“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
“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?