Tomorrow Van Morrison turns 75. I have to suspend my intended vacation from this series to pay tribute in some form to this genius of what Gram Parsons called the Cosmic American Music. Van is a brilliant, eccentric, enigmatic, essential songwriter, performer, artist and multi-instrumental musician.
Clinton Heylin peered into Van’s life and the work in Van Morrison: Can You Feel the Silence? (2003). By contrast with his work, Van’s life is messy. To use a Yeatsian formulation, in the choice between perfection of the life or of the work, Van has chosen perfection of the work.
Steve Turner’s photo-rich, coffee table bio Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now (1993) is a treasure trove for fans. The table of contents includes a photo lineup that depicts Van in each stage of his career. Turning the page, the reader finds a photo of Van and John Lee Hooker spread over two pages with a caption that touches on their long relationship.
We went to see Van perform in a 1999 arena concert at Target Center. Taj Mahal opened for Van and wasn’t bad. The house was packed, the sound was muddy and the setting impersonal, but I was glad to have seen Van live. He wore sunglasses and stood still singing at stage center. He brought John Lee Hooker out for a song or two. He closed the show with “Gloria.” In retrospect, it seems little more than a generic arena concert (setlist here).
Van returned to town in 2007 to perform at Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Northrop holds an audience of 4,500 or so, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear Van in a more congenial setting than an arena. In the event Northrop proved to be a great venue for Van. The sound was perfect and acoustically intimate. Morrison was accompanied by a ten-piece band including his long-time guitar sideman John Platania.
Even though Van was fighting a cough, both he and the band were, to my ear, phenomenal. Drawing on the resources of age and guile, Van seemed to me to turn the clock back to his heyday in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when he could do anything with his voice. Having conquered his sources, Van in his prime moved seamlessly from Curtis Mayfield to Ray Charles and the artists he identifies by name in “Cleaning Windows” (below). I’ve never heard him sound as good he did in his recordings of that era, but he sounded that good to me in person in 2007 (setlist here).
As he approaches his milestone birthday tomorrow, Van is still working. The August 25 Variety story by Chris Willman is a grabber: “Van Morrison Slams ‘Pseudo-Science’ of Social Distancing, Demands Return of Full-Capacity Gigs.”
Starting with Astral Weeks (1968), Van released a series of albums that were mostly great from beginning to end. Moondance (1970), His Band and Street Choir (1970), Tupelo Honey (1971), Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972), the spotty Hard Nose the Highway (1973), and Veedon Fleece (1974) are all essential albums. Van the man remains his own man. He is still a vital artist. I want to take a look at his long career through his live recordings. My purpose here is only to serve up a few pleasures that suggest the riches on offer in his huge body of work.
Van’s first live recording was the double album It’s Too Late To Stop Now (1974). Covering his career to that point with an incredible band backing him (“The Caledonia Soul Orchestra”), it has been near the top of my list of favorite live recordings for a long time. It is an engrossing performance that has now been reissued in an enhanced four CD-set with DVD. “Here Comes the Night” (1965) was written and produced by Bert Berns working with Them. To put it in Joycean terms. Van’s entanglement with Berns became a nightmare from which he needed to awake.
Van returned to “Cyprus Avenue” from Astral Weeks (1968), his opening masterpiece on Warner Bros. His release from his contract with Bang Records is a signal moment in his career. Heylin’s account of the surrounding circumstances is harrowing. Music is a tough business.
In “Listen to the Lion” Van is in search of his muse.
In “I Believe to My Soul” Van introduces a slight twist on the Ray Charles classic. What a great performance.
Van has released a Live at Montreux 1980/1974 DVD. This performance of “Bulbs” from Veedon Fleece dates to 1974.
Overcoming a major case of stage fright, Van gave a legendary performance with the Band for the filming of The Last Waltz on Thanksgiving Day 1976. The opening track on Moondance, “Caravan” had been inspired by Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman.” Reminder: “Turn it up!”
So you all know that, but you have to go to the four-CD anniversary edition of the show for “Tura Lura Lura (That’s An Irish Lullaby).” The Band’s Richard Manuel channels Ray Charles with a vocal of uncanny beauty. Van channels Van. This performance didn’t make the film. Thankfully, we have the recording.
Van’s next live album came ten years after the double album with Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984). Van is in search of the transcendent. You can hear it, for example, in “Dweller on the Threshold,” the number that opens the recording.
I loved Van’s “Rave On, John Donne.” If you make it through part 1, be sure to stick around for part 2. Van acknowledges the band including saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis by name on the way out. Pee Wee played with James Brown before he teamed up with Van. The horn arrangements on Van’s work rival those on Brown’s.
The album closed with Van’s endearing tribute to a few of his heroes in “Cleaning Windows.”
Backed by a terrific band, Van put on a beautiful show recapitulating his career and singing medleys of favorites in A Night in San Francisco (1994). Here, for example, is “I”ll Take Care of You/It’s a Man’s World.”
He closed the show with “Shakin’ All Over/Gloria.” John Lee Hooker makes a cameo appearance.
Van teamed up with Lonnie Donnegan et al. on The Skiffle Sessions — Live in Belfast (2000). You can’t go wrong with Lead Belly’s “Good Morning Blues.”
Or with “Midnight Special.” This is another good-from-beginning-to-end album.
Let’s go back to Lead Belly with “Goodnight, Irene.”
Van’s 2009 rendition of Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl is his last live release. This is the thrilling opening. To be born again!
Here he revisits “Cyprus Avenue.”