Overlaid on the song titles on the back of this live double CD are the words ballads, blues, soul and funk & jazz. Conspicuously absent are rock & roll. That’s probably a deliberate omission of a style that, in Van Morrison’s eyes, has become corrupted by commercialism and compromised by an ignorance of its own roots. Morrison seeks to redress that imbalance on A Night in San Francisco with a jaw-dropping performance. It furthers a process of re-engagement on Morrison’s part — begun with Too Long in Exile — that finds him grounding his spiritual questing in earthier stuff. A Night in San Francisco is the culmination of a career’s worth of soul-searching that finds Morrison’s eyes turned toward heaven and his feet planted firmly on the ground.
Another key facet of this performance is the sense of community fostered from the stage by Morrison, whose temperament heretofore (apart from his music) hasn’t exactly been endearing. An array of guest artists — most notably John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Jimmy Witherspoon — is warmly welcomed by Morrison in duets that result not in hysterical one-upmanship but in revealing give-and-take. He is generous also with his superb cast of musicians, giving them room to breathe and letting them coalesce around him, anchored by guitarist Ronnie Johnson and organist Georgie Fame. Morrison addresses the audience with surprising gusto, identifying band members after solos, heartily disbursing thank-you’s and gamely attempting between-song patter.