook.com/jakecline, 954-356-4941

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