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Posted by on Jan 2, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 4:

 

The Essential Van Morrison

 

“I write songs.  Then, I record them.  And, later, maybe I perform them on stage.  That’s what I do.  That’s my job.  Simple.”

 

THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 4

Part 4 (Days 22-28) of an ongoing retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 22

“Whenever God Shines His Light” (1989)

This is the opening track on Van’s Avalon Sunset, but was then released 30 years ago as the one-and-only Christmas-themed single in the singer-songwriter’s lengthy career. So, it seems most appropriate as the musical offering on this day, December 25th.

This is far from one of Van’s best songs, but it’s among the most deeply personal, honest, and expressive. It’s a clear testament to faith, which Van has revisited in his music many times. To this day, Van often shows up unannounced at church services while he’s on tour, grabs an acoustic guitar, and performs something spiritual from his vast catalog of original music.

True to Van’s virtually rapid-fire pace of songwriting and composition, all ten songs on Avalon Sunset were rehearsed in just two days and summarily recorded during the following two days. Given the diversity of styles on this album, including lots of ornate instrumentation, some songs accompanied by a symphony orchestra, it’s astonishing that this entire album project came together in just four days.

Avalon Sunset produced two original hit songs, “Have I Told You Lately” (later recorded by Rod Stewart, which became an even bigger smash hit) and “Whenever God Shines His Light,” which sold well enough in the crossover Christian-rock crossover genre that was emerging at the time to hit #15 in the charts in the U.K.

Joining Van on backup vocals in the studio (and in the video, which is posted here) is Cliff Richard, who is well known in the U.K., but might not be nearly as familiar to American audiences. Here’s a stunning trivia question: “Who ranks third as the best-selling artist in British music singles history behind The Beatles and Elvis Presley?” Answer — Cliff Richard, with 250 million records sold worldwide.

No matter what your beliefs, this is a catchy, upbeat, song with obvious appeal. Van’s piano riff adds immensely to the joyous spirit of the track. Van’s lyrics aren’t too bad, either.

Whenever God shines his light on me
Opens up my eyes so I can see.
When I look up in the darkest night
And I know everything’s going to be alright.
In deep confusion, in great despair
When I reach out for him he is there.
When I am lonely as I can be
And I know that God shines his light on me.

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 23

“Ordinary People” (circa 1974)

Let’s stick with the blues. Van has written some extraordinary blues-driven tunes. Few if any of these songs were commercially successful, perhaps one reason why so many of these lost treasures end up on the B-sides of singles and rare bootlegs.

Consider this blues masterpiece, “Ordinary People,” which has no liner notes available, anywhere, but which was believed to have been written and recorded sometime in 1974 before Van took his unannounced three-year career hiatus from recording and performing. He composed a massive number of songs during this combustible period, some of which were intended for a 1975 album tentatively titled, Mechanical Bliss, which was never released. Most of the songs from this period were shelved and forgotten for almost 25 years.

In 1998, Van released an extraordinary collection of lost B-sides and previously unreleased original songs which became The Philosophers Stone. There were so many songs available (30 ended up making the cut), that a double-album became mandatory. On the so-called “compilation” album — which is something of a misnomer since most of the songs had never been heard before — appears “Ordinary People.”

Van is in absolute top form here on vocals backed by a bluesy piano. But this musical canvass clearly belongs to Ronnie Montrose on electric guitar, who shreds the melody for five-full minutes. Montrose, who died in 2012, was one of rock’s most respected guitarists and was once described as “America’s answer to Led Zeppelin.” When you hear his guitar on this piece, especially the instrumental interlude, you’ll understand why.

Chances are, you’ve probably never heard this rare track before. So, crank it up. Loud. After listening to Van on vocals and Montrose on guitar, it’s inexplicable this was considered a track that wasn’t fit for release until many years after it was recorded. What were they thinking? Just listen.

In many ways, this simple yet impeccable tune exemplifies so much about the vast and varied Van Morrison musical catalog. The deeper one digs, the more treasure one finds.

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 24

“Gloria” (1964)

G-L-O-R-I-A….Glooooooria!
G-L-O-R-I-A….Glooooooria!
G-L-O-R-I-A….Glooooooria!

Practically everyone knows this song or is at least familiar with the chorus.

It’s been described as one of the first songs that every beginning guitar player learns to play, easily explained, since it requires knowing just three simple chords. It’s the ultimate garage band song. But, it’s also experienced unanticipated staying power in popular music. Indeed, “Gloria” has been covered by everyone from The Doors (and their so-called “dirty version”) to Patti Smith. “Gloria” has been described as one of the very first “punk rock” songs, with Van’s raspy Howlin’ Wolf vocals and the lyrics’ overt sexual suggestion.

Van was only 18 when he wrote “Gloria” sometime during 1963, He was the lead singer for the newly-formed Northern Irish band — Them, a collaboration which lasted less than three years but which launched Van as a singer-songwriter with a rebellious streak. Recorded and released in 1964, this was Van’s first original hit song, even though no one expected it to be a success. In fact, “Gloria” was actually picked as the B-side to the single, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” which was thought to be far more commercial.

Now, 55 years after it’s release, “Gloria” is nothing to marvel at, musically speaking. However, most critics place it in the Top 100 pantheon of songs which influenced rock n’ roll.

This video is scandalous for its day (flashing frightening images of a donkey, which makes no sense). Not great sound quality, but worth a look for nostalgia purposes. Along with “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” this is arguably Van’s best-known song.

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 25

“Down to Earth” (1975)

Yesterday, we explored “Gloria,” one of Van’s biggest hits and most popular songs. Today, we’re veering in the opposite direction, examining rare and previously unreleased material that somehow has never surfaced publically. Trust me about today’s lesson, this one’s a gem.

Van’s burnout between 1974’s Veedon Fleece and 1977’s A Period of Transition made for some glorious failures and undiscovered musical chestnuts. A number of album projects (at least three, and perhaps more) were simply abandoned, with no explanation given. Consider one of the forgotten tracks from this period titled, “Down to Earth,” written and recorded in the fall of 1975. This song was planned for inclusion on a jazz collaboration to be produced by Stewart Levine, best known for working with artists including Simply Red, Dr. John, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Patti Labelle, Sly Stone, among many others.

After Stewart Levine’s death, Sunny Levine (his son) wrote from conversations with his father about those forgotten sessions:

“….Morrison and the…..band got along great and the sessions were a joyful experience. Morrison was very relaxed and sounds extra soulful as you can hear on the tape. The whole tracking experience was a pleasure with no drama in sight. (Then) they went away for a week and planned to put the finishing touches on the record, which would have been the Tower of Power horns, followed by mixing. When they returned to the studio, Morrison and Levine had an argument that abruptly ended the sessions and that was that! The record was never released….”

So, nine tracks on a 7 1/2 IPS, half-track reel-to-reel Dolby tape are all which are known to remain from those fascinating recording sessions (see the image of the hopelessly deteriorated tape, which is posted here).

Credit:  Jeff Gold [Virtual Museum: An Unreleased Van Morrison Album from 1975 Surfaces for the First Time]

Unfortunately, the sound quality isn’t very good. Nearly five decades sitting in a garage will do that to reel-to-reel tape. But it’s still good enough to recognize there’s a really great song here. Have a listen to Van’s unreleased “Down to Earth,’ an original composition with the singer in top form backed by some powerful horns.

Here’s yet another track buried deep in the vault that inexplicably has never been re-done nor re-recorded, let alone released to the public. Well, at least not until — now.

Enjoy!

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 26

“Golden Autumn Day” (1999)

The album Back on Top is aptly named. It’s one of Van’s best albums.

The 10-track collection (plus two more bonus tracks on the re-issue) features an album cover showing Van silhouetted in black shadow with his back to the camera. Musically speaking, this isn’t so much a nostalgic return to his rhythm and blues-driven roots, so much as a glorious reinterpretation of all-too-familiar themes updated with brand new concepts. It’s almost as though Van took his 25 years as a singer-songwriter and decided to use early passions as a foundation. Here, the organ and harmonica — which appear so often on Van vinyl — aren’t the typical instrumental accompaniments. Instead, they seem intent on complementing a much richer and more complex orchestration. The song which is the subject of today’s lesson exemplifies this melding of influences and combination of styles.

“Golden Autumn Day” isn’t the best track on the album by any stretch. Alas, picking a favorite is made all the more difficult by a final finished product that doesn’t seem rushed (unlike so many of Van’s album releases, before and since). Another viable explanation — perhaps Van didn’t get bored this time around and storm out of the sessions as he’s been prone to do on many projects. The extra time spent in the studio crafting this album to near perfection pays off handsomely. The work was praised lavishly by Rolling Stone magazine, which labeled the collection as “one Monet and nine Normal Rockwells” — the Monet referring to “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” described as “a masterpiece.”

There’s a lot happening here musically in “Golden Autumn Day,” which runs for nearly 7 full minutes. Van’s gruff but quirky lyrical realism. The unmistakable heart and soul of the Hammond organ. A full string orchestra, the volume cranked up slowly until a final grand crescendo. Van taking the lead on harmonica. Bluesy piano. A catchy upbeat chorus with a message of hope and aspiration.

Pay particular attention to the instrumental interlude at the 3-minute mark, where Van inserts his own harmonica followed by Pee Wee Ellis on sax. The fade out in the final minute with full strings is also a brilliant touch. The piece plays out like the closing credits to a movie.

Back on Top hit the top of the charts in Scandanavia when it was released in 1999. It peaked at #11 in the U.K. Although the album spawned three singles that charted and enjoyed modest airplay, it didn’t fare nearly as well in the U.S.

Back on Top is a suburb album from start to finish. It’s fitting that Van ends the 1990s, and indeed the century, not falling from the mountaintop but reaching for higher musical peaks, and hitting them once again.

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 27

“On Hyndford Street” (1991)

“On Hyndford Street” isn’t a song so much as a sermon.

It’s a fond remembrance of childhood memories, a homily to a simpler time.

Van was born in a red-bricked terrace house with a blank facade, utterly ordinary and identical to all the other working-class homes on Hyndford Street in east Belfast. The only thing that now distinguishes the building — which still stands — is a small brass plaque beside the front door, announcing that George Ivan Morrison was born here on August 31, 1945.

His father worked in the Belfast shipyards. He brought home records from America regularly, which virtually no one else in Ireland had heard at the time. Van grew up an abundant musical diet of Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Lead Belly, and others far away but with a kindred spirit.

Van has written affectionately of Belfast (Northern Ireland) and much of the Irish Republic. Song titles including “Cypress Avenue” and “Orangefield” reflect both the then and now. One need not be Irish nor even be familiar with these places. We all have our own “Hyndford Street.”

The original song includes Van’s spoken lyrics which overlap extended background chords from an electric organ. It sounds like a spoken prayer.

“On Hyndford Street” was included on the astounding 21-track double album released in 1991, Hymns to the Silence. The album received mixed reviews from critics and was even criticized for being “too long.” It did not do well commercially. In retrospect, though, it’s a definitive personal statement connecting with listeners of all ages and backgrounds, with multiple timeless compositions.

I’ve posted a live rendition of “On Hyndford Street” from a 2012 recording in Belfast. The audience, intimately familiar with these places and references, react to every vocal syncopation with wild enthusiasm. Van, best described as an erratic, dispassionate performer these days, connects to his Belfast brethren in a manner that really brings the song to life.

Have a listen.

“Take me back, take me way, way, way back….”

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 28

“Celtic New Year” (2005)

Congratulations — and, Happy New Year!

We’re now four weeks into the class.

Rarely will we repeat songs and topics, but since today is special, I think one item is well worth re-visiting.

“Celtic New Year” was released on Van’s 2005 album Magic Time.  This is 100 percent trademark Van all the way, with the gruff accented vocals serenading a special time and place. Catchy riffs punctuate lavish melodic orchestration. And, as Van so often does in song — he starts off slowly and builds to a glorious crescendo.

This is a live version of Van’s original composition (which isn’t as well-known outside Ireland). One need not be Irish to reflect and enjoy.

I’m a huge fan of the creation of music. I like to know how music is made. I want to learn what inspired an artist and know why strings or a trumpet or some other instrument was added to the mix.

This live version of the song, recorded during Van’s BBC sessions broadcast in the U.K. in 2008 is a beautiful rendition with ornate instrumentation. It’s almost an anthem. Listen in particular to the Piccolo flute come in as part of a duet. I also love Van’s guitar work here, plucking notes which accentuate the folksy narrative. And the strings are truly magical.

“Magic Time,” indeed!

Previous Segments:
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Posted by on Dec 31, 2019 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Music and Concert Reviews, Personal | 4 comments

Video Tribute to Poker People We Lost in 2019

 

Empty Poker Table

 

A Note to Readers:

I didn’t plan on doing this.

In fact, I had no intention of writing anything to do with poker ever again.

But sometimes, forces extend beyond our control and sharing something meaningful becomes an obligation.

Last night at around 8 pm, I began putting together a short article about all the wonderful people who left us during these last 12 months — mostly friends, and even family.  Oddly enough, as I compiled my thoughts and reflected, I came to realize that all of them were in some way connected to poker.  I guess that’s what happens when one spends nearly a quarter century attached to the game.

Words just didn’t seem enough for the occasion.

Purely by coincidence, I’ve been working on a project called the “Van Morrison MasterClass.”  One of the songs from the daily retrospective was off the 1999 album, Back on Top.  The song isn’t just appropriate.  It’s an epiphany.

“Reminds Me of You” says it all, really.  It expresses how we feel.  It reflects a sense of longing, and even loneliness.  But the song also gives comfort.  It’s not a song of sadness.  It’s a melody of joy, and celebration.

I uploaded this hours later, on YouTube.  Some of the cuts and transitions are a bit rough.  Please indulge me.  Also, forgive any people I missed in this tribute.  I’m sure there are names forgotten who deserve to be mentioned.  Feel free to add their names, and even photos, on social media or in the comments section, if you wish.

And now, let’s remember:

 

Yours Truly,

 

Nolan Dalla

Las Vegas — December 31, 2019

 

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Posted by on Dec 28, 2019 in Blog, Essays | 1 comment

NFL 2019: Week #17

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs victory in Super Bowl IV. Remember the Chiefs’ unusual “choir huddle?” This year’s team likely promises to be their best chance in decades to get back to the championship game.  I’m backing the Chiefs big in the final week of the NFL season.  Hoping to sing “Hallelujah!” Here’s my Week #17 write up.

1969 Kansas City Chiefs

 

I’m glad to be in the profit column for the year after suffering through a brutal mid-season slump.  Let’s now close out the regular season strongly with this final slate of wagers and (hopefully) winners.

By the way, I’ve begun contributing original content for an online gambling website, which (appropriately enough) is onlinegambling.com.  Please check it out.

Those of you who like data, trends, and various aspects of handicapping methodology may be interested in these three new articles which I wrote up and posted in the last two days:

KEY BETTING TRENDS FOR NFL WEEK 17

TOTALS ANGLE SUGGESTS FOUR POSSIBLE UNDER WAGERS

HOW TO HANDICAP THE FINAL WEEK OF THE REGULAR SEASON

If you want to know my reasoning for this week’s wagers, much of the content in these articles (links above) will explain.  I’m particularly proud of my work on the UNDER trends, as this took considerable research on my part and (to my knowledge) hasn’t been discovered until now.

 

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2019 NFL WAGERING RECORD

Wins — Losses — Pushes          66 — 57 — 2

Starting Bankroll:   $ 8,398.

Current Bankroll:   $8,966.  (+ $568.)

Last Week’s Results (Week #15):         13 — 4 — 1  (+ $2,050.)

**************************************************************

 

THIS WEEK’S WAGERS 

This week, I made 12 wagers.

There are 6 teaser bets.  The hub team is the Kansas City Chiefs at -2.5.

There is 1 money line bet.  The Kansas City Chiefs are -380 favorites versus the LA Chargers.

There are also 5 totals bets.  Four bets are “under” based on my research.  One bet is an “over” based on opinion the total is simply too low.

I’m laying a total of $5,125.  Here are all the plays (each teaser is listed at -120 unless noted otherwise/each total is listed at -110 unless noted otherwise):

GREEN BAY / DETROIT UNDER 44 — Risking $275 to win $250

MIAMI / NEW ENGLAND UNDER 45 — Risking $275 to win $250

NEW ORLEANS / CAROLINA UNDER 45 — Risking $275 to win $250

WASHINGTON / DALLAS UNDER 45.5 — Risking $275 to win $250

ATLANTA / TAMPA BAY OVER 47.5 — Risking $275 to win $250

KANSAS CITY (MONEY LINE TO WIN) — Risking $1,950 to win $500

TEASER:  DALLAS -4.5 / KANSAS CITY -2.5 — Risking $300 to win $250

TEASER:  NEW ORLEANS -7 / KANSAS CITY -2.5 — Risking $300 to win $250

TEASER:  NEW ENGLAND -10 / KANSAS CITY -2.5 — Risking $300 to win $250

TEASER:  GREEN BAY -6 / KANSAS CITY -2.5 — Risking $300 to win $250

TEASER:  CINCINNATI +8.5 / KANSAS CITY -2.5 — Risking $300 to win $250

TEASER:  NY JETS +7.5 / KANSAS CITY -2.5 — Risking $300 to win $250

 

BD /SM INVESTMENT GROUP [37 persons Active]

Investor  —- Amount —- Pct. of Total Fund
Heldar $ 211 2.51%
Watanabe $ 100 1.19%
Peter Lucier $ 1,000 11.91%
Kramer $ 302 3.60%
Finbar O’Mahoney $ 200 2.38%
Howler $ 100 1.19%
Linda Keenan $ 500 5.95%
John Pickels $ 100 1.19%
Patrick Kirwan $ 100 1.19%
Sean McGinnis $ 300 3.57%
Jim Anderson $ 252 3.00%
Chad Holloway $ 200 2.38%
Eric Schneller $ 500 5.95%
Randy Collack $ 351 4.18%
Dave Lawful $ 100 1.19%
Paul Harris $ 1,000 11.91%
Dan Goldman $ 51 0.61%
Sharon Goldman $ 51 0.61%
Ken QB $ 102 1.21%
Chuck Weinstock $ 102 1.21%
Peter Taki Caldes $ 102 1.21%
Kenny Shei $ 51 0.61%
Jeff Deitch $ 51 0.61%
Kevin Un $ 128 1.52%
Becca Kerl $ 22 0.26%
Corey Imsdahl $ 102 1.21%
Don Bingo Rieck $ 102 1.21%
Jeff Siegel $ 1,000 11.91%
Stephen Cohen (payment pending) $ 100 1.19%
John Reed $ 114 1.36%
George Wattman $ 51 0.61%
Mickdog Patterson $ 51 0.61%
Larry Lubliner $ 100 1.19%
Grizz Berentsen $ 100 1.19%
Edmund Hack $ 100 1.19%
Bob Feduniak $ 500 5.95%
David “Quick” Horowitz $ 102 1.21%
TOTAL $ 8,398 100.00%

$200 Invested into Pick Contest (outcome pending)

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Posted by on Dec 25, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 3

 

“I write songs.  Then, I record them.  And, later, maybe I perform them on stage.  That’s what I do.  That’s my job.  Simple.”

 

THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS:  WEEK 3

Part 3 (Days 15-21) of my ongoing series which is a retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison.

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 15

“Celtic New Year” (2005)

“You expect to encounter a tired legend, a once-mighty king becalmed and tamed by the miles and years. You find instead an echo of a full-throated roar hanging in the air, the telltale signs of a bloody struggle, and an empty cage. The lion in winter is on the loose.”

So wrote Andy Whitman, reviewing the 2005 Van Morrison Album, Magic Time, which contains one of the singer-songwriter’s most spirited compositions.

“Celtic New Year,” musically and lyrically, sounds like it could be the official theme song for the Irish Tourism Board. It’s a joyous musical postcard to the land of green.

However, Van’s deep Irish roots and broad branches haven’t been without a few thorns. Much of his career has overlapped a bloody sectarian conflict known as “The Troubles.” Yet somehow, Van was able to straddle the barbed-wire fence during the entirety of the deadliest period within the British Commonwealth since World War II.

Van, a proud Belfast native raised as a Protestant, would have been viewed as an adversary by Irish Republican nationalists under most circumstances. Indeed, the IRA fire-bombed performance halls and even murdered working musicians for taking gigs within the “occupied” part of Belfast. But Van circumnavigated political controversy largely by staying out of it. He never made public statements nor wrote any songs hinting that he sided with Unionists or was sympathetic to Irish Republicans. Clearly, his perceived neutrality was made easier by relocating to the United States during The Troubles, a terror campaign that began in the early 1970s and continued well into the 1990s.

Van wasn’t entirely indifferent to the horrors of the terrible divide and needed to fill the void. Songs of homage to Irish culture and history stoked with literary references were the plentiful substitute sprawled across multiple albums, perhaps a reminder to both sides of the deadly conflict there’s an underlying and unifying bond between them — Celtic pride. Indeed, as Van spent less time in (Northern) Ireland, absence made the Irish heart grow fonder.

One of Van’s most inspired songwriting periods stemmed from his collaboration with the traditional Irish band from Dublin — The Chieftains. They recorded an album together appropriately titled Irish Heartbeat. He also created the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which would serve as his backup band on many recording sessions and live performances. He appeared on countless television shows in Ireland, often singing impromptu folk songs. In interviews, to this day, Van rarely talks about rock music or the pop scene, but he maintains an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional Irish music and old Celtic folk songs. Lyrics can be recited sans notes, entirely from memory.

In 2005, Van turned 60. At a time when most pop musicians are either winding down their careers or relying purely on nostalgia, Van ramped things up. He’s released 11 albums since then, an astounding output of original creativity for someone half his age, but almost herculean given Van’s intense touring schedule.

“Celtic New Year,” one of the very best songs Van has written, is a powerful soulful ballad, enhanced by a melodic guitar riff, a hearty piano accompaniment, backed by a full symphony orchestra. But the composition’s most poignant moment occurs late in the 6-minute track when an Irish flute gets into the mix and steals the spotlight, closing the catchy song with a masterful flair of authenticity and delicacy.

This song is a masterpiece. See if you agree.

I said, oh won’t you come back?
I have to see you, my dear.
Want you come back in the Celtic New Year?
In the Celtic New Year.

 

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 16

“Cyprus Avenue” (Live Performance-1973)

Van’s live performance on the evening of July 23, 1973 at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park (London) with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra was a perfect storm that ended with a lightning bolt — a thundering rendition of “Cyprus Avenue” from the much-acclaimed 1968 album masterpiece, Astral Weeks.

Van is at the very top of his game here, “whipping the crowd into a frenzy and then stopping on a dime — teasing out anticipation, rushing, receding, and coaxing every drop out of his band.”

That night, 3,000 electrified spectators were treated to a mesmerizing display of raw unfiltered spontaneity. Even the occasional out-of-tune flaw, the missed note here and there, and Van’s own idiosyncratic sudden stops in mid-song meld together into something of a faux lovechild between James Brown and Bruce Springsteen, while smoking a cigarette. Oh, and this has to be the only rock song in history with a full stanza of studdering.

Rolling Stone magazine wrote of the show stopper:

Working his way up to a ferocious conclusion, he stood before the audience shaking his head back and forth, hair falling about him, looking like a man insane. Finally, with tension mounting, he ran across the stage, ran back again, jumped over a microphone cord, held the mike up to his face and screamed, ‘It’s too late to stop now’, and was gone.”

If that’s not enough, check out Van’s daughter — 3-year-old Shana Morrison — wandering onto the stage with a tambourine, totally oblivious to the wild scene around her. About two-thirds into the song, Van realizes things are about to spin out of control, so he whispers to Shana to go offstage, presumably into her mother’s arms waiting off in the wings. Mind you, this is LIVE SHOW filmed by the BBC, in front of a packed house.

More on the classic Van composition later in a future lesson. By the way, “Cyprus Avenue” refers to a street in Belfast. When Van was a teenager, Cyprus Avenue represented the other side of the tracks, so to speak. It’s where those who grew up working-class aspired to be.

But on this night, the place to be was on the front row at the Rainbow Theatre, watching Van tear up the stage like a madman.

 

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 17

“Sometimes We Cry” (Live Performance — 2016)

In yesterday’s lesson, we watched 3-year-old Shana Morrison make her first stage appearance alongside her famous father. That was an impromptu gem where the toddler wandered innocently out onstage in the middle of showstopper “Cyprus Avenue” while Van was wailing away on the microphone. Forty-three years later, Shana joined her iconic dad again, this time all grown up while performing the heart-tugging ballad “Sometimes We Cry.”

It’s not easy being the child of a famous musician, but that likely goes double for the kin of Van Morrison. Today, Shana tours regularly with her own band playing in mostly small venues and works with many other artists, but her father’s shadow casts both unreasonable expectations and likely even contains some serious baggage. Van’s music may be highly-respected, even revered. However, he isn’t particularly well-liked in the music business, even among his fellow musicians.

Van and Shana have performed many times together over the years. This song is one of their best duets. It’s a hymn to the soul following a loss and an endearing acknowledgment that feeling sad and crying is okay.

“Sometimes We Cry” was included in 1997’s The Healing Game, one of my favorite of Van’s many albums. Oddly enough, Van’s version didn’t chart. But when Tom Jones heard Van’s song, he then recorded it a few years later, and the song went to #1 in the U.K. (Van has never had a #1 hit).

This live rendition of a great song was recorded by someone in the audience at the Fox Auditorium in Oakland, CA in January 2016. Van looks to be his usual grumpy self, but Shana, never far from her patriarchial shadow, appears to be enjoying the spotlight.

 

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 18

“Wild Night” (1971)

“And the wind catches your feet, and sends you flyin’!”

Following the broadly-successful Moondance album, Van swerved onto the opposite side of the musical highway, recording and releasing the country-infused “Tupelo Honey.” Most of that collection of songs was written while Van lived in Woodstock, NY while hanging out with Bob Dylan and The Band. These simpler songs rooted in the soothing rhythm of Van’s acoustic guitar made for yet another surprising departure from expectation.

Recorded in San Francisco, the album produced two hits that received frequent radio play — the title song “Tupelo Honey” and “Wild Night,” an R&B driven track that sounds like a Stax record, driven by a rollicking up-tempo bass.

Van’s song reached #28 on the Billboard charts. It was released during the heyday of the “singer-songwriter” era — when musicians not only were encouraged to write and compose their own music but also had some measure of control over the direction of their careers. Van took full advantage of this newfound artistic freedom, releasing seven albums within a 5-year period.

Surprisingly, “Wild Night” wasn’t just a one-time hit. Twenty years later, singer John Mellencamp took Van’s song and turned it into a #1 hit single. Like so many Van songs, his original version was eclipsed by a later alternative rendition. Mellencamp’s interpretation of the song is terrific, indeed.

But for now, let’s go back to 1971 and listen to Van’s original.

“The wild night is calling.”

 

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 19

“Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo” (2012)

At the 2005 Nice (France) Jazz Festival, Van performed a live set at the Arènes et Jardins de Cimiez. The ancient venue, a Roman Amphitheater, was quite the scene. Let’s just say the place has some history. It hosted its first live event way back in 190 A.D. — probably something to do with gladiators. This contemporary and far jazzier lineup included the following performers who took the festival stage at Nice:
— B.B. King
— Muddy Waters
— Fats Domino
— Chuck Berry
— Charles Mingus
— Miles Davis
— The Count Basie Orchestra
— ….and Van, of course.

While staying on the Cote d’ Azur, Van — always inspired by his surroundings and on the lookout for song ideas, came upon a road sign which read: “Monte Carlo 25K.” Monte Carlo happens to be about 25 kilometers down the French Riviera to the east of Nice. Hence, sometime later, that became the opening line of a new original song: “Goin’ down to Monte Carlo, about 25K from Nice.”

The 8-minute track appears on the 2012 album, Born to Sing: No Plan B, which I rank as Van’s best work within the past 15 years. Packed with songs of self-reflection, sincere regret, and real hope, encompassing diverse instrumentation, it’s the closest Van has ever come to a musical autobiography. While apolitical for most of his career, he even lashes out at the global political and financial structure in the aftermath of the fallout of the worldwide 2008 economic crash. The album produced no hit songs but was well-received by both critics and Vanatics as a collective whole, so much so that it reached #10 in the U.S. and #15 in the U.K on the charts. Not bad for a singer-songwriter reaching his 70s doing jazz-laced compositions.

Van explained “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo” as a simple day in the life of his time spent on the French Riviera, which has become a favorite vacation spot. When asked why? Van gruff and always straight to the point snapped, “because it’s warm.” That’s it.

The studio version of this largely unknown song sounds like an impromptu jazz session, the players on alto sax, piano, standup bass, and drums each taking turns on in two distinct instrumental interludes. Think of a jazz band in the hotel bar at midnight. That’s the vibe. It’s not a song. It’s a mood and a mindset. Perhaps it’s even some measure of contentment.

I’ve posted a rare live version of “Goin’ Down to Monte Carlo,” performed months after its release, at a hotel in Belfast. The live version sounds a little punchier, and Van — perpetually bitter towards the critics — barks out a few attacks towards his detractors IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SONG.

Classic Van, note for note, word for word, in every way.

 

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 20

“Enlightenment” (1990)

“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”

Being a Van Morrison fan requires an innate sense of curiosity about the things we do not yet know combined with an insatiable lust for enlightenment. It also comes with an inherent understanding that satisfactory answers to these questions will be evasive, if not impossible.

But still — quest for enlightenment we must.

“Enlightenment — I don’t know what it is.”

So writes and sings Van the title track from his 1990 album Enlightenment. The album crashed in the U.S. but was a big success in the U.K. where it climbed to #5 on the charts. The collection of all original material reflected a period where the music wasn’t intended as entertainment so much as a poetic exploration of the possibilities. Van has dabbled with religious themes during much of his career. Undoubtedly, his ties to the musical gospel stem from growing up under the spell of spiritually-tinged American singers like Ray Charles as much as any genuine religious devotion. That said, Enlightenment isn’t a statement-of-fact nor a final destination. It’s but one of many of Van’s album whistlestops.

So, how do we interpret “Enlightenment” — both the song and the album? Well, we don’t.

Instead, let’s just listen and enjoy Van’s recording session from Wool Hall Studios, Beckington Townhouse, in London.

One can’t help but feel “enlightened” that something really cool is happening here.

 

 

VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 21

“Don’t Look Back” (1992 — with John Lee Hooker)

You can’t fake the blues.

The best bluesmen (and women) are often seen and heard performing in clustered bars and tiny nightclubs making $75 a night, if that, bleeding their souls to strangers under dim lights on worn-out stages that could use a fresh coat of paint.

The giant of a man and musical force that was John Lee Hooker didn’t escape that scene nor leave it behind, so much as he invited us all into his musical lair. There aren’t many voices that can command a room and steal a moment, even without a microphone. There are few vocalists who can give a simple tune such authenticity that the song becomes a personal incantation and is entirely their own. Johnny Lee Hooker had that gift.

In 1992, Van agreed to participate in a film documentary about his life and career that produced some extraordinary outtakes (which were never broadcast). Van recorded with Hooker twenty years earlier. They appeared on each other’s albums many times. Van, impervious to fame and pop-star celebrity, revered Hooker as the genuine singer and bluesman. Hence, he became a natural impromptu addition to the film.

One afternoon, Van went out on a pier on the bayou some miles outside New Orleans and joined Hooker on an old blues classic. Van had previously recorded “Don’t Look Back” way back in 1965 with his Northern Irish starter band *Them.* This gem of a jam session occurred in front of the cameras for that documentary. Given this was performed and recorded outdoors, the sound quality is remarkably crisp.

The Hooker-Morrison rendition is stripped bare to just two masters at their soulful best. Both keep time tapping a right foot on the wooden pier. Van does the guitar work and a little backup vocal. But Hooker seizes the moment just by opening his mouth and letting pure honesty flow. It’s pristine. It’s magic. It’s the blues.

This recording won’t win any Grammy Awards….oh but wait — it certainly inspired a few. A few years after this short session, Hooker recorded the same song with Van inside the studio, and it became the title track of a new album. In 1998, Don’t Look Back won the Grammy for “Best Traditional Blues Album,” and the John Lee Hooker-Van Morrison song won another Grammy for “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.” Not bad for a couple of old-timers tapping their feet and jamming in a swamp.

Even Van, never one prone to compliment, is in awe here working alongside Hooker. Who can blame him?

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Posted by on Dec 24, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 1 comment

Movie Review: Marriage Story

 

A Marriage Story

 

 

Marieta strapped me to the sofa.  No jokes, please.

Actually, she put out a bottle of something 15.3 alc. strong from Paso Robles and forced me into watching the 2-hour and 15-minute, Marriage Story, which I’d tagged as a painful something to avoid, one of those quirky chick-flicks where all the men are assholes and all the women look like Scarlett Johansson.

Man, was I wrong.

Marriage Story is entirely held together by the two essential elements of crafting a great movie — 1. a brilliant script with witty dialogue, and 2. standout performances by the leads surrounded by an ensemble cast of supporting actors at the very top of their game. In short, the writing and acting are both stellar.

Scarlett Johansson, a frustrated mother trapped in an unfulfilling marriage gives the performance of her career. Yet it’s not the big scene-stealers full of rage and tears that define this complex role, but rather the small facial reactions, the minor annoyances, and some sense the camera never blinks and therefore can’t peer away from Johansson, not because of her beauty, but because this was such a marvelous performance to savor.

Worth noting and seeing: There are a couple of Alfonso Cuaron-esque scenes — extended monologues and dialogue dagger duets — where there are no scene cuts. Johansson and Driver are pushed to their limits. Anyone who has been in a marriage and experienced blowup fights will totally empathize with how small arguments can easily spin out of control. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966) was the first movie to accurately portray marital discord with angst realism. Parts of this film are every bit as compelling.

Adam Driver, her husband, is equally as good. I knew next to nothing about Driver (was he in Star Wars?). During the first 20 minutes of the film, I hated him being cast because he just didn’t look the part. But over two hours I was converted and by the end of the film, Driver had me totally captivated in a believable portrayal of a frustrated dad desperately trying to keep things together which are crumbling all around him.

If all this sounds depressing, it isn’t. Remarkably, the film has several comedic moments. Juxtaposed against the story of a break-up, this remains very much a love story. Striking this delicate balance was achieved thanks to Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty (remember Airplane?) who co-star. Each is perfect as the quirky sidebars to a film that might otherwise have been cruelly voyeuristic. We laughed at least a dozen times, sometimes with the salty sadness of tears in our eyes.

Marriage Story runs a little too long, but that can be forgiven. Perhaps 15-20 minutes could have been trimmed. I also found the long scenes with the child a bit tedious. But these were minor annoyances given the payoff in emotional satisfaction. And, let me just add without any spoilers the ending was both entirely realistic and brilliant.

Barring something on the horizon I haven’t seen yet, Scarlett Johansson deserves the Oscar for this performance.

GRADE: 8/10

 

 

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