Van the Man started the nineties, just like he did the seventies and eighties, with a terrific album in "Enlightenment", and the added benefit of probably his highest public profile since he was a member of Them due to the TV advertised and well-compiled "Best Of". But what happened? The follow-up, "Hymns To The Silence" was overlong and under-focused, and this years "Best Of Volume Two" was a double-album disaster that foolishly concentrated on his cloudier recent work, so the arrival, only three months later, of "Too Long In Exile", yet another double, was not greeted with whoops of ecstatic joy in my quarter, rightly or wrongly.
I've listened to it several times, more concertedly after several people whose opinions I usually trust had told me of its greatness, and I'm still unconvinced. It has one absolutely wonderful song, the instrumental "Close Enough For Jazz", which swings like a speeded up and sparsed-out Donald Fagen backing track, interesting covers of "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" (probably an offence for somebody of Van's age to sing that) and "Gloria", the latter with elderly gent John Lee Hooker adding a barroom full of blues type grunts...and thirteen other tracks. Repeated listening reveals the 'others' to be not that bad really: a cover of Doc Pomus' "Lonely Avenue" impresses, sort of, as does "In The Forest" (obviously different to being "In The Garden") with its meditative repeated riff. In fact, most of this comes across as (very) high class soulful meditation muzak: Van locates a wandering blues riff, holds it down for a few minutes and emotes stuff about healing, ancient roads, sacred groves etc. over it. It's not categorically bad, quite impressive in places, but do we really, honestly need it? I really wish I could say yes, but, despite Van's past achievements and the efforts of a crack group of familiar and famous names (including Georgie Fame and Candy Dulfer), my life would not be less complete without this album. Sorry.
VAN MORRISON A Night In San Francisco (Polydor)
Celtic mythology would appear to state that every ten years there shall be a new Van Morrison live album, and "A Night In San Francisco" (two nights, actually) is this decade's offering, a souvenir of his recent tour that lucky critics who got to see it deemed the best Van tour since his last best one, perhaps due in no small part to the way quite a large proportion of the vocal work is subcontracted out to various proteges and relatives. So, we get Brian Kennedy doing "You Make Me Feel So Free", Shana Morrison singing "Beautiful Vision" and Jimmy Witherspoon grunting bluesily on just about everything else. Yet even when sidelined this is still Van the Man's show, and the recorded evidence suggests that all the adulation that surrounded this tour was merited.
It seems to me that, after a few sprawling and uneventful double albums wandering through clear cool crystal streams, forests, gardens etc. etc. Van has finally come to terms with his artistic purpose, and surrounded by undoubtedly his most cohesive and dedicated band since, and possibly including, the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, he's set out to educate his fans about music. So, in an exhausting two-and-a-half hour marathon we get definitive versions of Van classics ("Did Ye Get Healed?", "Moondance", "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You", "Gloria", "Tupelo Honey", "So Quiet In Here", "In The Garden") woven into a bewildering array of definitive versions of other tunes of every genre ("It's All In The Game", "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again", "Help Me", "My Funny Valentine", "Shakin' All Over"), bridged by some disappointing new songs that seem to be modelled on the same rambling/improvisational style that made "Too Long In Exile" sound so half-written ("Trans-Euro Train", "4 O'Clock In The Morning"), although to be fair their only real purpose seems to be to help the band get from A to B, and "Soldier Of Fortune" shows much promise. Famous names who turn up to worship at the temple of Van include the omnipotent Georgie Fame, John Lee Hooker and Candy Dulfer; and thrill at the way that Van proves to be in possession of a sense of humour! (You have to wade about 140 minutes in, though).
In many ways "A Night In San Francisco" is a landmark release. It captures a rock legend at or near the peak of his considerable powers, and shows both the songs of his youth, and his own
compositions, being handed down from generation to generation, all of them timeless. If there's a criticism, it's that the sheer length of the project is likely to be offputting to the casual enquirer, which would be a great shame (and also that you won't get very far trying to buy it on vinyl - boo, hiss etc.). But play any doubters "Moondance", "In The Garden" or "Gloria" and they'll be hooked. As the sleeve says, quite correctly, "ballads blues soul funk & jazz".
VAN MORRISON Days Like This (Exile)
"Days Like This" is being widely touted as Van the Mans happy album: you can tell, what with the cover picture of him with his latest beloved out walking the dogs (a sly nod to "Parklife"? No, probably not), and track titles like "Underlying Depression", "Ill Never Be Free" and "Melancholia". What "Days Like This" actually is, however, is the latest in an ever increasing, stretching-towards-the-horizon line of duff Van albums, leaning heavily on the myth and sketching lightly around such unimportant supporting roles such as, well, good music, for example.
Abandoning the blues grunting of "Too Long In Exile" for what in relative terms looks like the mindset of a giggling leprechaun brings mixed, frequently stodgy results. Theres one moment of almost unequivocal genius in "Raincheck", a breezy, unfettered romp that invokes pleasant memories of "So Quiet In Here" from his last good album, 1990s "Enlightenment", and features a cheery, singalong chorus along the lines of "Wont let the bastards grind me down", repeat ad nauseum or until ground down, whichever is sooner. And theres one pardonable failure, "Ancient Highway", a nine-minute ramble that attempts to summon up some of the mapless Celtic wizardry that spooked early seventies albums like "Veedon Fleece" and "Saint Dominics Preview". The rest veers between bland and forgettable and artless trite ("If it comes to the bit/Have to write another hit", he mumbles in "Songwriter", cheerfully oblivious of his standing in the "Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles", and as if to prove his prowess, I quote the published lyrics from later in the same song: "Na na na nana/Na na na nana/Im a songwriter"). Nope, "Days Like This" is far from stunning, especially considering the excellence of last years live set, "A Night In San Francisco" - itd be a disappointment from Take That, let alone the man who wrote "Astral Weeks".
VAN MORRISON WITH GEORGIE FAME & FRIENDS How Long Has This Been Going On (Verve/Exile)
"Vans first Verve jazz album" runs the blurb, and also his last, hopefully: "At last, a Van album that everybody can hate", scathed the Independent, whilst the NME gave it a lowly 2 out of 10. Recorded live in a day at Ronnie Scotts, "How Long Has This Been Going On" (too long, mate, too long) features several of Vans usual sidemen, including Georgie Fame and Pee Wee Ellis, as well as the almost-as-legendary-as-Van Annie Ross on one track. They cover a strange mixture of tunes - songs by Mose Allison (whos quoted in the pointless sleeve note that explains how "Vans not the usual music business success", something that must be blindingly apparent to anybody whos bought the album), Cannonball Adderly and the Gershwins, "Centerpiece" (as made relatively famous to us jazz neanderthals by Joni Mitchell), and a few Van tunes. "I Will Be There" just about passes muster; but "Moondance" turns into a traditional solo fest (cue Vans distant grunts of appreciation throughout Georgies Hammond solo), and as a consequence is rendered soft and flabby compared to the whip-smart definitive version, spliced with "My Funny Valentine", on 1994s "A Night In San Francisco". The sole new Van composition, "Heathrow Shuffle", goes "Heathrow shuffle/Heathrow shuffle" for rather longer than is absolutely necessary. In fact, that might be the real problem with this album: these songs might be his heritage, but before now Van always had something to say, rather than the sort of "babbadoodaybabbadooday" scat dribbles he frequently lapses into here. Impeccably played and recorded as it might be, "How Long Has This Been Going On" slides straight into the unbridgeable gap between the culturally enclosed worlds of rock and jazz, hopefully never to return.
VAN MORRISON The Healing Game (Exile)
The second grumpiest old man of rock (after Laughing Len Cohen, of course) returns with his, by my reckoning, 25th album. Despite the gloomy "Godfather" outfitting Van displays in all the cover photographs (never losing the hat and sunglasses) and the albums cheery opening verse ("The mud splattered victims/Have to pay out all along the ancient highway/Torn between half truth and victimisation/Fighting back with counter attacks"), "The Healing Game" isnt very terrible at all, which is a pleasant change in an era when Van albums are wrecked by enforced jollity ("Days Like This"), pointless jazz noodling ("How Long Has This Been Going On"), bitter blues without boom ("Too Long In Exile") or coherency-sapping diversity ("Hymns To The Silence").
That shocking revelation, er, revealed, I should also point out that "The Healing Game" is also far from fantastic. Theres far too much high-pitched wailing from his long-time sidekick, the ever-unendearing Brian Kennedy. The songs are, in the main, the same spark-free Caledonian soul-by-numbers hes been churning out for the last half-decade, at least. Theres even a cringeworthy attempt to snag the teenage dollar with the rap (no, honestly) of "Burning Ground".
However, in the main "The Healing Game" is a pleasant, considered listening experience, occasionally verging on beautiful, for example the gentle loveliness of "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" (more "The Wind In The Willows" than Syd Barrett, you may not be surprised to hear). I just dont expect to play it very much, thats all. However, recent press revelations from the man himself, along the lines of "I played "Astral Weeks" recently - and it was good!", suggest that maybe, just maybe, his next album could be the kind of mystical spiritual literary jazz soul rhythm blues masterwork of the kind that made him legendary in the first place. As he sings at one point, "Fore they put me in a jacket, and they take me away/Im not gonna fake it like Johnny Ray". Lets hope the urge to venture in the slipstream strikes once more before then.
VAN MORRISON The Philosophers Stone (Exile)
This must be what manna from heaven sounds like: given that the last decent Van album ("Enlightenment", in my humble opinion) was released so long ago that he didnt have to wear a hat during the tour to promote it, its interesting, to say the least, that his joint tour with Bob Dylan should coincide with this the release of "The Philosophers Stone", a double CD containing 30 previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1971 and 1988. Consider that when The Zim pulled this trick on us after countless years of creative stagnation the result was the fabulous "Bootleg Series" box, and things start to look interesting.
Between 1971 and 1988 Van Morrison released 14 studio albums, most of them liberally sprinkled with moments of transcendent genius, all of them destined to be assigned to the footnotes of rock history because they werent "Astral Weeks". And although its almost certainly true that nothing hes recorded since has been granted the seminal status of that mad folk/jazz/blues/whatever classic, consider a catalogue that also includes "Tupelo Honey", "St Dominics Preview", "Veedon Fleece", "Into The Music", "The Common One"...all of them fabulous albums on their own terms. And "The Philosophers Stone" contains the tracks that, we must suppose, werent good enough to make the final cut.
If youre a committed Van enthusiast youll be astonished by "The Philosophers Stone", as well as mildly frustrated by the fact that the booklet offers no more information than the lyrics, band personnel, recording venues and dates: itll take an evenings worth of cross checking with all your old Van albums to put the music on "The Philosophers Stone" into its proper perspective. But, unless youre a total Belfast Cowboy trainspotter (mentioning no names, of course...) why bother? What does it matter that the wonderful, almost unbearably humane "Wonderful Remark" was left off the "Hard Nose The Highway" album in favour of a Muppets cover? Weve got it now (although it has previously surfaced, possibly in different forms (even Id admit that lifes too short for me to check!) behind the closing credits of Scorseses "King Of Comedy" and as an extra track on the "Best Of" CD), and for that we should be eternally thankful. Similarly the blissful, rolling riot of imagery that constitutes his cover of Robin Williamson's "For Mr. Thomas" ("When you talk about Dylan, he thinks youre talkin about Dylan Thomas", as a young mock-incredulous Paul Simon once sang) has already been a b-side.
This album is, well, as you can probably imagine, an embarrassment of riches. "Not Supposed To Break Down" is another "Hard Nose" offcut inexplicably left off that album, another excursion into the more humane and troubled side of Vans psyche from a time that rock history does not record as being a bowl of cherries for him. "Madame Joy", from the same 1973 sessions in Californias Caledonia Studios, is possibly rocks first love song to a university lecturer; needless to say its absolutely beautiful. "Contemplation Rose" (recorded at the same place and time again...what could he have been thinking in not releasing these songs 25 years ago?!) is another gem, full of images of haunted self-doubt ("Got Watchtowers and Awakes for free/In the laundromat for you and me/But you cant take me down that way/As Im not sinking"...wow! A Los Angeles Nick Drake, anyone?). "Drumshambo Hustle" (1973...again) and the seemingly endless "Showbusiness" from 1982 are early attempts by Van to nail the music business as the grubby sham of an enterprise that he seems to think it is ("You were puking up your guts/When you read the standard contract you just signed"...charming), later to find vent on vinyl on the not-much-cop "Too Long In Exile" albums "Big Time Operators". Then theres the rolling double-headed "Song Of Being A Child", an exuberant, exultant shouting match between Van and June Boyce, throwing the most exquisitely detailed images at each other ("When the child was a child/It gagged on spinach, on peas, on rice pudding/And on steamed cauliflower/And now eats all of it and not just because it has to", "When the child was a child/It didnt have an opinion about a thing/Had no habits/Often sat cross-legged, took off running/Had a cow lick in its hair/And didnt put on a face when photographed"...magical!)
Not all of "The Philosophers Stone" is fantastic. Some of the early tracks, probably from the "Tupelo Honey" sessions, are little more than plodding blues tunes, the alternate takes of "Stepping Out Queen", "Bright Side Of The Road" and "Real Real Gone" only serve to show that sometimes Van was right about this material, and the songs on which he attempts to become the Belfast Cowboy of rock legend can be a little wearing. But I have two enduring thoughts to offer, having played this album on an almost daily basis over the last few weeks. Firstly, I still cant pinpoint the exact moment when his voice breaks from the light, weaving instrument of "Astral Weeks" into the groan we know and genuflect before today: I think its somewhere on the second CD, but thats as close as I can get. More seriously, for an album of odds and ends "The Philosophers Stone" makes an unreasonably compelling listen. Think about those interminable Beatles "Anthology" sets for a moment: they may be a fascinating aural archive trawl, and yes, they do document exactly how some of the most important music ever recorded came to be, but how often do you actually play them? Even Dylans "Bootleg Series" box, the one release that arguably kick-started this cupboard-clearing trend, is too ungainly and diverse a release to settle down and actually listen to in one go. The beauty of "The Philosophers Stone" is that, its great length (two-and-a-half hours) aside, it still sounds much like a regular Van studio album, albeit one populated with an usually high proportion of terrific tracks.
Ill stop rambling. My conclusion is this: if you like Van Morrison, even if only to the extent of owning the "Best Of" compilation, you should like this. Its like an alternative career history, albeit one populated only by previously unheard wonderment. If youre a Van addict, buy without hesitation, its as good, if not better, that youd dare to hope. And what makes all this even more delightful is that, under the second CDs transparent tray, are the words "Volume One". Soon, please...
VAN MORRISON Back On Top (Exile)
Given the recent quality of George Ivan's recorded output you might be rightly wary of an album with a title like "Back On Top". You'd have to have a longer memory than me to nominate the last totally successful Van Morrison album, the last studio work of any note whatsoever being "Enlightenment", released way back in 1990. Since then he's veered between the glum, guest-heavy, blues-rooted and overlong doubles "Hymns To The Silence" and "Too Long In Exile" and the disastrous jazz covers album (recorded live at Ronnie Scott's, tellingly without an audience presence) "How Long Has This Been Going On?". What makes all this inadequacy so tantalising and frustrating is that the past decade has also brought us the rather fine, if overlong (again) "A Night In San Franciso" live set and last year's amazing (and not nearly long enough) double CD of unreleased work recorded between 1971 and 1988, "The Philosopher's Stone".
So, amidst much media talk of renewed inspiration, where does this leave "Back On Top", his first album to be recorded for new taskmasters Pointblank (Virgin's blues label), to whom Van has exiled his Exile imprint, and also (tragically) the first Van studio release to be denied a vinyl pressing? Well, it's...alright. Although no real departure from the good-natured glossy pub rock rumble furrow he's been ploughing for years, there's an air of class and quality that lifts it a pleasing head above some of the substandard tat he's been foisting on the faithful over the last decade. There's no real lyrical departures in evidence either - lots of stuff about autumn, summer, travel, sideswipes at biographers and so on, but at least there's words here, and none of the "na na nana" timekeeping or scat nonsense that has polluted some of his recent albums. And in "When The Leaves Come Falling Down" and, especially, "High Summer", with its opening-line nod to the prehistoric "Who Drove The Red Sports Car", he's fashioned two of his most genuinely beguiling songs of recent times.
The prospect of a Van album that's not as bad as most recent Van albums is hardly likely to send you scurrying off into Our Price with your rock dollars, especially if you haven't raided the piggybank for "The Philosopher's Stone" yet, and "Back On Top" is hardly the kind of phenomenal comeback demonstrated recently by Bob Dylan, or less recently by Neil Young, but if the idea of fifty minutes of meticulously buffed Celtic soul dinner party music appeals, nobody does it better than this.
VAN MORRISON/LONNIE DONEGAN St David's Hall, Cardiff 19 September 1999
This was my first Van gig in eight years almost to the day, and support tonight came in the form of Lonnie Donegan. It has to be said that he's a terrific, unpretentious entertainer from the "give the people what they want" school, in exactly the same way that Van isn't. Watching his astonishingly sprightly performance, I was given to speculate that you could class skiffle as the old punk - both used instrumentation and arrangements born out of poverty. (No teachest bass in evidence tonight but a washboard was spotted). He played loads of songs made famous before my parents met (he's 68, by the way): "Rock Island Line" was a lengthy highlight. Bantering with the audience throughout, he responded to a request for "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour" with "No it doesnt!", harangued his German percussionist with "Dad's Army"-style sitcom simplicity and spoke with obvious and genuine warmth towards Van for getting him recording again. If he plays your town an entertaining evening is pretty much guaranteed.
I feel I should also point out St. David's Hall's terrific acoustics, something that you tend to forget benefit of after years of going to gigs in reverb-riddled Enormodomes and barn-style leisure centres. The clarity of the mix was such that the music was almost as balanced and finely-detailed as when listening at home, albeit much louder (although thankfully not oppressively so - in fact I think Lonnie Donegan and his small but enthusiastic band managed to kick up even more of a racket than Van's many-membered soul orchestra).
To Van, then. It seems to me as if he's determined to avoid being pigeonholed as nostalgia act. Maybe that's why he still regularly releases albums (albeit of varying quality) and constantly revises his setlists from one performance to the next. Tonight's had loads of blues covers, including the opening take on Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights Big City", "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying", "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" and "Help Me", Dylan's "Just Like A Woman", plus lots of pedestrian pub rock from the recent "Back On Top" album given a swinging sheen.
Tonight also included another attempt to bludgeon "Moondance" into a modern jazz standard, whether it likes it or not: everybody gets granted their allocated solo spots whilst Van nips off for a smoke (cue plumes of smoke rising from the centre back of the stage). It wasn't what you'd call a total success, what was once a deft, stripped-down, almost carnal love song being smothered under the weight of jazz tradition. (Check out the inspired reading, fused with "My Funny Valentine", on the live CD "A Night In San Francisco", to hear what this sort of thing sounds like done properly.) Notably, the band included Chris Barber - which might explain the preponderance of trombone solos - whilst other names familiar from past Van albums included John Allair and David Hayes on Hammond and bass respectively.
Van appeared much happier than when I'd seen him previously, and genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself, in his own grumpy way. He actually introduced the obscurer covers and ripped into versions of "Brand New Cadillac" and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" halfway through other songs. Back catalogue plunderings were tragically limited to "In The Afternoon", "Vanlose Stairway" and an amazing "When The Healing Has Begun", instructing Allair "Don't give it all away yet" during his long, exquisitely modulated Hammond solo. He conducted the musicians like a big band leader, leading off the applause after just about every one of the evening's many, many solos, and appeared dressed in his standard issue "Godfather" outfit, as seen on most of the album covers during the last decade.
This was a great gig, if predictably infuriating, because he knows exactly what the audience want (all the classic non-hits and at least a titbit from "Astral Weeks") and steadfastly refuses to supply it. But that's why we keep coming back, why I've seen him three times and why I'd happily go and see him whenever the opportunity arose. The man is a genius, and, as with Mr Donegan, we should treasure his talent whenever we can.
VAN MORRISON/BOBBY BLAND Cardiff International Arena, 16 March 2000
Van Morrison's seemingly never-ending tour docked at Cardiff for the second time in six months, on this occasion with Bobby Bland, "1992 inductee into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame" according to the MC, in its wake.
Mr Bland took to the stage immaculately dressed in a white suit, accompanied by a crack backup band including an amazing Texan bassist who achieved the impossible by playing a bass solo that was actually interesting. He has what could politely be described as an unusual vocal mannerism, involving a kind of growling/snarling/coughing sound: one wag sitting behind me took time out from explaining the intricate internal workings of the Hammond organ to his mate to sum it up as 'catarrh solos'. The only songs I recognised were a smattering of "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" and "Ain't No Sunshine", during which he chastised the crowd for singing the words to the Bill Withers version rather than his own. At one point he says "We're gonna play some new blues now, but it's still the blues", which just about sums his approach to music making up. A living legend ("Number one blues singer", says Van, and he should know), Bland radiates charisma, and as with previous Van support acts and charity cases (for example Lonnie Donegan and Georgie Fame) you end up having a good time despite knowing nothing about the artist.
Van the Man, however, was utterly amazing. You listen to the live albums, for example " It's Too Late To Stop Now " or "A Night In San Francisco", and wonder why he's never like that when you go and see him in concert. Tonight he was, travelling under the banner of Professor Ivan Morrison's Workshop, as he mumblingly explained proceedings. As is traditional, the seven-piece band warm things up a little before Van bounds on, dressed in undertaker chic, as always - and there's something about the moment when he enters the stage, and the applause starts, when a few thousand people suddenly realise that they're in the presence of genius - and into mesmerising "Did Ye Get Healed?", which breaks down halfway through, via a rambling monologue along the lines of "I got healed a few times the first time was with Georgie Fame " into "Yeh Yeh". "Moondance" is second up, and it lumbers a lot less than it did six months ago, although it still features the obligatory solo tour of the band.
Other random highlights include "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do" and "Help Me", dynamite as always. Chris Farlowe, dressed as if Van had just kidnapped him from his pension queue, pops up for a blazing "Out Of Time", duets on a ripped-up "It's A Man's Man's Man's World", trading lines like a comedy double act, and reappears for the closing cover of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" ("a song we both recorded in 1966, although only two people know that"), Farlowe gently lambasting Van's freewheeling vocal technique, with hilarious consequences. "Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You)" is introduced as a song that "made a lot of money for me and Rod Stewart!". "It's All In The Game/You Know What They're Writing About" is luminous, absolutely luminous; taken very slowly it was the undoubted centrepiece of the evening. "The Philosopher's Stone" ("not a spiritual song, it's about there's no such thing as a free lunch") is riddled with explosive saxophone and Van's own harmonica soloing, elevating what sounds like dreary, but immaculately polished, pub rock on record to something like a religious experience.
Throughout the night Van was a giggling pixie image of creamy happiness - well, all things being relative, of course - and towards the end he actually says "Thank you, it was a great gig"! Coming from a man who was recently quoted as saying that he has no burning desire to perform, viewing it merely as what he does, tonight's performance was even more remarkable, the sort of gig that adds copious fuel to the still-smouldering Morrison legend, an experience that you really had to see to believe. Years of indifferent albums may have sapped all but the most determined of his faithful followers, but nights like this justify all the blind faith fanboy acceptance we need to get through the leaner periods. And it scarcely mattered that, yet again, the "Astral Weeks" songbook remained resolutely untouched: for once I don't think anybody minded.
VAN MORRISON/LINDA GAIL LEWIS/THE RED HOT POKERS Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre 7 July 2000
At 8:05 a four-piece band (drums/bass/guitar/sax), looking like original Teddy Boys, arrive and thunder through a tune written by (if I heard correctly) Smiley Lewis. The singer's deep Welsh accent betrays them as valley boys, along with the claim that their second number was written by a Merthyr resident. Their nationality also possibly explains the rocking sheep (as in rocking horse) sitting in a darkened corner of the stage. Unfortunately the Wessex Hall's lousy acoustics obscured most of the lyrics and between song banter during the night. Post-gig I learn that these gentlemen are known as The Red Hot Pokers.
The singer then introduces Linda Gail Lewis, an irrepressibly cheerful lady from Louisiana, who reminds of a slightly more down-home Mary Chapin-Carpenter, with a touch of the Keith Emerson/Jerry Lee Lewis keyboard theatricals, playing piano with her feet. (Another post-gig note: Linda Gail is - wait for it - Jerry Lee's sister.) You can't fail to warm to her, enthusiasm undimmed as emergency drum repairs are carried out following her first song. Her music might sound a little cliched to the more cynical ear (i.e. mine), and maybe her voice is more adept at belting out songs of love and loss than articulating the finer points of human emotion, but she certainly has a well-exercised set of lungs. She promises some duets with Van later in the evening, and you wonder how the old grump could possibly keep up. And then she plays "Dark End Of The Street", and hearts melt.
In bumbles Van in his undertaker chic, and amazingly he's carrying a guitar, with intent to play! Which he does, through a seemingly endless series of country, blues and R'n'B covers. I noted Hank Williams ("Jambalaya", "You Win Again", "Why Dont You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)"), Gene Vincent ("Be Bop A Lula"), Ray Charles ("I Can't Stop Loving You") and Jerry Lee Lewis ("Crazy Arms", "Old Black Joe"). Youd have to be more of a musicologist than me to be able to make out the many others, all expertly executed, it must be said, as a combination of distance (can somebody explain why the expensive seats are located furthest away from the stage?!), thrumming acoustics and Van's impenetrable accent made his between-song pronouncements an indistinct mumble. However, we learnt that 'we' (which I assume to mean Van and Linda) have an album out in September, called "You Win Again", which might explain this new old country direction.
As the evening progresses, and the rapturous audience response begins to slide down the wrong side of the bell curve, the old curmudgeon relents and treats us to a few tasty morsels from his wonderful back catalogue. "Vanlose Stairway" is blissful as ever, blessed with a fabulous, gulping harmonica solo and scattershot chopping guitar work, both by the man himself. "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" gets wheeled out again, and ain't it grand. "In The Afternoon", originally to be found on one of the interminable series of albums produced whilst seemingly on autopilot down some endless ancient highway during the 90s arrives dressed up in the dead-cert classic status it seems to have acquired during recent tours. And there's a smattering of stuff from his most recent studio excursion, "Back On Top". He was well into the second verse of "Goin' Down Geneva" before I realised it wasn't another obscure blues cover, but just as his mistreatment of the original had brought to mind the more recent Dylan live albums what do you know but it had metamorphosed into "Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35" which also takes a verse to recognise. Composure regained, and he's crashed into two verses of "Brand New Cadillac". I'm sure a few seconds of "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" were aired at some point during the evening as well. Last up was a thundering version of "Gloria", which clearly stated that Van can still rock, even at his advanced age.
Not as astonishing as the Cardiff CIA show I attended in March, which was one of those rare spiritual experiences that keeps the Van legend alive, tonight was still a fine gig, even if only for the way that Van impishly messes with the established conventions of what a rock concert should be/do: no barrier between support artist and main act (Van wandered off at random intervals during the night, leaving the stage to Linda, and most of the songs he performed were duets with her), no regimentation between the artist's own work and the colossal weight of musical culture that has informed it, and thankfully none of the interminable solo grandstanding that has marred some of his recent performances. He might still stubbornly refuse to give the people what they want (tonight possibly more than on any of the five occasions I've seen him) but that's what keeps us coming back for more, and more. And respect to The Man for following the kind of rigorous touring schedule that enables us to.
VAN MORRISON LINDA GAIL LEWIS You Win Again (Simply Vinyl)
By my reckoning Van's 26th studio album, "You Win Again" finds him, as on the more recent shows in his seemingly never-ending tour, collaborating with country singer, pianist and sister of Jerry Lee, Linda Gail Lewis, on a selection of country and blues covers. As a concept it has parallels with other Van hoe-downs spent exploring his musical roots - for example, "Irish Heartbeat", recorded with The Chieftains, and the frankly awful "How Long Has This Been Going On?", a live jazz album taped at an empty Ronnie Scotts. Fortunately "You Win Again" is rather better than that, being for the most part a good-natured, rumbustious assault on sacred tunes such as "Jambalaya", "You Win Again" and most notably John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" which, making its first appearance in my collection, reveals itself to be the genesis of ZZ Top's "La Grange" and The Rolling Stones' "Hip Shake". All perfectly competent, performed with sufficient verve and imagination to render the project worthwhile, but falling somewhat short of the revelatory experience promised by the sleeve notes, contributed by old Mr Smug Pants himself, Jools Holland. So, like much of Van's recent output, "You Win Again" seems destined to remain shelf-bound in favour of further plays of the ageless "Astral Weeks" or the marvellous out-takes double CD "The Philosopher's Stone", both of which catalogue Van at his unmatchable best.
VAN MORRISON Usk Marquee, Brecon Jazz 9 August 2001
With the latest outbreak of foot and mouth disease hitting the Brecon Beacons at almost exactly the same time as the town's annual jazz festival, there was some concern that the audience at Van's opening night back-to-nature gig (venue: a tent in a field, basically, no matter how much glamorous spin you might care to put on it) might be reduced to sitting around on recently terminated sheep carcasses. Happily this proved not to be the case, although the event seemed almost farcically under-attended and promoted, with our lackadaisical party still able to secure tickets as late as a week before the gig.
So, let's get some perspective here first. I've been going to Van concerts for over ten years, and it has taken me that decade to get over the slippery tingle every time the MC yells "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Van Morrison!" and he bounds (or lurches, depending on his condition on the night) onstage in the undertaker chic that he's been modelling for as long as I can remember. That's ten years of Van gigs when I've just been grateful that he's bothered to turn up, a fanboy attitude that has rose-tinted a succession of performances that have veered from the wilfully throwaway to something approaching spiritual rebirth. The only constant in those ten years has been Van himself: you barely know who else to expect on stage with him, and there's certainly no telling what he might deign to play - after all, the man has a back catalogue several hundred songs deep, and that's before you even begin to consider his myriad excursions back to the jazz, rock 'n' roll, blues, country and skiffle of his Hyndford Street youth.
Enough of that perspective stuff. Tonight, after a killjoy lecture on what the audience were and were not allowed to do during the performance (no photographs, no bootlegging, have fun, but only if you really, absolutely must) on trundled the band - who, unusually, we are at no point introduced to, but I have a vague feeling that the bass/guitar/drums combo might have been the local ensemble The Red Hot Peppers, who worked with Van on last year's Linda Gail Lewis collaborative tour and album, and from my squinting distance the keyboard player looked a dead ringer for Georgie Fame - who bashed competently through something called, I think, "Cadillac Blues", before "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Van Morrison" took to the stage and "Muleskinner's Blues", followed by "Midnight Special" and the old Lonnie Donegan stalwart "Dead Or Alive". At least I assume that's what they were: Van was well into his bluesy, emotive, hooting vocal style, the kind of singing that sounds as if he really, really means it even when you can't discern a single word. So, comfortably settled into expecting an evening of barely-recognisable but impeccably played cover versions he wrong-foots us by plunging into a warm, mellow fruitfulness take on "Tore Down A La Rimbaud", and the contrast is so great that he's well into the chorus before I recognise the song.
The statutory selections from the superior pub rock rumble of 1998's "Back On Top" follow, allowing you to reflect that he really must be proud of that album. There are a few more down-home covers to appease the rootsier factions in the crowd, including "St. James Infirmary" and "Outskirts Of Town". "And The Healing Has Begun", from the perennially underrated "Into The Music" album, gets wheeled out, and if it doesn't top the rendition that swung the highlight of his otherwise rather drab September 1999 Cardiff show it did boast some marvellous fiddling by one of his right hand men. And then, following a riotous "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)", Van put down the acoustic guitar he'd been grappling with all night, and proceedings seemed to stumble a little. The level of background conversational hubbub that had been needling all night seemed to increase - what kind of cultural philistine can spend an evening in the presence of such genius chatting?! There ought to be a law, there really should - as Van essayed a version of "The Philosopher's Stone" that was, y'know, all right but nowhere near as astonishing as this song has sounded in the past - sometimes he attacks the harmonica solo at the end with fingers of fire, but tonight it never really seemed to catch. When the world's shortest version of "Moondance" followed, decked out with just one solitary solo and dispensed with in under four minutes, it seemed as if we were headed for an early night. But then
Three notes of that chiming guitar intro and recognition kicks in, mouth bypasses brain and, much to the consternation of my companions, I start yelling very loudly. And I'm normally such a reserved kinda guy. But he's really doing it really playing "Brown Eyed Girl"!! A song I had only heard buskers attempt before now, a song so blankly absent from the setlist of every previous Van gig I had attended that you might as well assume he had completely forgotten about it, or at least written it out of his back catalogue as he appears to have done with "Astral Weeks". And I'm not even especially fond of the song but it was a moment worth screaming about, and a job well done. And all that was left was a triumphant barrel through "Gloria", audience on their feet shouting out the words as one and at one with the muse, and that's yer allotted, frequently astonishing, 90 minutes' worth. And everybody in our party had a good time, so appearance at the town's Festival. Watch this space: more news at 11.
VAN MORRISON Pavilion, Ross Festival 24 August 2001, 7:15pm
Another of these regular "Van in a tent in a field" evenings, the old curmudgeon was actually staging two performances here this evening, of which our party caught the former. And, compared to the Brecon gig a fortnight earlier, the atmosphere was definitely different, with a larger marquee, better organised seating, even finer acoustics allowing the savouring, if not understanding, of every syllable of Van's bluesgrowling and an audience who hadn't come to chatter all the way through his set. And the Belfast Cowboy responded in part by playing a show that, as far as anybody can quantify, was a blinder, albeit one that made Brecon look like part of a greatest hits tour. Tonight their were virtually no concessions to the section of the audience whose Morrison collection begins and ends with "The Best Of", with not a whistle of "Moondance", "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)", "Bright Side Of The Road", "Gloria", "Cleaning Windows" or - you'll be lucky! - "Brown Eyed Girl", all of which lent considerable credence to my theory that you have to catch him when (and as often as) you can to allow any serious chance of having your setlist wants-list sated. Tonight he added "Did Ye Get Healed?", as shimmery and life-affirming as you could possibly desire, with a few licks from his old mate Georgie Fame's "Yeah Yeah" thrown in as well, and a version of "Days Like This" that swung so much it was almost reggae! As part of his tradition of baiting audiences with unfamiliar material tonight's set pivoted around a trio of what I presume were cover versions: I think he attributed something called "Talk Is Cheap" to Skip James, although he might have been referring to the song that followed it, which seemed to be "Raining In My Heart", but not the one you're thinking of. Maybe it's the way he plays them, maybe it's the way he plays everything (and he was playing again tonight, guitar and blowing away on harmonica and saxophone as well: even as the other members of his phenomenally tight-knit band circled solos around him he would stand impassively at the microphone, immobile apart from the fingers of his left hand clicking in time) but he was able to drop foreign material into a set and not alienate the audience a jot: maybe it's all music, all Van's music, irrespective of who wrote it, or whether or not you've heard it before.
Tonight's grinning highspot was the closer, another on-off-on returnee to the setlist, an amazing version of "It's All In The Game/You Know What They're Writing About" that saw Van gripped by the kind of stuttering singing-in-tongues that he rarely attempts these days, the kind of blarney stone rhetoric that you don't tend to miss when he's just cranking out the hits (or the non-hits, to be pedantic). It's why he bothers, and why we bother, and how he can send a tentful of people out on a high even when they've paid £25 for barely 75 minutes of music (on the one hand, the cost of Van gigs seem to be spiralling out of control this year; on the other hand what, are you complaining?!). Had he played the Brecon set to tonight's audience in this superior venue I think we'd have been dealing with an event almost as close to perfection as his March 2000 CIA gig. Nevertheless the band were red-hot, Van hollered like a true original and as far as his human jukebox approach to setlists is concerned, you pays yer money and yer takes pot luck. And yes, I'm seeing him again in another two weeks
VAN MORRISON/CHRIS FARLOWE St David's Hall, Cardiff 7 September 2001
So here we all are again for what's becoming a happily regular summer ritual this year, the fortnightly Van gig. Tonight differs in several key elements: firstly, it's not under canvas, and secondly, you get a support act thrown in for your hard earned. The last (and, truth to tell, first) time I saw Chris Farlowe he was playing the special guest court jester to Van during his Cardiff International Arena show 18 months ago; this time he has a set of his own to play. And what he plays is a polished, contemporary spin on the blues and soul that you can imagine he's been peddling in clubs during the 35 years since he was famous to any degree. He's abetted by an excellent band, including a fine guitarist named Woody ("He's had the lurgy for the last week", explained Chris. "I used to be six foot", countered the guitarist) and almost embarrassingly talented keyboard player and saxophonist. You also get the kind of playful intra-band banter and abuse that only seems to happen during Van's charity support slot (c.f. Lonnie Donegan's set, two years ago almost to the day, in the same venue), such as when Farlowe notes that Woody had recently been voted the best guitarist in the county: "In the city he's hopeless, but in the country he's quite good. I think the country was Hungary ".
Musically Farlowe is very alright: he plays some of his own material, and covers of works by Lonnie Mack and Delbert McClinton, rather well, it has to be said. But his on-stage persona is, even in his more reserved moments, faintly embarrassing, whether he's throwing some rather outdated shapes whilst Woody lays down some impressive guitar work or raging against people who commend him on his version of "Out Of Time": "If there's any journalists out there" (am I wearing my press hat or something?) "that's my song! Mr Jagger Richards wrote it for me! Mine's the original version!". And his version, whoops, can't call it that, because, as he's at pains to point out, Mike D'Abo wrote it especially for him, of "Handbags And Gladrags" seems rather rushed, lacking the majesty of Rod Stewart's, or even Ricky Gervais', as heard over the closing credits of marvellous recent BBC2 sitcom "The Office".
What really distances Farlowe from Van, an artist who, it has to be said, formed his distinctive style from a not dissimilar melting pot of influences, is that Van has taken all the elements and forged something deeply personal and individual from them. Farlowe assembles them in a ragged, admittedly enjoyable fashion, but never transcends them. Before his vibrant cover of Delbert McClinton's "Shaky Ground", he says "We're gonna do this in a James Brown style ". Well, Van does everything in a Van Morrison style, and he doesn't have to leave a trail of breadcrumb clues, either.
So, in my continuing investigation of the differences a fortnight can make to the Belfast Cowboy's setlist, here are tonight's pertinent observations: "Brown Eyed Girl" is back (to yelps from all around: it's not just me, you know!), as is "Gloria". There's an utterly electric version of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun" on the menu, Van apparently singing through his harmonica to recreate that beamed-directly-from-a-delta-back-porch-in-the-late-1940s authentic feel. Decoding a little more of his dialect this time around, "Raining In My Heart" reveals itself to be a product of Slim Harpo, and there's a rare outbreak of comedy when he introduces a new song (no title given, but it starts with the lines "All work and no play/Makes Jack a dull chap", and it made an appearance at the Ross-on-Wye gig two weeks previously as well) as something "We played for the president of the United steelworkers!". Other debutantes include a complete rendition of "Brand New Cadillac", which has only managed to hitch itself to the coat-tails of other songs before now, and a huge blues medley which serves up Muddy Waters' "Long Distance Call", "Early In The Morning" and something by Jimmy Witherspoon. There was also something naggingly familiar introduced as "When You're Smiling", which nevertheless I can't pin down in the Van discography anywhere. Chris Farlowe returned to the stage for a smattering of duets, including "a song so good I recorded it twice, on "The Healing Game" and Tom Jones' "Reload"", which turns out to be the rather syrupy autopilot product "Sometimes We Cry", and a surprising and welcome "Stand By Me".
So that's the dry specifics and measured facts, none of which can convey the fact that this was surely the most enthusiastic audience I've seen him play for all summer, still roaring and applauding through the deepest of Van's unfamiliar blues excursions, territory that great swathes of the Brecon crowd shunned in favour of trips to the bar. And although I don't think he and his never less than utterly professional band were at the top of their considerable form this evening, and the sound was robbed of a deal of its immediacy by uncharacteristically reverberent St. David's Hall acoustics, it was still a fine show, as attested to by the comedy and the manner in which Van grappled heroically with his saxophone at points, unleashing astonishing sheets of soulful honking. Perhaps it was another potentially terrific evening sabotaged by an overly-specialised setlist: once you've heard him rip through half-a-dozen tracks from "The Best Of" during the course of an evening any lower proportion of familiar classics seems to be a bit stingy, irrespective of the delights offered in their stead. But that's why you can't just go and see Van once if you're a real fan; you have to catch him as often as funds, geography and sanity permit. And although you may not realise it at the time, you're almost guaranteed an insightful and educational experience irrespective of what he deigns to play.
VAN MORRISON/CHRIS FARLOWE Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth 18 January 2002
Van gigs are starting early this year, and with his typically lackadaisical attitude towards anything so crass as advertising his tour schedule I only found out about this concert, part of a series of five British dates, whilst pootling around the Bournemouth International Arena's website in search of Bob Dylan tickets.
First up, at 7:30 on the dot, a familiar looking bunch of fellows took the stage. Although he old grey matter failed to provide an adequate answer to the question of where I recognised them from, their casual attire suggested that they weren't here to play for Van. And then on strolled Chris Farlowe, who had been on second fiddle duty at the Cardiff gig in September, wearing the same strange purple silk garment that looked like a cross between a kimono and a pyjama top. He does his amiable rhythm and blues thing for 45 minutes, and although the songs are mostly familiar - a few numbers from his new CD, "Available in the foyer", Delbert McClinton's "Shaky Ground", by way of James Brown (complete with a literally show-stopping break in the middle), "Handbags And Gladrags", which has by now grown itself a Stereophonics mention in Farlowe's introduction and a climactic "Out Of Time" - the jokes and the patter are all-new. A wag yells "Out of time!", and Farlowe counters "No we're not, we've got plenty of time yet!"; bemoaning the fact that band member Dave collected a £60 parking ticket outside the Pavilion earlier in the day, his bad-cop saxophonist replies "They're only doing their job". And in the continuing series of guitarist-baiting incidents, Farlowe jokes "I'd rather be a shit guitarist than five feet". "Its not my fault, a lift fell on me when I was young", replies the diminutive string-plucker. Bad cop saxophonist immediately pipes up with "Not hard enough!". Amongst all this warped camaraderie it has to be admitted that Farlowe's performance was excellent, lapped up appreciatively by the audience, and the one new addition to the setlist, a cover of The Small Faces' "All Or Nothing", was as fine as everything that surrounded it. But the old caveat about Farlowe wearing his influences on his well-upholstered sleeve remains: he's assimilated his sound from the same melting pot of ingredients as Van has, but hasn't really wrapped them up into something quintessentially his, which explains why he's second on the bill tonight
and Van's first. Given how the setlist slipped about and shuffled around in the fortnightly intervals between the Van gigs I managed to catch last year, how will proceedings have changed in the intervening four months? Completely and utterly, in short. Another familiar-looking band arrive on stage, the same septet that have been backing the man at least since last August, and they launch into a version of "Think" (possibly the James Brown song, if I knew what that actually sounded like), to minimal audience interest, unfortunately. Then suddenly it's "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Van Morrison!", and on he strolls in a suit that's so light black it could almost be very dark grey, sax slung around his neck. The band launch into a jazzy-sounding instrumental, taking turns with the solo spots, which prompts a minor moment of presumably unintended hilarity when the spotlight picks out Van, who steps forward to begin his few bars' worth, only to be drowned out by the trumpet player doing the same thing, onto whom the spotlight swiftly swerves. Next up was something that seemed to be called "Indian Summer", a piece so Van-by-numbers that it could have been buried on any of the mostly unremarkable studio albums he churned out during the last decade (but isn't, it appears). Another new song, identified only by an opening line that sounded like "Whatever happened to P J Proby?" and a slinky, "Pink Panther"-esque rhythm, followed: liberal use of the word 'mediocre' in the lyric suggests it to be another of Van's periodic swipes at the music business.
So far, so unfamiliar. And what happens next? The band kick into a mesmerising groove that could easily be the opening of "I've Been Working", and what a treat that would be. But even better than that, it actually resolves itself into "Naked In The Jungle", from the marvellous outtakes collection "The Philosopher's Stone", for my money the second finest Van collection after the album that dare not speak its name, "Astral Weeks", and which I've never heard dipped into before in a concert setting. And this is some serious treatment it's receiving, with astonishing atonal gulping from Van's harmonica as if he's auditioning for the Velvets circa "Sister Ray", cries of "Give the drummer some!" leading into a few seconds in which the band do just that, followed by, believe it or not, a conga solo! (Has Van been listening to Santana a lot recently?) Wow. Amazing on just about every level: a marvellous, forgotten song makes it into the core canon, and gets belted about with a rendition that crushes the studio recording.
Some other highlights? How about "Have I Told You Lately" made over as a big-band swing number? A rollicking version of "Star Of The County Down"? A version of "In The Afternoon" that brings proceedings down to the point where the hall is lit only by the exit signs, emergency lights and the lamps over the musicians' music stands? "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)" and "Bright Side Of The Road" as a sop to those in the audience whose Van collection begins and ends with the "Best Of" disc? But really, following a slightly nervous start with unfamiliar material, just about everything tonight benefitted from the Belfast cowboy's currently unassailable Midas touch, which whipped the fever-pitch audience to their feet during the closing triumvirate of "Brown Eyed Girl", "Stand By Me" (performed with the returning Chris Farlowe) and a final meltdown of "Gloria". He wasn't exactly verbally communicative, although he did smile once or twice towards the end of the evening, but a near 100-minute set speaks volumes about his temperament compared to some of the 75-minute "take the money and run" performances I've witnessed in the past. This was my ninth Van gig, and he's still taking chances, dropping in fantastically pleasant surprises, and shaking things up with the sort of verve that artists half his age struggle to muster. What more could you possibly ask for? On top of all this, wanting to hear anything from "Astral Weeks" or "Veedon Fleece" just seems like sheer greed.
VAN MORRISON Down The Road (Polydor/Exile)
Maybe it has something to do with his old friend Bob's recent critical resurgence, Mr Zimmerman now producing, on record if not on stage, some of his finest music of the last quarter century. Perhaps he finally tired of trotting out essentially the same substandard album of careworn blues cliches every few years. Whatever the reason, something has invigorated the old curmudgeon, because "Down The Road" is the best new Van album I've heard in over a decade, the most easily defensible recording he's presented his loyal public with since "Enlightenment". It's not brilliant, mark you, but it induces a level of interest and satisfaction in the listener that some might have long feared to be beyond Van's grasp.
But no, it's lovely. Listen to him skip jauntily with a nod and a sly wink through "Meet Me In The Indian Summer". Take a gentle swirl across the floor to the blooming, goshdarnit romance of "Steal My Heart Away". (A round of applause, please, for Matt Holland's delicate, burnished flugelhorn solo.) And what's with a song called "Hey Mr. DJ"? Is it going to be a thumping celebration of Ibizan hedonism? Or will it harken back to the post-"Astral Weeks" period when, living in Boston, he'd spend evenings calling radio stations requesting blues songs? You decide, but, remember, he just wants to hear some rhythm and blues music, on the radio.
"Talk Is Cheap" is one of the album's savage media gummings - just about every Van album of the modern age has them - but so vintage does it sound that when I've heard him perform it in concert (as with the swinging call-and-response fest of "All Work And No Play", also recorded here for the first time) I've assumed it to be the work of some long-neglected blues singer. (And maybe it is, Van being that long-neglected blues singer.) Somebody plays some fabulously smoky fiddle, turning the entire arrangement on its head, but the credits don't reveal who.
"Whatever Happened To PJ Proby?" is part broadside aimed squarely at popular culture, part meditation on Van's wandering troubadour lifestyle and his burning need to perform, and it stalks like Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme. Although it's difficult to choke back a response to the line "Where in the hell do you think is Scott Walker?" - Van, have you not heard "Tilt"?! - humility is regained with the punchline "Whatever happened to me?". "The Beauty Of The Days Gone By" offers more gentle romance, as welcome as it is surprising. He hasn't quite got the voice for it these days - there's a little too much grizzled hollering going on - but the sentiment is spot on.
Next up is a cover of "Georgia On My Mind", the first version of the song I've ever heard (followed swiftly by Man's rendition, which arrived the same day, spookily enough). I'm hooked from the humble, churchy organ intro. He brings his full battery of interpretative techniques to bear on the song, all the trickery he rolls out on stage but rarely exercises in the studio these days, isolating and repeating phrases time upon time, tickling the melody against the loose-but-finger-tight performance of the band, firing off the odd yelping volley. It's a lovely, velveteen rendition.
The fourth side doesn't quite maintain the quality of the previous three. "Man Has To Struggle" appears to rake over the coals of the grumpy "Why Must I Always Explain?", musically at least, and "Fast Train" seems uncomfortably close to being a thinly disguised remake of Dylan's "Shooting Star", another tale of targets missed.
Nevertheless, that still leaves 50 minutes of mostly great music. It's almost as if he's made a conscious effort to capture some of the verve, pace and swing of his concerts in the studio, even down to the way the musicians seem to step into the spotlight for their allotted solos. "Down The Road" is the Van album with more of everything more jazz (Acker Bilk guests on and co-writes "Evening Shadows"), more blues, more folk, more country picking, although the country in question is Ireland rather than America (hear it calling him on "Choppin' Wood" and "What Makes The Irish Heart Beat"). And because of that "Down The Road" is a chunky, spicy bowl of broth in place of the thin gruel he's been serving up for far too long. It's an old recipe, admittedly, but it hasn't tasted this fresh in ages. A mention too for the fabulous record shop window cover photo, a roll call of album sleeves by Van's formative influences, practically an ordinance survey map to the well from which he continues to derive his inspiration, only marginally diminished by the way the cover of James Brown's "Live At The Apollo" reads "Two big albums on one CD"!
VAN MORRISON/CHRIS FARLOWE Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth 1 October 2002
"An evening of jazz, blues & soul with Van Morrison and his Band", promised the advert in The Daily Telegraph three days before tonight's concert. Advert in The Daily Telegraph?!?! Surely information about Van gigs is only ever passed in code through secret handshakes across an underground network of true believers people like the gentleman with the Irish accent (nah, not Van, just in case you were wondering) I overheard during the interval raving enthusiastically about how Morrison and his band had apparently been rehearsing the "Veedon Fleece" album in its entirety, treating a Torquay audience to a few selections a month before.
But first, as is becoming a regular occurrence at Van gigs, here's Chris Farlowe, and in a possible example of familiarity breeding contentment his performance just seems to keep on improving. Over the course of a brief set - barely five songs and twenty minutes' worth - he keeps the distasteful grandstanding to an absolute minimum (although he does like to tell you how Mike D'Abo wrote "Handbags And Gladrags" for him, and how Mick and Keef did likewise with "Out Of Time"). Tonight his performance is short and vibrant enough to enjoy without reflecting on exactly how and why the career and style of the support act differs from those of the headliner. None of that "Were gonna do this in a James Brown style", not too much playful ragging of the band, and just enough great singing and fabulous songwriting (see above) to leave a strongly positive impression.
Twenty minutes later Van's band stroll onstage and immediately strike up a Miles Davis number from "Kind Of Blue". The old memory plays tricks but I'm reasonably convinced it was "Freddie Freeloader" (although cloth-eared apologies are unconditionally offered if it was actually "All Blues" instead), a lovely warm, burnished sound that really sang in the Pavilion's fabulously favourable acoustics. Mid-tune some intraband communication suggests that there isn't time for another trumpet solo because Van's ready to roar, and here he comes, squawking on his saxophone into an unidentified, but nonetheless very fine, rock 'n' roll instrumental. Next he cracks open a keg of the new stuff, with the shiny, timeless "Meet Me In The Indian Summer", which sounds as much the classic lost Van song as it did the first time I heard it, eight months earlier in this very boutique. There's much more from the lovely "Down The Road" album during the evening, all of it exquisite in the velvet and plaster ambience of the Pavilion, songs seemingly crafted for venues like this, including a gorgeously smokey violin-strung "Steal My Heart Away", a Farlowe-assisted "Hey Mr. DJ" (Chris having changed from his purple silk kimono number into some attire that looks less out of place next to van's dazzling dark grey suit), "Choppin' Wood" and a thigh-slapping "All Work And No Play". The "Best Of" crowd and inveterate pub jukebox jockeys could choose from committed renditions of "Cleaning Windows", a "Gee El Owe Are Eye Aye" that saw Van convincingly out-holler a shell-shocked Mr Farlowe, and, still in the setlist after too long in exile, "Brown Eyed Girl".
In the 'pleasant surprise' category he offered a thorough rearrangement of "Foggy Mountain Top", from the fantastic double CD of unreleased material "The Philosopher's Stone", a song so completely restructured I couldn't put a title to it until back home and in the company of the printed lyrics. And in the 'why this was the best Van gig of the 11 I've attended " category in a dozen years of going to Van concerts as often as geography permits, I've never heard him attempt anything from "Astral Weeks", an album so far gone and out in its dewy beauty and mossy poetry that it has rendered much of what he's recorded in the subsequent three-and-a-half decades pleasant but lightweight entertainment. So when he dons an acoustic guitar and begins to chime out a melody that gently uncoils itself into "Sweet Thing", it's the kind of travelling-without-moving experience that could cancel out a nation of transport crises. And it remains amazing, even though his singing chews the lyrics into near-unrecognisable gobs of phrases in a fashion that no other song tonight seems to fall prey to, swooning drowsily to rest on an intricately detailed blanket of guitar and flute, slung over a rhythm section that patters just as gently as the Modern Jazz Quartet members did on the original recording. A moment to treasure, and a glimpse of the suggestion of another time and another place.
Not that everybody was so easily sated. Our Irish interval correspondent seemed close to indignant: ""Sweet Thing" and that was it! I dont believe it!". Some people just ain't ever satisfied.
VAN MORRISON/SAM BUTERA St Davids Hall, Cardiff 5 January 2003
Almost bang on the advertised time, wild man of sax Sam Butera and his band take the stage just as I'm attempting to wrest my front row seat (a first, I think, in a dozen Van gigs in as many years) from the grasp of an impostor, and I'm hardly sitting down before they've launched into a raucous but irresistible attack on "When You're Smiling", a song I think I've heard Van perform before now in this very venue. Butera is a slight but dapper fellow I'd guesstimate at being in his 60s, at least, and during the course of the evening we learn a great deal about his near quarter-century tenure in Louis Prima's band. Well, all I know about Louis Prima is that he doesn't quite make an appearance as a character in Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's cinematic feast "Big Night", one of his albums is featured in the shop window display on the cover of Van's own latest opus, "Down The Road", and what I've just read about him in "The Faber Companion To 20th-Century Popular Music", which actually draws attention to Sam Butera's "Earl Bostic-like 'dirty' sax solos".
Dirty sax there was aplenty tonight, in a set that could almost have been played by the wedding band from "The Godfather" (but in a good way, in case there's any ambiguity), with lashings of bawdy Sicilian jazz and rhythm and blues, including a, perhaps on reflection slightly incongruous, rendition of "White Cliffs Of Dover" (i.e. the one that bluebirds will be over) and classics from another age such as "Misty" and "That Old Black Magic", punctuated by reminiscences from his New Orleans days, well-deserved shout outs to his hot combo and his frequent, almost redundant under the circumstances, observation "That's good time music, folks!". Of course, Van seems to have a canny knack for picking support acts that are likely to tickle his - and by extension his audience's - eclectic fancies (previous happy highlights have included the late, great Lonnie Donegan and the unstoppable Chris Farlowe), but nobody has threatened to blow him off the stage and into the weeds like this before. Van ambles on for a couple of tunes near the end of Butera's hour long set, and whilst it's always nice to see him (and, at this unusually close range, to notice little things like the feathery object stuck in his hatband) compared to Mr Butera's honking, squawking happy music he was reduced to side-show status. And then an incredible thing happens - Sam steps down from the stage, accompanied by his two-strong brass backup squad, and walks along the first few rows of the audience, shaking hands and still playing sax as he goes. Could you imagine Van even contemplating such a gesture?! What a guy! And yet, seeing him out in the foyer on a couple of occasions later in the evening, being steered around by his assistant or signing CDs, offstage he seems to be a surprisingly frail elderly gentleman, totally at odds with his electric performance when on it. Nevertheless, if he plays your town a great night out is practically guaranteed.
Which is not something you can always say about a Van gig. This is the third time I've seen him in this venue, and he often treats these appearances in his adopted hometown (one of many adopted hometowns, no doubt) as an excuse to do the R&B professor thing, exploring blues history at the expense of his own frequently thrilling back catalogue. And that sort of happens tonight, with a gutsy rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Early In The Morning" included in a set that catered rather more for the fanatic than the casual, "Best Of"-owning listener. From that fine new album we were treated to "Only A Dream", and the freshly-minted but hewn-from-legend classics "Talk Is Cheap" and "All Work And No Play", the latter enlivened by a somewhat baffled looking Sam Butera, hemmed in between Van and his trumpet player, who nevertheless cut loose with typical aplomb when given some space. In uncharacteristically outgoing mood, Van stationed himself at the Hammond (the first time I've seen him play keyboards in concert, if memory serves) and prefaced "She Gives Me Religion" by mumbling something like "What is religion? What does it mean?", and followed it from the same instrument with "Vanlose Stairway", his guitarist perfectly replicating the tone used on the album version. And again, there's something thrilling and instructive about being so physically close to the music making process - watching the band members take their solo cues from each other, eavesdropping on the between-numbers intra-band conferences (during one such some so-called fan has the audacity to shout for "Brown Eyed Girl", and is it my imagination or does almost the entire audience pause mid-breath for a second?), even just seeing the sheer amount of documentation groaning on the stage's music stands.
Other moments: Butera, again, signs up for the restyled swing version of "Have I Told You Lately"; "Foggy Mountain Top", from the wonderful "The Philosopher's Stone" cupboard clearing exercise makes a reappearance after hearing Van play it last time around in Bournemouth three months previously. And when he plays a sort-of-encore of "Brown Eyed Girl" he introduces it by saying "We're playing it 'cos someone requested it earlier", which might (or conceivably might not) be a playful acknowledgement of his cantankerous reputation. But tonight's performance wasn't in the front rank of Van gigs, in my experience. It was never less than professional and enjoyable, and afforded ample opportunity to marvel at the musical dexterity of both Van (who, as well as the aforementioned organ, played guitar, harmonica and sax) and his fabulous band who, although not introduced, seemed to be the same bunch who have been backing him for the last few years. But there were no moments of stunning revelation, nothing like hearing him perform "Sweet Thing" in Bournemouth last October, or "Brown Eyed Girl" for the first time at Brecon Jazz the year before, or those long, languid explorations of "When The Healing Has Begun" or "It's All In The Game/You Know What He's Writing About" that grace the set every now and then, or even that conga-soaked "Naked In The Jungle" from Bournemouth, again, this time last year. Good but not quite great, for possibly the first time in living memory he almost had his own show stolen by the support act, a musician as keen to please a crowd as Van isn't.
VAN MORRISON Ross-On-Wye International Festival 15 August 2003, 7:00pm
Having experienced Van's take-the-money-and-run two-shows-in-a-night tactic before now in this very venue, I have to admit that tonight he provided what verged on an abundance of pleasant, solid entertainment, with a few shocks and surprises to jolt any complacent audience member whose history of Van gigs might be well into double figures already, mentioning no names. The band were the familiar, dazzlingly accomplished supporting players who've been backing him at least since the "You Win Again" album with Linda Gail Lewis, but what of the hat Mr Morrison was wearing?! It's so white!!
As is becoming traditional, Van aired great chunks of his last album, "Down The Road", of which he seems justly proud, and peppered the evening with enough old favourites to sate the "Best Of" owners, including "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)", the remodelled, swing-style "Have I Told You Lately" (to which one indignant audience member yelled "Play it properly!". Peasant!), "Brown Eyed Girl" (shock value diminished since I first heard him play it at Brecon two years previously but always welcome, the Van-sponsored handclapping session during the bass solo being a new feature) and the traditional rousing set-closer "Gloria". A short way into proceedings "Carrying A Torch" received a pleasant dusting down, but highlight of the evening for an old lag like me had to be "Listen To The Lion", a song I've never heard snake into a Van setlist before, delivered with a crispness that belies the thirty years and several octaves between the mystical genius who recorded it and the curmudgeonly journey man performing it tonight.
Despite the occasional bear-baiting ("Say something!", hollered somebody obviously attending his first Van gig) the crowd were marvellous, practically dragging the old feller back on stage for an encore, which turned out to be an unreleased (to my knowledge) article apparently entitled "Thank God For Self-Love" - and it didn't take a master's degree thesis to untangle what that was about! And, as before at this venue, the acoustics and accommodation were fabulous for what is essentially little more than a glorified tent plonked next to the river. Overall, though, not in the absolute front rank of Van gigs I've attended: a comfortable 6 out of 10, but no more.
VAN MORRISON Blackpool Opera House, 4 November 2004
Its been a while, but here we are all together again, this time in the crumbling grandeur of Blackpools Opera House, and whilst it clearly states 8:00 PM on the ticket what Van really means is 8:00 for 7:55. Hes already dispensed with an opening I Will Be There by the time the clock strikes, and all the cool kids who sidle in at around 9:15 will just about catch the familiar closing triumvirate of Brown Eyed Girl (which causes a spontaneous outbreak of aisle dancing), Precious Time and Gloria.
This being my unlucky thirteenth Van gig, the spine-chilling expectancy that usually accompanies the evenings designated MCs announcement Ladies and gentlemen Mr Van Morrison! has kind of subsided over the years. The frisson engendered by his cantankerous live reputation has receded in the face of consistent evidence that he really doesnt tend to stomp off in a huff these days. In its place is a sense of genuine curiosity as to what kind of Van will be on stage tonight the Van who seems determined to drag a reluctant audience through a rigorous education in the blues, country or early rock n roll, or (preferably) the Van content to ramble through his back pages for an hour and a half.
Happily, tonight brought the latter: I cant recall the last Van gig I attended that drew its set entirely from the artists own albums, but thats what we got. Amidst the familiar and the expected he nonchalantly dropped Wonderful Remark three songs in, greeted with ecstatic applause, and rapidly pulled an initially wobbly Haunts Of Ancient Peace into line, guiding it expertly towards a truncated canter through Coney Island youd have to bring your own jars of mussels and potted herrings on this trip! Into The Mystic was another delightful surprise, his saxophonist grappling gamely with a baritone instrument to provide the appropriate foghorn blasts. And the Best Of buyers could content themselves with fine interpretations of Jackie Wilson Said (Im In Heaven When You Smile) and Bright Side Of The Road.
On the debit side, though, on over-reliance on material from last years rather drab Whats Wrong With This Picture caused momentum to flag on occasion. In particular, Goldfish Bowl, a grouchy anti-celebrity grumble, seemed misdirected at an audience of nearly 3,000 who had paid the best part of £30 each for the pleasure of Vans company. But if the evening wasnt as transcendent as some Ive spent with the Man, there was enough invention, spark and surprise to remind me just why I keep coming back for more.
VAN MORRISON The Bridgewater Hall, 27 & 28 March 2006
Following hot on the dusty heels of Pay The Devil, his country album, which has split the cognoscenti right down the middle of the pack, Van showed up in Manchester for a two-night stand in the comfy environs of the Bridgewater, with lucky me scamming front row tickets for both gigs: forgive me if the following seems to merge impressions from the two.
Arriving on stage punctually at the ticket time of 8:00, as is becoming the custom with Van gigs, his current backing band sauntered genially through a warm-up slab of old school rock n roll, something Chuck Berry-esque (but almost certainly not) ladled with references to the record machine, presumably more in a jukebox sense than referencing the machinations of the evil music industry (as it seems at least one song on every new Van album must these days).
And then along comes Van, and on both nights he proceeds through a robust selection of songs from recent albums. If, on record, these tunes seem more workmanlike than inspired, on these nights he buffs the likes of Days Like This, Magic Time, All Work And No Play, Stop Drinking and Stranded to a fine, assured shine. Perhaps the refreshed composition of his band helps animate proceedings: with no brass section hes forced to wrap himself around his saxophone more often than usual, and a pedal steel player and a violinist (it seems positively rude to label him a fiddler) armed with a gorgeously smoky-toned instrument lend a honeyed, amber burr to their sound. Theres also a bevy of backing vocalists who bring a kind of Light Programme air in a good way as if the gig were seeping out of the ornamental speaker grille of a vintage wireless.
Surprisingly, it was the older, more epochal material that suffered. Its All In The Game/You Know What Theyre Writing About, which I seem to remember witnessing heartstopping performances of in the past, seemed perfunctory, sapped of momentum by Vans singing-in-tongues scattershot scat act, although my Monday night gig buddy rated it a highlight. Moondance was thrilling until I remembered that it was often the excuse for some round-robin soloing, and, fine a song as it is, it cant really bear the weight of bass and drum showcases without discernible sag. There were a pleasantly surprising number of concessions to the Best Of buyers, with Brown Eyed Girl, Jackie Wilson Said (Im In Heaven When You Smile), Gloria, Bright Side Of The Road and Here Comes The Night all done well. The undoubted highlight for me, though, was from the Tuesday, when he ripped unceremoniously into Streets Of Arklow from Veedon Fleece, an area of his back catalogue that, if I recall correctly, has been untroubled in all the teens of times Ive seen him. It was magnificent, a jaw-dropping experience, enhanced especially by a harmonica solo (performed by his lead guitarist and nominal musical director) that gulped with the urgency of a drowning man.
As is becoming increasingly apparent with every visit, the sound quality achieved in the Bridgewater was mightily impressive: I was able to go earplugless for both shows and not suffer a single clang of tinnitus afterwards. It was instructive how different the mix could sound from my two front-row vantage points. On the Monday night, seated just to the right of an imaginary median line through the stage, the whole band sounded pretty well balanced. Nine seats to the left on Tuesday, and directly in front of the lead guitarists monitor, his solos tended to drown out the rest of the ensemble.
Its always a delight to be so close to the stage as to be privy to the bands inner mechanisms, as well as witness the showers of spittle arcing from Vans mouth in the spotlights glare! Turning songs around on a hand signal, seemingly assembling the setlist on the spot, it occurs to me as Im watching that Vans almost the Jurassic equivalent of Mark E. Smith. Neither are averse to seat-of-the-pants spontaneity in an attempt to keep their music fresh, and, with carefree disregard to the sanctity of their back catalogues, accord a low priority to giving fans what they want. (As if you have to ask, Van played not a note from Astral Weeks on either night.)
VAN MORRISON Magic Time (Exile/Polydor)
Like most modern days Van albums, Magic Time is the most mixed of bags. Songs like Stranded polish their musical and lyrical clichés to a lustrous, buffed enough to nudge them over the thin line that separates old-fashioned and timeless. Precision engineered to sound immaculate in concert, they fulfil their brief admirably.
Then theres the occasional Crikey, he can still do it! moment. Celtic New Year supplies the albums first: from its jerky, stop-start acoustic guitar intro its a revelation, perhaps even a revolution. Admittedly the lyrics are a lazy, patched-together spread of Indian summers further on up the road, but the accompanying music delicately refines and restates the principles behind early 80s works such as Beautiful Vision.
On first inspection Keep Mediocrity At Bay appears to be this seasons anti-music business rant, but its more concerned with personal empowerment, which cant be a bad thing. This seasons anti-music business rant is actually called They Sold Me Out, but even this has an unusual delicacy to it if youre able to ignore the lyrics. Evening Train might be classic, primal R&B or a formulaic blues pile-up, according to your tastes, but This Love Of Mine delivers the kind of glitzy, blaring showmanship youd demand from a Sinatra composition such as this. Similarly, Fats Wallers Lonely And Blue sounds appropriately vintage, although alarmingly Van appears to become possessed by the ghost of Louie Armstrong during its closing seconds. Just Like Greta is one of those nobody understands the tortured artist skits he does so often, pulled through by a gently undulating backcloth that fleetingly suggests a tranquilised Listen To The Lion.
The albums other showstopper is The Lion This Time, a light-stepping tangle of flute, guitar and strings that shifts imperceptibly between madrigal-like verses and bluesy choruses. The title track is a world away from the pedestrian retreads that so often clog up his albums these days, dwelling more in light than shade. Magic Times real clunker is Carry On Regardless, seemingly less a song than a response to a challenge to cram as many Carry On film titles into one lyric as possible. What was that you were just saying about mediocrity, Van? And yet even here hes at it again, ranting about TV trash and media rehash. Sometimes youve got to decide whether youre part of the problem or part of the solution. At least Van seems to find it amusing.
Magic Time is a mixed bag, then, but one sprinkled with enough loveliness to keep the faithful happy, for now at least.
VAN MORRISON Pay The Devil (Lost Highway)
So, Vans country album, then. Although the white mans blues has long been coursing through his music, alongside countless other genres The Band called him the Belfast Cowboy, remember hes rarely addressed the music so comprehensively at source. Hes been here before, with 2000s unhappy Linda Gail Lewis collaboration You Win Again, but that albums been mysteriously (spitefully?) deleted.
Theres the requisite parade of maudlin, alcohol-pickled misery, beginning with There Stands The Glass, a song popularly associated with Webb Pierce, reaching its apotheosis with the endless bad luck catalogued in Things Have Gone To Pieces. The latter doesnt so much sail perilously close to cliché as wallow in it, making it one of the albums most entertaining moments, along with My Buckets Got A Hole In It providing previously untold levels of humour for a Van album. Rodney Crowells Till I Gain Control Again, the most modern of the country covers, is perhaps the albums real highlight, sober and measured, soaked in regret and redemption. Theres lashings of fiddle and steel guitar over everything, and Van brings his best foggy mountain breakdown holler and three new compositions. Its not so difficult to detect which songs are his, though: grumpy, rather than hopelessly desolate, fare like Playhouse (bit of a giveaway with all its fretting about pounds, shillings and pence, hardly a core concern of most country and western tunes) and the title tracks tortured artist rant.
On that subject, though, for all Vans insistence that hes driven and compelled to ramble round following his muse and music, as if his art is something completely spontaneous and out of all reasonable control, theres an unpleasantly self-congratulatory undercurrent to Pay The Devil, be it the vanity record label (released on alt.country imprint Lost Highway but also bearing the Polydor logo and that of Vans own Exile, hes also recorded one-offs for Blue Note and Verve over the last decade or so), his unusually loquacious That was worth it, that was worth it comment at the close of What Am I Living For? or the celebrity sleevenotes (Belfast record shop owner Solly Lipsitz returns to bat for the second time in a row; previous incumbents of the post include Jools Holland and Ben Sidran). Ultimately, Pay The Devil is just another Van album; impeccably played and sung with gusto it may be, but at no point does it reach the relative highs of Down The Road, or even the sporadically innovative Magic Time.
VAN MORRISON Blackpool Opera House 6 October 2006
Id be loathe to begin to even dare to suggest that theres anything in any way formulaic about any Van Morrison gig for reasons that will hopefully become clear that certainly isnt the case but would you settle for comfortable? Well, clearly Van wouldnt, because tonight hes the prickliest Ive seen him in 16 years of Van-watching, hectoring both band (Keep it simple! Keep it simple!) and crew (Put a mic on that banjo!) alike. Yet musically tonight was pretty much on the one for this listener, even if it was some distance from the orchestral imaginings in the artists head. My vantage point in the second row of the stalls afforded an excellent opportunity to study the master craftsman at work, reshaping songs mid-phrase through a hand signal or barked command (although for some reason the band seemed crowded towards the back of the stage, for maximum artist to audience disconnection), and despite problems with his staff the guvnor seemed to be on fine form, coughing up curt Thank yous after almost every song.
And those songs were...well, a pretty diverse, if increasingly familiar, selection from his four decade career. The Best Of buyers could colour themselves contented with the jaunty likes of Cleaning Windows (morphing into Be Bop A Lula, if I recall correctly), Jackie Wilson Said (Im In Heaven When You Smile), Bright Side Of The Road (location of the aforementioned silent banjo incident), Moondance (replete with the expected round robin solo spots from each member of the band) and the well-worn not-quite-an-encore knockout of Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria. For the specialists, Real Real Gone made a comparatively rare appearance, becoming more like Sam Cookes You Send Me towards the end, Celtic New Year shimmered with transcendence and Help Me was an oasis of rhythm. There was a smattering of the traditional music business-related grumpiness to dampen proceedings the bilious, clumping Fame but at least it was out of the way early on, and didnt spoil the party too much.
Another consistent, occasionally bewitching Van gig, then (my third of the year), just sparky and different enough to remind me why I keep showing up for them at every practical opportunity, even at the premium line rate of 30p a minute.
VAN MORRISON Live At Montreux 1980/1974 (Eagle Eye Media)
Admittedly not the most visual of performers, it nevertheless doesnt seem fair that the faithful have had to wait for the best part of a decade for a Van Morrison DVD. Our patience is handsomely rewarded, though, as this double disc set contains, as the title suggests, two Montreux Jazz Festival performances from 1980 and 1974, documenting the crowd-pleasing and cantankerous sides of the Man respectively.
Theres a reason that these shows are presented out of chronological order, then. The 1980 gig is an absolute stunner: within minutes, maybe even seconds, everything that makes a Van gig special for a few moments seems to come tumbling out of him, turning opener Wavelength into something that borders on the devotional, and, in places, almost mutating into disco maybe its got something to do with having two drummers in the band. (The same thing happened to The Fall round about Hex Enduction Hour. No, hang on ) Of course, visually its almost laughably dated: cameramen lug huge boxes of electronics and optics around the stage, a few members of the band (including Van himself) take cigarette breaks, and the whole ensemble are dressed in the days best hipster finery, which can appear kinda frightening from the telescoping perspective of a quarter of a centurys distance. Still, it just means you have to close your eyes to appreciate the performance fully (and what a fabulous live album this would make).
From the still decade-distant Best Of theres a lilting, slightly reggaefied And It Stoned Me, a Santana-styled Moondance and Wild Night. For the old-guard obsessives theres a more conventionally retooled Ballerina, not as fluttery as the Astral Weeks original, guitarist John Platania pulling some gruesome facial contortions quite anomalous to the immaculate solo hes gliding through at the time. Two-thirds of the imminent but as then unreleased Common One album receives an airing: Spirit wears a delicious, scampering organ solo from John Allair; Summertime In England, perhaps the single most contentious entry in the Van canon, is revealed in all its scat poetry glory, Vans yelps duelling with the squawking of Pee Wee Ellis, saxophonist to the Godfather of Soul, amongst others. The spectral wisps described by Mark Ishams trumpet at the opening of Haunts Of Ancient Peace seemingly manipulated by a knob-twiddling Ellis via some kinda Echoplex device - make it plainly evident why he was moved to title one of his solo albums Vapour Drawings. Listen To The Lion unspools in all its customary rambling mystery, and Tupelo Honey begins like a majestic processional, the mood slightly shattered when Van recites each line of the second verse ahead of incanting it in his flailing vocalese.
If that represents the cheese, the 1974 set takes the supporting role as the chalk. Appearing with a barely-rehearsed pick-up band numbering keyboardist Pete Wingfield, drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Jerome Rimson, clad in a migraine-inducing contemporary fashion atrocities that even the fuzzy video transfer cant quite tame, here Van is at his most obstinate, playing half-written songs and leaving it to the bands instrumental prowess to paper over the cracks. (Wingfield, in particular, deserves some kind of medal for his performance.) Only one song in a nine song set Street Choir - wouldve been familiar even to audience members boasting a complete Van catalogue. One song would appear on the then unreleased Veedon Fleece, three would meet daylight on 1998s astonishing outtakes and rarities collection The Philosophers Stone (Twilight Zone, Foggy Mountain Top, Naked In The Jungle), Heathrow Shuffle came out twenty years later on the execrable faux-live faux-jazz project How Long Has This Been Going On. I Like It Like That, Swiss Cheese and Harmonica Boogie remain otherwise unreleased, perhaps with good reason.
On the barely formed blues of I Like It Like That Van gives his performance more of his hollerin than the song strictly deserves, whilst Wingfield shoots nervous glances at his leader. Foggy Mountain Top describes similar circles, but trades in a little more than the formers genre clichés, carried, as on many occasions during this set, by Pete Wingfields inspired, inventive piano solo. Bulbs is marvellous, prompting me to wonder why it (and indeed Veedon Fleece as a whole) was unrepresented on The Best Of Van Morrison. The jazz rock jam Swiss Cheese is as pedestrian as its throwaway title suggests, but at least gives Van something to do with his sax; the following Heathrow Shuffle, surely the least inspired of any of his post-Bang compositions, finds its only merit in Wingfields fearsome boogie-woogie.
Against this background, Naked In The Jungle is surprisingly potent, Van making his funk fixation overt by singing the line Give the drummer some ahead of Dallas Taylors solo. Street Choir is one of Vans most unfairly neglected works, nestled at the end of the underrated His Band And The Street Choir; here its the prize that makes all the aforementioned worth wading through. Finally, well, you can probably guess what Harmonica Boogie sounds like; very little room for ambiguity with a title like that, and it does indeed contain liberal quantities of both.
So there you have it: over two hours of prime and otherwise live Van for less than half of the price his concert tickets go for these days. Although the photography is uninspired at best and the visuals a bit cloudy, especially on the 1974 set, the sound quality is exemplary throughout. The second disc is a reminder of how spiky and confrontational he can be when he wants, the first is simply fabulous music staggeringly relayed and who among us couldnt make room in their lives for a little more of that?
VAN MORRISON AND HIS BAND The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 6 April 2007
Well, thats how the ticket bills tonights show: I dont know if its more egalitarian than last years artist only headline or a measure of Vans iron-handed control over his musicians. Whichever, as much as the gig conforms to the familiar template the band take the stage on the stroke of eight, warming up with a cover, in this case a vibrant Train Kept A-Rollin, before Van strides on honking on his harmonica for the second number, tonight an unexpected and welcome resurrection of Enlightenment; the audience are wound up to fever pitch by the usual closing triumvirate of Precious Time, Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria, cued to end on the dot of 9:35 what happens in between is unscripted.
Vocally, Van is a force of nature at times tonight; he seems to be channelling fresh reserves of pain through his bluesy bearhug of a voice on a revelatory I Cant Stop Loving You, during which he takes a rare and applauded piano solo. At the songs close he mumbles a gruff plug for his self-distributed live album, Live At Austin City Limits Festival, on sale in the foyer: Thats called self-promotion! Those of us who already own it are less surprised by the barking and bleating he emits during the aforementioned Precious Time, or the Satchmo impression he launches into midway through a footloose Bright Side Of The Road. Other comedy moments (no, really!) included Van being overtaken by a giggling fit during Jackie Wilson Said (Im In Heaven When You Smile) and introducing Days Like This as a song we did for the president of the United Sheet Metal Workers. Brand New Cadillac rear-ended Goin Down Geneva immediately after the Vince Taylor verse, and for the first time I realise the connection, it being a Vince Taylor song. Perhaps the evenings biggest surprise was Northern Muse (Common Ground) - like tonights Cleaning Windows, it bordered on the neighbourhood of funky - which Van brings down to a pindropping natural fade; not far behind is Georgia On My Mind, hollered with unexpected gusto, a song Id forgotten hed recorded (on 2002s Down The Road). Thats Life was another song dredged from the dustier end of his discography, remembered, if at all, from Vans risible faux-jazz album How Long Has This Been Going On. At the close of a slow drag through There Stands The Glass he tests his long-suffering drummer with a series of hand signals, which the percussionist passes with flying colours. The band as a whole are as tightly drilled as might be expected, with no recurrences of the occasional equipment mishaps that slightly blunted his Blackpool appearance last October. Particular mention mist be made of the lady playing banjo and pedal steel and the fiddler standing next to her, who provided many of the evenings most inventive solo spots. It was also quite amusing to see the backing vocalists scurrying through their sheet music as Van announced the next song to the band.
Another fine evening in Vans company, then, consistent and inventive and presented impeccably in The Bridgewaters finely tuned acoustic environs. What will tomorrow night bring?
VAN MORRISON AND HIS BAND The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 7 April 2007
On the second date of whats becoming something of an Easter tradition at the Bridgewater, at least half of last nights set gets junked not that Van adheres to anything as rigid as a set list, of course. The opening and closing few numbers remain the same, but the bulk of the evening differs substantially from the previous show, and not necessarily in a good way. Id be surprised if it was any attendees fondest wish to hear the formulaic, blandly forgettable likes of Sometimes We Cry or Steal My Heart Away, but there they were, and there Cleaning Windows, Jackie Wilson Said (Im In Heaven When You Smile) and Wild Night, um, werent. Sometimes Vanll pull a little something out of his past to delight the faithful: at last years second night stand at the Bridgewater it was a mesmerising Streets Of Arklow (Ive even witnessed him playing Sweet Thing, just the once); tonight we get, uh, Foreign Window, which, impeccably played and warmly received as it was, isnt in quite the same league. (Then again, Vans not doing it for us, is he?) The reappearance of Moondance and its traditional round robin solo section was less of a surprise than its omission from last nights set. Have I Told You Lately also crops up, resplendent in its swing version garb. The Ray Charles tributes Georgia On My Mind and I Cant Stop Loving You remain the evenings highlights, the backing singers honeyed tones ladling some kind of magic over the latter.
One significant difference between the two nights was that previously, nestling two rows in front of one of the (not very imposing, fortunately) PA stacks, the sound quality was uniformly fabulous. Tonight, four rows back and practically in the centre, it sounded as if parts of the mix were missing at first I thought the piano wasnt even miked up and Vans vocals were disappointingly garbled and reverberant. The sound improved a little after a brave spectator complained directly to Van (the kind of direct action Ive seen happen before at this venue, during a Magic Band gig, which rather makes a nonsense of its carefully considered acoustics) but not to anything adjacent to the sound I was hearing the night before. Then again, moving just a few seats can make a dramatic difference to the sonics in this venue, so perhaps I was disadvantaged in having a recent baseline to compare with.
Tonights comedy moment: Van barrels through the promotional hype for the live album in an indistinct mumble. We cant hear you, Van, yells the brave spectator. Van repeats his sales pitch with exaggerated diction, possibly through clenched teeth. Well, you dont come here for the laughs.
What with the relatively underwhelming song selection and the compromised sound, for me the evening never really took flight. Of course, in isolation it wouldve seemed like another perfectly competent and enjoyable Van gig, but Ive seen better just hours before, in fact.
VAN MORRISON Live At Austin City Limits Festival (Exile)
Available only from shows and the artists website, Live At Austin City Limits Festival, recorded at the titular September 2006 show, is a reasonably accurate facsimile of the current live Van experience, although it does seem more than coincidence that, when being taped, he turns in a slightly longer set than the usual 21:30 getaway, and engages in garrulous banter of a Hello Texas! Its great to be here! nature.
Unusually high levels of pixie cheerfulness aside, theres lots to enjoy on this decades Van live album. Largely configured as per his current road band, with the addition of old hands John Allair, John Platania and David Hayes on organ, guitar and bass respectively, its gently thrilling to hear these songs at home in their concert trim. Where it differs most significantly from yer real live Van gig experience is that the audience reaction seems distant, the expected ovations at the end of every solo strangely muted probably more a matter of recording technique than any lack of appreciation by the crowd on the night. The sonics are delicious, though: you cant quite picture Van conducting his musicians with hand signals, but sometimes intra-song muttering can be heard, presumably Van telegraphing details of the next number to the band.
Van sets even modest material such as Days Like This swinging gently, an ability that can sometimes get obscured at a concert by the inevitable aching disappointment that the song hes just launched into is yet another one that isnt on Astral Weeks. He drops a little squeedly-bopping scat into Bright Side Of The Road, before unrolling a full-blown Satchmo impression. Cleaning Windows revels in how delicately funky its become, morphing into Be Bop A Lulu like some kind of olde worlde sampling. A heartfelt I Cant Stop Loving You doesnt quite scrape the same heights of tingling majesty as the recent Bridgewater Hall performances documented elsewhere in this issue, but it nevertheless provides evidence of Vans continuing growth as a performer. Its always a delight to hear a song from Enlightenment, and Real Real Gones spontaneity is underscored by Vans call of Whos got it? ahead of John Allairs organ solo, his giggling fit as he steps on to the bridge, the way it drifts seamlessly into a version of Sam Cookes You Send Me and, after a chorus from the Crawford Bell Singers, how his response of That sounds good, do it one more time again conjures up another one. Saint James Infirmary walks through frozen streets on blistered feet, and theres something delightfully meta about the lines Gonna go back down to New Orleans/And the drummer does a roll on the snare (at which the drummer does indeed perform a roll on the snare), as if simultaneously listening to the directors commentary. Moondance has the expected round robin solo spots, and then he gets all gregarious on us Its been a long time since Ive been here, I cant remember but its been worth the wait! Like to do the workshop at some point before launching into the highlight of both the album and many a Van set, a mesmerising Celtic soul workout loosely based around the old Tommy Edwards hit Its All In The Game. Precious Time normally signals a three song gallop to the end of the set, preceding Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria (here replete with comedy playacting in the vicinity of the She knocks upon my door line), but on this occasion he breaks out the first song I recorded as a vocalist, Dont Start Crying Now, which at a moments notice becomes Sonny Terrys Custard Pie, and, somewhat late in the day but welcome nonetheless, Wild Night. The latter sounds a little fragile, almost as if its being performed in inverted commas, the hustling abandon it demonstrated 35 years before replaced by a patina of nostalgia as Van sings Take me way way back to the wild night.
Perhaps of greater value as a souvenir than as a standalone album in its own right, its nevertheless great to be able to bring on home a modicum of the magic that makes Van gigs so different, maddening and frequently rewarding.
VAN MORRISON Blackpool Opera House 26 January 2008
Theres no such thing as a typical Van gig, of course, but tonights show journeys far from convention even by the old curmudgeons standards. Normal procedure is for the band to take the stage first and amble through a couple of numbers to warm up the venue before the man with his name on the marquee joins them. This time around, though, the band enter in darkness at the time on the ticket, almost as if Vans begrudged them 50p for the meter, but when the lights come on there he is, already! He mumbles something about doing a low-key set, and off they all go, Van sitting down (a position he maintains for the entirety of the concerts unusually generous 100 minute duration). The evening is even lightly sprinkled with between song announcements we learn that Van has a Frank Sinatra album recorded at this very establishment and the odd outbreak of giggling!
This unconventional outlook extends to the song selection (I hesitate to say setlist, as Vans not a believer in the traditional sheet of scrawled A4 gaffer-taped to the stage, as the reams of carefully tabbed sheet music consulted by his keyboard player attests). Nothing older than songs from 1979s Into The Music gets aired tonight, cutting out a sizeable chunk of the traditional Van concert canon no Moondance, Wild Night, Gloria, Brown Eyed Girl, Jackie Wilson Said (Im In Heaven When You Smile) or anything from Astral Weeks. (No, hang on ) Pickings are thin for the Best Of brigade, with only Bright Side Of The Road and the swinging lovers version of Have I Told You lately to show for the £40 entrance fee. Theres a fair chunk from his two most recent albums, Pay The Devil and Magic Time, a relative obscurity in the excellent-on-first-listen Blue And Green, a non-album single that crops up on the third Best Of volume, and a very satisfying opening Enlightenment. Still, normally he can be relied on to roll at least one special treat out for the cognoscenti, and as he wanders offstage following a Help Me that never really combusts (as he does so the ten-piece band crane their heads towards the wings, waiting for his hand signal) despite frequently threatening to do so it seems that a rare performance of One Irish Rover would be assigned that honour by default. Happily, though, back he comes, picking up a guitar for the first time in the evening for a stately progression through the fabulous And The Healing Has Begun.
If the unusual sight of a seated Van hints at health issues, his bluesy hoot and growl of a voice remains unaffected. Naturally the band play their hearts and souls out, Vans conducting abilities apparently undimmed by his sitting down. And, as is becoming usual for a Van gig, the sonics were exemplary: I dont go as far as leaving my earplugs at home when Im off to see Van, but I can be reasonably sure I wont be needing them. So, an unusual but rewarding evening: roll on his traditional Easter two-nighter at the Bridgewater Hall in March.
VAN MORRISON The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 27 March 2008
The first date of what seems to be becoming a traditional two-night Easter-ish residence at the Bridgewater, the essential differences between tonight and my previous Van gig (Blackpool Opera House in January) are that Van remains standing for the entire set, putting paid to any worries about his health prompted by his seated performance last time around, and he has a new album, the initially underwhelming Keep It Simple, barely a fortnight old, to promote. Oh, and hes also got what looks like a fragment of bling trellising attached to his microphone stand, which only after a while do I realise is his monogram.
So, he plays lots from that new album, of which Behind The Ritual scrubs up surprisingly well (it helps that I dont have the booklet to hand, so I dont get worked up about how inane the lyrics appear on the printed page) and Soul seems to be greatly appreciated by tonights audience. The fair-weather fans and Best Of buyers are catered for with the swingin lovers arrangement of Have I Told You Lately, Bright Side Of The Road, Brown Eyed Girl (provoking an outbreak of some perhaps gravitationally unwise dancing in the nosebleed seats), Gloria and a returning Moondance, weighed down by the inevitable round robin of solo spots. Graciously, these are matched by band introductions (not performed by Van, obviously, who barely grunts a word between songs all night) which reveal that the gentleman on guitar is actually John Platania, a grizzled veteran of Van campaigns stretching back to the early 1970s. Real Real Gone appears in fine fettle, with The Crawford Bell Singers taking on the songs Sam Cooke tribute lines. The evenings carrot for the cognoscenti is a rare airing of Tupelo Honey, one of Vans most evocative hymns to a loved one, played slow and soulful, somewhat undercut by the way that, following the obligatory solo spots, it becomes Why Must I Always Explain?, one of Vans ten-a-penny grumpy anti-media rants.
As usual, though, the entire band play heroically throughout (with the lady on pedal steel, banjo and guitar and the gentleman on organ and piano in particular going far beyond the call of duty), and its electrifying to hear Van describe a riff to his keyboardist verbally and have him play it back to him on the organ immediately. Van even smiles on occasion, although not towards us of course. The acoustics and sound engineering are spot on, as well, which isnt always the case even in this considerately designed venue.
So, as much as I could gripe at the escalating entry fee (which works out to 50p a minute) and the continued absence of anything from Astral Weeks in the setlist, the fact remains that Van is one of few artists still pushing away at what can be done in performance. He knows no comfort zone and, whilst the quality of his recorded output might fluctuate, it makes his concerts consistently interesting.
VAN MORRISON The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 28 March 2008
Same songs in a different order, basically.
Well, thats something of an oversimplification, of course, but tonight demonstrated the slimmest delta Ive noted between consecutive Van gigs. Out went Have I Told You Lately and Stranded, to be replaced with I Cant Stop Loving You and Back On Top, and to my mind there were a few more selections played from his shiny new album Keep It Simple, with Behind The Ritual already meriting rapturous applause over its intro as if hed deigned to favour us with something from Astral Weeks or sumpn.
It was still a high quality performance, of course, but anybody else whod opted to attend both shows would probably have been equally surprised at how similar it was to the previous night.
VAN MORRISON Keep It Simple (Exile/Lost Highway)
Van Morrison’s 32nd (by my reckoning) studio album arrived amidst an unseemly quantity of promotional hoopla, including interviews and concerts all over the BBC radio and television networks and soundbites such as “I felt I had something to say with these songs”. Sadly, it wasn’t anything he hadn’t said with more eloquence and brevity on those previous 31.
Admittedly, “Keep It Simple” lives up to its title in that it has that live, one-take feel in spades: you can practically see Van directing the musicians as the songs are recorded. But then again, so does a Van gig, where you’ll at least stand a chance of encountering material more challenging that the chip-on-shoulder complaining blues of “How Can A Poor Boy?”, “School Of Hard Knocks” and “Don’t Go To Nightclubs”, or the indistinguishable Celtic nursery rhyme nostalgia of “End Of The Land” and “Song Of Home”. Kudos to Van for expanding the vocabulary of popular music with “That’s Entrainment”, but points are instantly deducted for the lazy lyrics found elsewhere in that song, the main offenders being “You take my breath away/Even on a cloudy day” and “Shake your money maker/Shake ‘em on down”. On “Don’t Go To Nightclubs” (observation or instruction?) he’s so grumpily out of touch that he can still claim, despite legislation to the contrary, that “The smoke has driven me out the door”, and during “Soul” he decrees “Soul is not the colour of your skin”, which is pretty convenient for him. There are some interesting shadings amidst the arrangements, for example the distant, distorted electric guitar on the title track, but only rarely does the music rise above an uninspired plod. That the album’s high point, “Behind The Ritual”, is a pallid, derivative rewrite of the near-30 year-old “And The Healing Has Begun” pretty much summarises the lack of ambition and invention on offer, and even that regresses to (and I’m quoting the printed lyrics directly here) “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah/ Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah/ Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”. You could argue that it’s Van attempting to demystify the creative process; I’d counter that instead it makes the emperor appear unclothed.
After living with the CD for a few months – a necessary early adopter purchase as it was the only physical format available prior to the March Manchester shows I reviewed previously – I upgraded to the double vinyl edition. This had two benefits. Firstly, the sound was much improved to my ears; it did a far better job of capturing the interplay between the musicians, making the CD sound robotic in comparison. Secondly, it came with a whole side’s worth of bonus tracks recorded at his January 2008 Blackpool Opera House show, also reviewed here previously. The latter is a cruel but fair illustration of the widening gulf between Van the performer and Van the recording artist, being consistently thrilling and fabulous in a fashion that totally eludes the preceding three sides. The moodily resigned “Blue And Green” first snuck out on the 2005 charidee album “Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now”, delivering a stout broadside to those (um, such as myself) who might suggest that Van’s songwriting abilities are down the road apiece behind him. “Little Village”, one of his relatively recent identikit trivialities, is polished to a charm here; it’s particularly insightful to hear how he quietens the whole band on command with a few “Shhh”s. Finally, there’s a glorious “And The Healing Has Begun”, so ruthlessly filleted for “Behind The Ritual”, into which it briefly morphs here. All in all, it’s the most enjoyable side of vinyl to carry Van’s name since, ooh, 1990’s “Enlightenment”. It’s beyond me how anybody could possibly stand to listen again to the album proper after hearing it.
VAN MORRISON Astral Weeks (Warner Bros.)
I’ve long presumed that the somewhat congested, occluded sound I’ve heard from “Astral Weeks” on CD and vinyl over the last few decades was just the way it was, inherent in the master tapes, and nothing could be done to improve it. This latest 180 gram vinyl reissue of what is, reasonably indisputable, one of the finest artworks of the 20th century, neatly shatters that myth. Carefully mastered and flawlessly pressed, it now sounds like the work of a bunch of real musicians cautiously bouncing ideas off each other, playing the spaces as much as the notes themselves. Van holds court out front, unravelling his naturally lysergic reminiscences of a Belfast childhood (or not, if you believe what he’s got to say on the subject), almost oblivious to the magic the musicians are weaving in his slipstream. Van’s voice has even more character and expressiveness than I’m used to hearing – I’ve been playing “Madame George” for nearly 20 years but it took this reissue for me to realise that he actually sings “Madame Joy” throughout that song – and Richard Davis’ double bass work has an almost sculptural presence, the notes more hewn than played.
I wouldn’t normally discuss the sound quality of an album ahead of the music, but given that it was the raison d’etre behind this purchase it seemed appropriate for once. There’s also the awesome enormity of the challenge commenting about “Astral Weeks” on a musical and lyrical level presents to me. It’s too important, too familiar an album to me, and, as I’m about to demonstrate, I really don’t have the vocabulary to do it justice. But then again, neither did Van: every “clear cool crystal stream” cliché found padding out the more recent end of his discography can trace its tributaries back to here.
“Astral Weeks” operates outside time, and, in places (“Beside You”, for example) outside time signatures. It’s joyous (the title track, “Sweet Thing”) and scary (surely there’s some rum business going on in “Slim Slow Slider”, with all its talk of death and snow-white horses). It rocks mightily (the James-Brown-via-Belfast folk/jazz/rhythm/blues clatter of “The Way Young Lovers Do”, with its lung-busting brass arrangement) and rambles and roves poetically (“Madame George” and “Cyprus Avenue”, which plays the blues with harpsichord, flute and fiddle).
If all that isn’t enough – and really, why wouldn’t it be? – this reissue is absolutely gorgeously packaged, bar code apart the sleeve being a faithful recreation of what you would’ve got had you bought “Astral Weeks” in the USA forty years ago, you hipster you. It’s hard to think how this reissue could’ve been improved upon – well, maybe it could’ve been cut as two 45rpm discs instead of one running at 33rpm, but that’s just me being greedy. Short of a mint original pressing turning up in a thrift store somewhere, this is the vinyl “Astral Weeks” to own.
VAN MORRISON Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 21 June 2009
It looked like I wasn’t the only one attending a first concert at the Millennium Centre, judging by the number of people taking photographs of the inside of the venue. It’s pretty impressive, admittedly, being so luxuriantly wood-panelled it seemed almost as if this long-delayed gig was being held inside the Tombliboos’ abode.
Playing for a little longer than usual, a 95-minute set found Van attacking guitar, piano, harmonica and saxophone at various points. If a few moments of collective improvisation teetered on the brink of breakdown, he seemed more enthused and experimental than I’d seen him in a long time, and he’s hardly one for taking an orthodox approach to his catalogue. The setlist was studded with surprising and rewarding deep cuts from his past, including the barely believable inclusion of two songs from “Veedon Fleece”, “Streets Of Arklow” and “Fair Play”, which ambled towards a delicious concluding tangle of acoustic guitars that Van seemed to will on for an age. Other songs I suspect I hadn’t seen him perform before included “The Mystery” and “Alan Watts Blues” from “Poetic Champions Compose”, and what, from Van’s growled, garbled vocals, I deduced was a brief assault on old Them tune “Mystic Eyes”, a ferocious Yardbirds-esque R&B rave-up. On “Philosophers Stone”, often unremarkable in performance, he really did turn lead into gold, as the song suggests, “In The Garden” was breathtaking yet subtle and “Georgia On My Mind” positively volcanic. It’s a special kind of Van set when the likes of “And The Healing Has Begun”, “It’s All In The Game / You Know What They’re Writing About” and “So Quiet Here” slide past almost without comment, but I believe that’s what I witnessed. I’d rate it as one of the five best Van gigs I’ve been to; my gig buddy put it in his top two, and yes, he’s seen Van more than twice.
It seems almost churlish to end with a note of complaint, but my main reason for the 400-mile round trip, not to mention plunking down £60 on my most expensive Van ticket yet, was that the venue’s own website boasted that “as well as some of his timeless classics this special programme will include songs from “Astral Weeks””. As if you couldn’t guess, Van played exactly zero songs from “Astral Weeks” that night.
VAN MORRISON Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl (Listen To The Lion)
So, for anybody else who might have recently attended a Van show billed as “featuring songs from “Astral Weeks”” only to hear nothing of the kind, look at what you could’ve won.
Inveterate tinkerer that he is, Van plays fast and loose with what many regard as his defining hour, reworking the running order slightly and appending several songs with separately timed and titled codas. However this revisionism doesn’t extend to the performances themselves, Van having proudly proclaimed this album’s lack of post-production tweakery. The ornate, intricate patchwork of the original is sometimes sacrificed for a breezier, more propulsive reading, heavy on solo spots – listen to the way he barrels through the title track, for example, peppering the instrumental sections with appreciative grunts. The same goes for his voice, which, unsurprisingly more of a bluff bellow than it was 40 years ago, more outlines the lyrics than inhabits them. “Beside You” seems more earthbound than it once was, its fractal time signatures dulled into regularity. The bluesy drug ballad (well, that’s how I interpret it, anyway) “Slim Slow Slider” is even more unsettling shunted up into third position in the running order, but Van just seems to glide above whilst the band rather overornament it. It seems somewhat sapped compared to the original’s needle of death, and the lengthy improvisation bluntly hacked away from it during the editing process hasn’t been reinstated. However, during its “I Start Breaking Down” coda he begins to sound desperate and committed, pushing out some jagged shards of acoustic guitar.“Sweet Thing”, the solitary “Astral Weeks” tune I’ve actually seen him play, is beautifully rendered, and a concise, brilliant “The Way Young Lovers Do” cleaves close to the source, perhaps inevitably with the string section providing its rhythmic pulse. “Cyprus Avenue / You Came Walking Down” has a fat, resonant double bass intro, what sounds distractingly like a snorting horse a few seconds in and Van commanding “Turn the strings up!” as he steers it gently towards its conclusion. He still sings “Madame Joy” throughout “Madame George”, and, for the first of several occasions as the album enters its final furlongs, you can practically hear him making his escape at its close.
A final side of non-“Astral Weeks” tunes is a welcome bonus. There’s a lovely “Listen To The Lion / The Lion Speaks”, a great chunk of “Summertime In England”, here titled “Common One”, and, as a bonus bonus track for vinyl buyers, an arguably overlong and overwrought “Gloria”.
Only guitarist Jay Berliner reprises his role from the album’s original crew, but Van stalwarts David Hayes and John Platania are here, as is, somewhat incongruously, The Doors’ John Densmore on tambourine.
So, is it a worthwhile artistic endeavour? Well, maybe, but the fact that “Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl” might be Van’s most satisfying album in 30 years suggests he’ll never break free of its bright burst of genius. I must just mention the lovely pressing, much nicer than most recent Van vinyl, which, for a release without express audiophile intent, is an absolute sonic delight.
An aside: I wonder how much Van’s desire to recreate “Astral Weeks” has to do with the fact that the rights to his first three Warner Bros. albums remain outside his control. Perhaps similar revivals of “Moondance” and “His Band And The Street Choir” will be forthcoming.
VAN MORRISON St David’s Hall, Cardiff 23 September 2011
Well, where to begin with this one? Probably with the terrible sound. I was sitting four rows back in the most expensive concert seat I’ve ever purchased – Van, having throttled back on the supply side of the equation in recent years, has no qualms with upping his demands, pushing ticket prices into three figures – and it was pretty wretched sonically. Hollow and reverberant, it sounded as if Van and his dextrous septet were playing next door, possibly due to the fact that, despite having the usual huge line arrays hanging high above the stage, there seemed to be absolutely no sound reinforcement at floor level.
Thankfully, it didn’t entirely disguise what fine form Van was on. Playing what was, for him, a Springsteen-esque marathon of a set clocking in at 95 minutes, there were many moments of musical risk-taking and daring tonight that emphasise exactly how much Van’s still into the music as much as the remuneration. There were only a smattering of baffling song selections – I’ve never exactly been crying out to hear him play Scientology-era snoozefest “Higher Than The World”, for example – amidst a great deal of frankly marvellous music-making. Take, as an example of the latter, the conclusion of “It’s All In The Game / You Know What They’re Writing About”, during which it eventually dawned on me that Van had been repeatedly yelping the mantra “No plan B!”, whatever that meant, for minutes, and doing so utterly brilliantly. Or how about the moments during “Fair Play” (yes, “Fair Play”!) and “In The Garden” when he brought the band down to an Eno-esque ambient hush. He played “Brown Eyed Girl” in the retrofitted swing style usually saved for “Have I Told You Lately”; he played “Have I Told You Later” closer to the album version than I’ve heard him perform it in years, albeit with a curious new recurring instrumental motif. “Talk Is Cheap” now carried admonishments against using Twitter and Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg must be quaking in his flip-flops). Most of all, though…in the 22 times I’d seen Van previously he’d played exactly one song from career colossus “Astral Weeks”, unarguably his most significant lasting contribution to popular culture. Well, tonight he doubled that figure, with a fast-paced but still fragrant rendition of “Ballerina”. He even stomped off the stage at the end of “Help Me” repeating “It’s too late to stop now”, like it’s 1973 at The Rainbow or sump’n. Through all this he was constantly arranging and rearranging, cueing the band members, reshaping the dynamics with hand gestures and grunting gruff approval during solos. Heck, I even thought I saw him smile once.
Van’s touring schedule might have become increasingly selective over the last few years, but on the evidence of the last couple of shows I’ve attended he’s never been more consistently entertaining over the two decades I’ve been going to see him. Waiting for my ride home a couple of aggrieved concertgoers stumbled past me, one saying to the other “I did warn you! People were complaining he had his back to the audience…” which I felt rather missed the point, and perhaps wasn’t the comment of a campaign-hardened Van vet. This one was easily in my top five Van gigs; it was worth every penny to see him on such form.
VAN MORRISON The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 12 November 2011
Well, there’s that lousy sound again, and, given that it’s travelled all the way here from Van’s Cardiff gig six weeks ago I’m starting to fear that it’s a deliberate artistic decision to have the band seem like they’re playing in the alley behind the venue and Van hollering his blues into the echoing void. One acclimatises, but I’m sure Van’s never sounded that bad before in this magnificent venue. On the positive side of the equation, though, it doesn’t totally obscure the fact that Van and seven-piece band are on a white-hot streak of terrific form at the moment.
How, for example, do you like “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Here Comes The Night” and “Brown Eyed Girl” (resplendent in its new swing garb) for an opening sequence? Usually Van saves up chestnuts like these for one of his non-spontaneous encores, but here they are, right out in front. “Higher Than The World” is greeted with a hearty cheer; clearly somebody wants to hear it, even if that somebody isn’t me. “Into The Mystic” is a bit foursquare but a delightful surprise all the same, “Fair Play” (gulp!) is a shimmering wonder, gently guided into one of Van’s “I Believe I’ve Transcended” rhapsodies and “It’s All In The Game / You Know What They’re Writing About” is resplendent in its “No plan B!” regalia again. The highlight of the night, though, is that tonight he plays as many songs from ”Astral Weeks” as in all my 23 previous Van gigs combined: he seems in a bit of a hurry to get through “Ballerina”, changing the line “Here comes the man” to “Here comes the fuzz” en route, but who am I to complain when the evening also brings “The Way Young Lovers Do”?
Again, this is an unusually long set for Van, pushing 95 minutes (even this working out to a little over £1 a minute at his new premium rate pricing for the best seats). Somewhat ungraciously, he sends the band out first when the house lights are still up, leaving them standing around with nothing to do until he deigns to join them on stage, and they’re still there when the house lights come on again, at which point the people on either side of me – new around here, evidently – ask me if it’s an interval or the end of the show.
Grizzle as you might at Van’s almost total lack of audience interaction (as one disgruntled American concertgoer appears to have signed up to last.fm solely to do), the upside is that his shows are absolutely saturated with music. There’s barely a breath drawn between songs, solos come out of the woodwork at all angles and Van seemingly orchestrates the show on the fly via grunts and gestures. It’s utterly thrilling, making it even more of a shame that this excellence is obscured to an extent by the evening’s sonic shortcomings.