Celtic soul lion Van Morrison kicked off a short U.S. tour in 2008 with two shows in Austin on March 11 and 12, the first a private concert at the Austin Music Hall with tickets sold and the second an official SXSW showcase at La Zona Rosa. Morrison was promoting the new album Keep It Simple and why not stay another day and play for the industry? But according to gossip hound Perez Hilton, Van didn’t keep his room service order simple enough and when it was delivered all wrong, the room service tray went flying. (The Driskill issued an immediate and emphatic denial after the Perez post.)
Former Direct Events production manager Kyle Nelson, who handled both the Austin Music Hall and La Zona Rosa that SXSW, didn’t need to hear any more Van Morrison horror stories. The singer’s repute was as a tempermental perfectionist, nicknamed “Van the Man” because “Van the Tyrant” didn’t rhyme. “His management came in a couple weeks earlier to walk through the venues and they freaked out,” Nelson recalls. “(Morrison) was used to playing these beautiful theaters and the Music Hall and La Zona Rosa were the opposites of that. They told us ‘He’s gonna take one look at these clubs and turn around and walk out!’”
Nelson says Direct Events spent “a fortune, probably $25- $50,000” renting drapes, red carpet, nice furniture, paintings, plants, lamps, etc. for the green room and onstage. “We were just so terrified that he was going to cancel that we overdid it,” recalls Nelson, who even ordered faux landscaping for the La Zona Rosa perimeter. “I kept hearing the last thing Van’s people had said: ‘This had better be right!’” It was a lot of pressure for a 28-year-old from Kansas.
So here comes the the night of the Music Hall show and Morrison, who didn’t come to soundcheck, stepped from his limo to the walkway onto the stage, never even going inside the opulently-decorated dressing room and backstage area. After the show, he went straight back to the limo. “We did all that just for him, all that for nothing,” exclaims Nelson, who termed that opening night set “a debacle.” Morrison did only new material, refusing to play any of his hits for the crowd which had paid big bucks. “People were walking out, pissed off about spending their money on that show.” Nelson and his crew spent several hours that night moving all the backstage furnishings two blocks over to La Zona Rosa, which would host an early Morrison set, at 7 p.m. the first day of SXSW Music.
Maybe the word got out about the poorly-received tour opener or maybe everyone figured the 1200-capacity La Zona Rosa would be too jam packed and the lines too long to get in, but the Wednesday night show was not even close to being sold out. The crowd numbered only about 700, but the icon bounced around backstage like he couldn’t wait to get up there. He was overheard telling his agent it reminded him of the old days, and his set list was similarly nostalgic. “He played a couple new songs, but after that it was just one big hit after the next,” says Nelson, who was finally able to relax a bit when the show started. “He gave those people an amazing concert. It was one of those times when you felt sorry for the people who were missing it.”
After the fantabulous showcase, Morrison’s agent and manager both approached Nelson and put their arms around him in a bear hug. “You pulled it off!” they said.
“It was my first South By Southwest,” says the baby-faced Nelson, now 35. “You talk about a trial by fire. Boy, I went from sweating bullets to tears of joy.”