Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe
You can't count on Van Morrison. Stunning albums are followed by long silent stretches. Pop singles make way for pastoral meditations, blues periods veer into folk terrain, and jazz is never far. Often Morrison just delivers some transcendent fusion of them all. He might stalk offstage; he might play the best concert you've ever seen. Innovators are complicated and unpredictable -- that's the point -- and those who care are willing to ride out the rough spots.
There was no rough riding at the Opera House Wednesday night, when Morrison played a brisk 90 minutes of country music from his new album, ''Pay the Devil," and reconsidered chestnuts from his vast catalog. While Morrison will never be accused of cultivating anything so pedestrian as stage presence, by his own standard the mercurial entertainer offered a warm performance. It was as if the loping tempos and gentle tones of country and western had smoothed the musician's prickles. Backed by an ensemble that swelled from eight to 14 depending on the song -- ''Big Blue Diamonds" required a pair of coiffed, demure backup singers, ''There Stands the Glass" was necessarily drenched in pedal steel and fiddle -- Morrison sang with a focus and generosity that have eluded him for years.
His voice has been the one constant in a 40-year career. Wherever he wanders, Morrison is a soul singer, and with Wednesday's sweet, fiery delivery on such classics as ''Things Have Gone to Pieces," ''My Bucket's Got a Hole," and ''Don't You Make Me High" -- signature numbers for George Jones, Louis Armstrong, and Big Joe Turner, respectively -- he branded those songs anew. Morrison contributed three originals to the collection. He played two of them: Barroom-loose ''This Has Got to Stop" and ''Playhouse," a rollicking blues, were standouts in the set.
Morrison cherry-picked and tinkered with older tunes: Elegant versions of ''Did Ye Get Healed" and ''Stranded" opened the show, and later he and the band burrowed with rootsy spirit into ''Real Real Gone." The ballad ''Magic Time" was burnished with golden vibes and satin saxophones; Morrison picked his own horn up from time to time throughout the show. And beloved ''Moondance," Morrison's own standard, was transported from the jazzy pop mainstream to a place of real surprise and spontaneity. It was followed, in a brilliant pairing, by ''It's All in the Game," sung with the sort of unhinged precision and impossibly persuasive phrasing that allow two chords to encompass the emotional cosmos.
The evening ended too brusquely: an aching take on ''In the Celtic New Year," a deeply passionate rendering of ''The Healing Game," and then bright lights. There was no encore, no gratitude, not even a ''good night." Some things never change.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.