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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.”



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



“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.




“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.




“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.




“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.”




“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.




“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.




“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 17, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 1 comment

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 2


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.”



Part 3 (Days 8-14) of my ongoing series which is a retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison.



“I Heard You Paint Houses”  (2019)

I was stunned to watch Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman, recently and see Van’s name listed in the closing credits.

Turns out, Van sings a duet on the title track, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which was the name of the book on which the mobster movie was based.

Robbie Robertson wrote most of the music and lyrics after being chosen by Scorsese to compose the film’s soundtrack. The relationship between Robertson and the film director dates back to 1978’s The Last Waltz, a documentary of The Band’s final live concert. As things turned out, Van performed in that show, as well, in a show-stopping rendition of “Caravan,” which initiated another collaborative friendship. Indeed, Van’s music has appeared in half a dozen Scorsese films.

Robertson sings the opening stanza here and plays a gritty lead guitar, but the vocals on the track mostly belong to Van, who’s gnarly baritone voice enriches the lyric with genuine authenticity. There’s also some irony to Van, arguably Ireland’s most revered pop music icon (U2’s Bono may disagree), being plucked to grouse the vocals on a film titled “The Irishman.” Lyrically, the words are somewhat campy given the subject matter, which is murder-for-hire.

I didn’t think much of the recording when I first heard it, but after listening closely a few more times on headphones, it’s now pleasantly burned into my conscious. Van is especially good on this track.

Good to see Van stealing the spotlight in a brand new movie that’s likely to receive many Oscar nominations. Could a nomination for Best Original Song be forthcoming? It would be a treat to see Van performing with Robertson at the Academy Awards ceremony a few months from now.

Have a listen…..


“Into the Mystic” (Live Performance, 1974 — Winterland Arena in San Francisco)

Van’s live performances have long been erratic affairs — sporadically mesmerizing, other times detached, often mechanical, and occasionally downright hostile. Since this career retrospective isn’t intended as a homage so much as a comprehensive portrait, now’s a good time to show Van when he wasn’t at his cordial best.

Between 1970-1974, Van composed more than 100 original songs, released 7 studio albums, 16 singles, and performed 267 live concerts — not including television appearances and interviews. As his 1974 world tour was winding down to a close, Van was bitter, burned out, and badly in need of a reprieve. Already prone to rages of discontent and suffering from bouts of depression, Van’s bombastic temper spilled over while on stage one night at the Winterland Arena (a.k.a. Winterland Ballroom) in San Francisco.

Some in the crowd had begun chanting for Van to sing more familiar songs, but the Irish troubadour would have none of it. Fed up with the whole scene, Van ripped into the audience.

“If you shut your mouth and keep quiet you might get what you want, alright? Otherwise, you’re just like boring me to death, and probably everybody else.”

Then, without missing a beat, this tirade is immediately interrupted by Van launching into one of his most beloved ballads, “Into the Mystic” — ironically one of his most spiritual quests for inner peace. The irony of this moment is both jaw-dropping and hilarious.

Indeed, the opening moments to this song are *SO-SO-SO-SO* Van Morrison at his core.

In an upcoming lesson, I’ll write more about “Into the Mystic,” a profound song, a critically-acclaimed masterpiece, and a familiar fan favorite that’s now spanned five decades and remains one of his most requested tunes. But for now, let’s take a look at Van’s raw unfiltered brutal honesty, which is revealed onstage in this grainy black and white video. Unfortunately, the film quality isn’t very good, but the sound is excellent. Van looks like he wants to be anywhere else but on stage at this moment, but his harmonica work about midway into the song is outstanding.

Note that at the end of 1974, Van virtually disappeared from the music industry. He didn’t record another album nor release a single for the next three years. At his peak, age 29, Van didn’t just walk away. He vanished. I’ll be writing more about this period, later, as well.

Also of note here is the concert venue, the iconic Winterland, one of the most storied music meccas in the United States at the time. Legendary rock promoter Bill Graham had opened the Winterland three years earlier and it hosted just about every big name in music. It was the home base for The Grateful Dead, who performed here dozens of times. Fittingly, it was also the venue where The Band’s final concert was filmed, 1978’s The Last Waltz, in which Van returns to the stage in a dramatic comeback that some say stole the show.


“Wavelength” (1978)

Van’s self-imposed exile from singing and songwriting lasted three years. His first daughter, Shana had been born. His marriage to model Janet Planet collapsed. Swarmed with groupies and gawkers, fiercely protective of his privacy, he abandoned Woodstock, NY and relocated to Marin County, CA. By the time Van’s creative comatose expired and the troubadour-grumbler returned to the pop music scene refreshed, two significant things had occurred:

1. Popular music tastes changed.
2. Van changed.

Van finally emerged from his sequestration and released what would become his ninth studio album, A Period of Transition. The aptly-titled collection of songs was much anticipated by critics and fans, alike. However, that album turned out to be a major disappointment for everyone. The selection of material neither matched the quality of his previous recordings nor delivered on the promise of musical “transition.” This creative and commercial failure set the stage for Van’s next significant album project, Wavelength, recorded at a makeshift studio set up in the Manor House in Oxfordshire, England and released in late 1978.

Wavelength marked a drastic shift in musical style for Van, away from his traditional R&B roots and horn-heavy instrumentation, supplanted by Peter Bardens‘ synthesizers. Indeed, pop music was changing fast, going more electronic. The title track was unlike anything Van had done before.

The song begins with Van’s voice almost unrecognizable in a high falsetto, an odd awaking for those accustomed to lyrics often shouted in liberation rather than sang. Then, Bardens’ minimoog synthesizer slowly seizes the rhythm, with Van’s velvety harmonies layered perfectly atop.

By late 1978, the era of the singer-songwriter was dead. Popular music temporarily lost its senses and swerved into a ditch called disco, punctuated at the opposite extreme by an explosion of big hair bands fronted by jackrabbit vocalists in spandex. Van might as well have been a polka dancer, stylistically speaking, but as “Wavelength” shows, he could adapt to the times when necessary.

Van’s work was rewarded with the single peaking at #42 on Billboard, which also made the album the best-selling of his career up to that point.

Lyrically, “Wavelength” begins with a tribute to his boyhood days when he first heard Ray Charles on Voice of America radio. That moment ignited a lifelong love for Charles’ music. Ironically, even in a catchy up-tempo song laced with synthesizers, Van still stays true to his musical roots.

“I heard the voice of America
Callin’ on my wavelength
Tellin’ me to tune in on my radio
I heard the voice of America
Callin’ on my wavelength
Singin’ “Come back, baby
Come back
Come back, baby
Come back….”


“Bright Side of the Road” (1979)

Van’s mid-1970’s included burnout, divorce, three years of seclusion, an album flop, a startling comeback, and by decade’s end — the reaffirmation of a musician at the very top of his game.

Following Wavelength, which became Van’s best-selling album up to that date, the self-described soul singer returned to his roots with 1979’s Into the Music, which received widespread acclaim and was named by critics as one of the year’s best albums.

Into the Music kicks off with the happy-go-lucky radio-friendly “Bright Side of the Road,” which became a minor hit. The song would bear added fruit years later. The song is perhaps best known today as part of the catchy soundtrack for the 1997 baseball movie, Fever Pitch. Van’s song was also used to sell Toyotas during the 1990s, the title lyric “bright side of the road” being the near-perfect pitch-line for a new car. When he wrote the song, Van certainly had no idea he’d make more money off a car commercial than any song royalties accrued. Singer Shakira also performed Van’s song at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

Into the Music was about the first album where I felt, I’m starting here…the Wavelength thing,” Van said. “I didn’t really feel that was me….that’s when I got back into it. That’s why I called it Into the Music.”

Indeed, Van was back in his groove. Critics hailed the album as his best work since Moondance, released a decade earlier. Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “It’s a record of splendid peace….a vastly ambitious attempt to reconcile various states of grace: physical, spiritual and artistic….that’s what this album is about, proudly and stunningly and with no apologies — Resurrection. Real Hope.”

The song and album’s success owes much to an event that was something of an accident. The album was recorded in a small studio in Sausalito, CA. Tenor saxophone maestro Pee Wee Ellis lived nearby and was asked to sit in on one of the album’s other tracks. Van was so impressed with Ellis’ work, that he was asked to stay and play on every song. That marked the beginning of a nearly two-decades-long collaboration between Van and Ellis. No doubt, Van’s music over the next dozen albums, as well as hundreds of live tour performances were enhanced significantly by Ellis’ virtuoso on horns.

“Bright Side of the Road” is nothing special, musically speaking. But it’s a catchy tune that’s certainly fun to listen to. I dare you to try and sit still and not move along to the rollicking melody while Van sings one of his most optimistic songs.


“Take This Hammer” (2017)

“Take This Hammer” is an old chain gang song dating back to the sharecropper days when freed slaves worked backbreaking jobs — such as mining, railroads, logging, and in the blazing cotton fields of the Deep South. These songs were sung daily by poor men who had little reason for hope in their lives, but who found solace and inspiration in music. This collective cross-generational pain and suffering birthed the blues, gospel, and many so-called prison songs. The melding of these influences later became the foundation for rock n’ roll.

The great bluesman Lead Belly learned this song while an inmate in the notorious prison farm at Angola, Louisiana. He added his own timing and chord structure and turned it into a classic that’s transcended all musical genres. It remains a popular studio “jam” tune to this day. Versions of the Lead Belly standard have been recorded by artists as diverse as the Spencer Davis Group to the Foggy Mountain Boys to John Prine. The Beatles jammed to the song in their Let It Be (a.k.a. Get Back) sessions.

One of the most recent takes of the song is by Mitch Woods. In 2017, Woods was joined in the studio by Taj Mahal on guitar and Van who laid down some incredible vocals. In his 70’s, Van’s voice certainly isn’t what it once was, but this is exactly the kind of song Van was born to sing. The impromptu recording, with guitar, piano, and Van on vocals while banging a tambourine with a drumstick, made its way onto a musical compilation for charity titled Freinds Along the Way, which can be heard and seen here in this short 2-minute outtake.

It doesn’t get much better than watching three masters at their craft sitting around in the studio and jamming to an old Lead Belly classic. See if you agree.


“Queen of the Slipstream” (1987)

What’s the meaning of the cryptic song title and lyric “Queen of the Slipstream?”

No one knows for sure, except Van. The composition has been widely interpreted — as an ode to a distant love, a literary homage, a song with deeply religious overtones, but could just as easily be nothing more than a catchy play on words. Indeed, Van has been known to dream up clever phrases in song and then take mischievous delight while admirers scramble trying to make sense of some presumed revelation shrouded in lyrical allegory.

What’s certain about the 5-minute track is the gorgeous melody, intensely enhanced by the strings of a chamber orchestra. Like many songs written and recorded by Van during this period of deep introspection, it’s a meditative exploration uncertain of a particular destination but resolved nonetheless to forage the chance of new discovery.

“Queen of the Slipstream” appeared on the 1997 album Poetic Champions Compose, an ambitious collection of new material that received mixed reviews from critics. Rolling Stone magazine was particularly brutal, calling it a “cranky self-imitation” and a “painful slump.” Nevertheless, album sales were boosted significantly by the popular love ballad “Someone Like You,” which has since become a staple soundtrack played and sang at weddings. Commercial success aside, “Slipstream” remains the far more intriguing album track, reminding us that it’s okay to persevere if only in small increments, one step at a time, sketching in the details as we go along. Poetic Champions Compose is that album stoked with small details, many pleasant and inspirational.

The song was also released as a single the following year, but it did not make the charts. Yet, there is an enduring quality to the composition. Over the years, it’s appeared in several movies. It was a favorite of the late actress Farah Fawcett and was used in a documentary about her life at her request after her death.

My take is the following: “Queen of the Slipstream” is gorgeous, brilliant, perplexing, and something of a mess. While there’s intriguing combustion of instrumentation here, the song could have benefited from a bit more tailoring. Produced entirely by Van, it had no one inside the studio to say, “Stop — let’s re-record that part again, or how about turning down the string mix a little?” Van, entirely left to his own ear and taste, simply floods the soundboard until it short-circuits on woodwinds.


“Haunts of Ancient Peace” (1980)

Preamble: “Common One” is a Van Morrison album not so much to be listened to but absorbed into the soul. It’s the music of melancholy. It’s the album I’ve put on dozens of times when doing something around the house, or driving, or writing. These are not party songs. No one will run to the dance floor. These are songs to play in peace, often in solitude. Like a fine scotch, it’s meant to be sipped and savored, nut guzzled down like a keg of beer. Mindful that this series (VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS) isn’t a “Greatest Hits” compilation, today’s selection is one of Van’s more esoteric compositions. I’m eager to share my thoughts with you about this now.

Van was once asked by an interviewer to name his favorite album of his own music. With more than 50 albums from which to choose (not counting foreign releases) it was something of a shocker to hear him cite Common One, a six-song compilation that received scathing reviews from critics and was largely ignored by fans upon its release.

More recently, Common One has garnered a tardy appreciation from many who have given it a redux and may have discovered there was far more to the album that many realized nearly four decades ago.

“Haunts of Ancient Peace,” a 7-minute mood piece punctuated with jazz underpinnings, embodies the spirited wholesomeness of Common One. It’s thoroughly Van distilled down to his creative essence — a wanderlust of vast exploration, intentionally non-commercial, oblivious to judgment. Certainly, Van knew when this song (and album) were released, they’d receive zero radio airplay. The music was destined for instant obscurity. Like so many of Van’s songs released during the 1980s of varying lengths, styles and accompanied by unconventional orchestration, these songs are a rebuke to the pop music culture. Enlightenment and discovery, not song royalties, are the objective.

The unusual song title comes from a 1902 book by Victorian-era Poet Laureate Alfred Austin (1896-1912). Indeed, as Van’s lyrics promise, this is very much “a song of harmony and rhyme in haunts of ancient peace.”

I’ve taken a live performance of this song rather than the studio version (I don’t know the venue nor the year). Van even occasionally performs this song live up to this day. See if you agree this is a song to be absorbed by the soul.



Remembering Joe Smith (1928-2019)

Today, we remember the late Joe Smith, who died last week at age 91.

Smith was a music industry giant, with precisely the resume Van Morrison typically loathed. An executive with Warner Bros., then Elektra afterward, and finally the CEO of Capitol-EMI, Smith’s approach was markedly different than virtually all the other music moguls, one reason why Van viewed him as the notable exception to a dirty business that often exploited artists and their music as nothing more than commodities. Smith even came around to share Van’s cynicism about his own industry, years after his early retirement lamenting, “it’s no fun anymore” — an industry run by people who are more business-oriented than those of us who are very music-oriented.”

Smith’s connection to the Northern Irish misanthrope began early in his solo career. Taken from the obituary in The Guardian:

In 1968. Smith pulled off a coup by signing Van Morrison, whose contract at Bang Records had fallen into the hands of the mobster Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia. Smith bought out the contract by taking $20,000 in cash to an abandoned Manhattan warehouse. He described Morrison as “a hateful little guy,” though considered that “he’s the best rock’n’roll voice out there.

I love that line, “a hateful little guy.” Brilliant. Note: In a future post, I’ll write more about Van’s contract being controlled by a Boston mobster. That deserves its own chapter.

As noted, Joe Smith was a giant. He also signed The Grateful Dead to the Warner label in 1966, recognizing early on the major force they were to come. Other artists signed by Smith included Alice Cooper, Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, the Cars, Mötley Crüe, and many others. But Smith’s biggest success and closest personal association with the Eagles.

There are some interesting stories in this article, including a remarkable tidbit about an album release being the bounty of a wager linked to a game of trivia, which I’m linking HERE.

Joe Smith -- Music Executive
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Posted by on Dec 10, 2019 in Blog, Book Reviews, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 1


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.”


He’s been called a genius.  A poet.  A mystic.  A sage.  An original.  A nonconformist.  A hermit.  A curmudgeon.  A misanthrope.  And a boor. 

Indeed, all these tags apply to Van Morrison, arguably the most enigmatic of all popular singer-songwriters of the past half-century. 

So far, he’s released 53 albums, including 71 singles — yet, he’s never had a top-five hit.  Now, in his mid-70’s, he continues touring and performing at a tireless pace — although, he’s a self-admitted introvert in an extrovert’s profession.  He’s been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and even been knighted by the Queen of England — however, he loathes doing interviews and the all-too-predictable questions he’s asked as to what any of his songs mean.  He gets mentioned in the same breath as the Irish masters — including Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Moore, and Beckett — while bristling at any of the accruments of such lofty comparison, opting instead to simply be called “a soul singer.”

“I don’t feel comfortable doing interviews,” Morrison snaps.  “My profession is music and writing songs.  That’s what I do.  I like to do it, but I hate to talk about it.”

Since Sir Van Morrison hates to talk about his own music, the inevitable void has been filled by a cottage industry of writers and critics all over the world willing to proxy for him.  Including — yours truly.  

Consider this latest series, which I’ve titled the “Van Morrison MasterClass” precisely such an exercise.  It is as much an attempt at exploring Van Morrison’s rich musical legacy as a hope and a promise of new discoveries.

— ND





“You’ve Got the Power” (1972)

This was a stunning personal discovery. It’s the B-side of a single “Jackie Wilson Said,” the minor hit off the 1972 album, St. Dominic’s Preview, charting at #61 on Billboard. This flip-side chestnut is obscure and mostly forgotten, even by loyal Vanatics.  Reference Point:  Van fans are known as “Vanatics.”

“You’ve Got the Power” layers Memphis horns atop the Stax sound, with Van’s vocal energy as not so much the lead as the accompaniment to a rich stew of raw musical alchemy. As is characteristic of much of Van’s studio work (making this both amazing and maddening)….both “Jackie Wilson Said” and “You’ve Got the Power” were recorded in a single take.

Here’s a short recount of the session, recorded in Mill Valley, CA:

“Morrison’s band had only rehearsed the song once before the session, which led to the parts being rearranged in the studio. Despite the initial problems, the band recorded it in one take: “At the end [we] all stood in silence: had [we] got it in one go? Van called for another take, but stopped a few bars in because he felt it wasn’t working. ‘I think we’ve got it.”

Have a listen to this rare gem, which clocks in a 3:30. Headphones recommended, crank it up loud, and sing it strong.



“Days Like This” (1995)

“Day’s Like This” is the title track from the 1995 album which peaked at #5 in the UK, but sold poorly in the US, due perhaps to mixed reviews and a diverse collection of songs scattered across multiple musical genres, with tracks that were inspiring to some but alienating to others.

Although the song wasn’t a hit single when released, it’s since become a widely-played and well-known gem on the “soundtrack of life,” commonly played while boarding airplanes, heard in restaurants and shopping malls, and even in a few movies, including As Good As It Gets.

The song was even chosen as the official anthem of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement towards the end of the infamous “Troubles” period which terrorized much of divided Belfast, Van’s boyhood home.

“Day’s Like This” features an upbeat message, Van’s gruff vocals, and a marvelously catchy chorus that’s easy to hum along to. Van also takes the lead solo on saxophone.

When President Bill Clinton visited Belfast in Nov. 1995, himself a “Vanatic,” he expressed interest in performing the song onstage with Van at a live stadium concert with 60,000 people. It would have been fun to see President Clinton, a saxophone player, joining Van in concert. But the Secret Service vetoed the idea citing security concerns, especially given the threats in Belfast.

The song also includes singer-songwriter Brian Kennedy on backing vocals. Van’s musical anchorman, Pee Wee Ellis stands in on tenor sax.

Van was never part of the so-called MTV generation. He utterly loathed music videos. Nonetheless, Van was talked into making a rare and as-it-turns-out stylish in-studio B/W video release, which is posted here.

Now, nearly 25 years since its release, “Days Like This” remains as enjoyable and inspirational as ever.



“Here Comes the Night” (1965)

Van’s career began with *Them* a short-lived Northern Irish band tangentially grouped as part of the Britsh Invasion. *Them* took their odd name from the 1950’s horror film. Tensions within the band and their producer Bert Berns began early and fractured into a nasty breakup, after which Van launched his solo career in 1966.

Berns, already well-known for producing several hit records including the original “Twist and Shout,” wrote “Here Comes the Night” and gave it to Them, which by mid-1965 had released two hit records, the bluesy “Baby Please Don’t Go” and Van’s own popular rock classic “Gloria.” The song reached #2 in the UK and #30 in the US.

“Here Comes the Night” isn’t Van’s best work, by any stretch. But this clip does show Van, at age 20, fronting Them in a live performance. Shy and introverted by nature, Van displayed an impersonal public persona which appeared to be alienation from his own audience. Onstage, he rarely acknowledged fans (which continues to this day). For Van, it’s always been about the music.

Van as the lead singer for Them proved difficult to work with and manage. He refused to go along with fake “live” performances and promotional gigs, instantly creating a hard-nosed reputation:

“We were never meant to be on ‘Top of the Pops,’ I mean miming? Lip syncing? We used to laugh at the program, think it was a joke. Then we were on it ourselves. It was ridiculous. We were totally anti that type of thing. We were really into the blues…and we had to get into suits and have make-up put on and all that.”

Note that Van refuses to wear a suit in this show, which turned out to be one of Them’s final live performances. Added trivia: Jimmy Page (later with Led Zeppelin) was the session guitarist on the studio recording.

This video clip clocks in at less than 3 minutes, but shows why Van, even at age 20 was clearly destined for bigger and better things to come.


“Just Like Greta” (2000)

“Some days it gets pretty crazy,
I feel like howling at the moon.”

Thus begins “Just like Greta” is a musical tribute to the reclusive Hollywood legend and a personal plea for solitude.

Perhaps Van saw something of himself in the Garbo mystique, the late film star who retired at age 35 and didn’t make another movie or grant an interview during the final 50 years of her hermitic life. Throughout his lengthy career, Van — annoyed by fame, mistrustful of strangers, prone to stagefright, and utterly oblivious to public or critical reception — must have looked to Garbo as both guru and muse. Part of his being longs to be “Just Like Greta.”

Indeed, the vast catalog of Van’s music reflects self-doubt and the constant pursuit of enlightenment. Van albums do not make for good party tunes. Van writes much deeper songs of reflection, of pain, of loss, and of longing. It’s the voice of the subconscious. He’s the artist you plug into the iPod during a quiet airplane ride or a long drive, best when alone with your own thoughts. Certainly, Van has written and released plenty of upbeat tunes, but his heart and soul remain bronzed in melancholy.

“Just Like Greta” is one of Van’s lesser-known tracks, originally recorded in 2000, but inexplicably omitted the next album release, Down the Road. Five years later, the song was recycled on Magic Time, both a commercial and critical success. Though unreleased as a single, and no airplay was given, the song complimented a fine album that became one of his most successful releases, debuting at #2 in the UK and #25 in the US. Nonetheless, few listeners aside from hard-core Van fans, have likely heard the song before.

The song clocks in at 6:29, starting off with Van at his soul-searching best. Then, anchored by a slow but steady crescendo the mood gradually begins to shift from a soft ballad into a rousing finish flooded in orchestral strings. Van’s vocals are paired with the familiar echoes of the Hammond organ. Lyrically speaking, Van alludes to his own past, singing “I’ve been too long in exile….” which is an unveiled reference to his album released a decade earlier, Too Long in Exile.

The song’s most catchy moment occurs immediately after the instrumental interlude about midway through (at the 3:50 mark) when Van suddenly takes the song uptempo and launches into a spirited declaration about “going out to L.A. (to) get my business done,” then “going on to Vegas, then I’m going on the run.”

Today — Van, even at 74, a tireless tour performer who still writes songs, releases albums, and appears in as many as 75 live shows annually, must feel the temptation to ignore all the phone calls and the demands of the trade and simply run away from it all. You know, “Just Like Greta.”

Don’t we all have days and thoughts to do the same?



“T.B. Sheets” (1967)

Van’s breakaway solo period after leaving the Northern Irish group Them included a spell of struggle and near starvation. Even while “Brown Eyed Girl” was rocketing up the Billboard charts, Van — screwed by a really bad recording contract — made little or no money from his early work. He once told the story of having to borrow money to pay the rent.

“While I was recording, I realized I didn’t even have $2 to buy a sandwich,” Morrison told CBS in an interview many years later. “I had to borrow money to eat.”

Morrison had flown to New York from Belfast to sign a record contract he had not fully studied, nor legally vetted with attorneys. During a two-day recording session at A&R Studios starting 28 March 1967, eight songs were recorded, originally intended to be used as four singles per a verbal agreement. Instead, the songs were rushed out and released as the album Blowin’ Your Mind, without Morrison being consulted. Van said he only became aware of the album’s release when a friend mentioned on a phone call that he had just been in a record store and bought a copy.

Alas, that was Van’s first solo album — and he didn’t even know about it. Thus began a long career of loathing the music business and being mistrustful of associates, a characteristic which continues to this day.

“T.B. Sheets” was one of the songs off that debut solo album which was written and recorded during an extended creative period that became known as the Bang Sessions, in reference to Bang Records.

“Morrison had intended to record the song in one take, but there were two takes recorded that day….,.There is a long-standing, but perhaps apocryphal story of Morrison’s emotional state during the song’s recording Michael Ochs wrote later, “after ‘T.B. Sheets’ was recorded, the rest of the session had to be canceled because Van broke down in tears.”

“T.B. Sheets” is a song about death. It’s a bluesy masterpiece melding Van’s soulful vocals, his shredding harmonica introduction, tambourine timing, laced with catchy riffs on lead guitar. The song wasn’t released as a single but was covered by iconic bluesman Johnny Lee Hooker in 1972. Van’s song also appeared in ambulance scenes in Martin Scorsese’s 1999 misfire movie, Bringing Out the Dead, starring Nicholas Cage. That movie isn’t very good, but the song fits the urban underbelly as a perfect soundtrack. Note that some might find the video images to be disturbing.

This is stunning early work by Van, which is even more impressive when considering how rushed the production was in the studio and the pressure the singer-songwriter was under at the time. I love Van’s racy harmonica work here, which never sounded better.



“Domino” (1970)

To date, Van has released 53 albums and 71 singles, so it’s surprising to learn he’s never recorded a #1 hit.  In fact, no Van composition has ever charted in the top five.  Even his signature song, 1967’s “Brown Eyed Girl” rose only to #10.

It’s even more surprising to find out the highest-charting single of Van’s prolific career was the 1970 release, “Domino,” the opening track from the album, His Band and the Street Choir.  To this day, “Domino” remains his best-performing song, though few hard-core fans or casual listeners would place this song anywhere near the pantheon of VM’s best recordings.  It peaked at #9.

“Domino” is a tribute to R&B legend Fats Domino.  It’s packed with blaring horns and is pure R&B all the way.  Lyrics include Van singing “Lord have mercy” during the refrain, undoubtedly mimicking the influence of James Brown, another of Van’s musical idols.  Indeed, “Domino” is a definitive in-your-face statement by Van who rejected stereotyping and refused to be pigeonholed as a rock act.  Following up on the success of the jazz-infused Moondance album which was released earlier that year, Van unexpectedly swerved into the R&B lane going full blast.  Oddly enough, following this project, his next album, Tupelo Honey marked a 180 shift to into folk-country.

“Domino” was one of many chestnuts during a bountiful songwriting period for Van.  It marked a definitive shift in intent to write music for wider audiences.  After his debut album premiered to mixed success, the extraordinarily ambitious Astral Weeks had been released the following year.  That classic collection is now regarded as one of the greatest albums in pop music history, but it was a commercial failure at the time.  Van, still plagued by a bad recording contract and essentially broke, vowed to write some catchier and shorter songs certain to receive radio airplay, and thus make money.  So, he nested on a treasure trove of fresh original material written during 1969 in upstate NY.  With a new record deal, he was determined to cash in with a flurry of pop hits and albums that would sell commercially.  When the Moondance album (with the title hit single) was released in 1970, Van’s wisdom of maintaining strict control over his work and reaping the benefits thereof was confirmed.  “Domino” was written and recorded during this period.  Indeed, much of what appeared on His Band and the Street Choir could have made for a double-album set to Moondance.

“Domino” is lyrically simple, rhythmically catchy, and one of Van’s most radio-friendly songs.

Note that Jim Keltner is on drums, described as the leading session drummer in America circa 1960-1980.  Keltner was the drummer on much of Van’s work during this period.  Keltner has appeared on countless popular recordings over the years, including each of the former Beatles’ solo albums following their breakup.


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Posted by on Nov 5, 2019 in Blog, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews | 2 comments

Willie Nelson (Concert Review)



Willie Nelson Concert Review (October 25, 2019 at The Venetian, Las Vegas)


No one can say for sure how many more Willie Nelson stage performances remain now that he’s weathered and wrinkled in the final twilight of an astounding musical journey that first began in 1956.

So, when the opportunity arose to go see the 86-year-old country music outlaw, I viewed my surprising good fortune at getting last-minute tickets not so much a passive performance but a personal pilgrimage.  This was the chance to revere and pay tribute.

Nelson is indeed on the road again, currently in the midst of his 2019 American Tour.  This latest show was held on Friday, October 25th, the first of a six-night engagement at The Venetian Theatre, in Las Vegas.

First and foremost, Nelson remains a uniquely gifted songwriter.  But he’s just as well known as a singer, guitarist, and stage performer.  And a film star.  And a political activist.  And so much, much more.

At a time when live musical authenticity has become exceedingly rare, it wouldn’t have mattered had Nelson taken the stage, forgotten some lyrics, and missed a few notes during the show which clocked in at a racy-fast one-hour and twenty minutes.  No one in the crowd of perhaps 1,800 witnesses arrived on this night expecting to see Shotgun Willie.  Instead, most of the sold-out crowd came to pay homage.  Many wanted to see Nelson a first, or one last time.

The show began promptly at 8 pm with a warm-up act — Tennessee Jet.  I knew nothing at all of Jet, who played an acoustic guitar solo for about 30 minutes, with no other musical accompaniment whatsoever.  This was a stripped down show to the very extreme, no doubt intended to create a mellow atmosphere for what was to come later.  Jet wasn’t going to be Garth Brooks.  This was a soft-spoken man on a stool, plucking notes, singing songs, and telling stories.  Jet was perfectly fine in this role, and just the right length of time as a warm up.

Following a short intermission and some sound adjustments, Willie Nelson entered from stage left to rousing applause.  He was joined by five other musicians.  Behind Nelson and his band, a giant red, white, and blue Texas State flag the size of an Olympic swimming pool served as the backdrop.  Two large in-house television screens provided excellent visuals for everyone in the house to watch Nelson, who would be the exclusive focal point for the remainder of the evening.

Immediately, Nelson took his guitar and launched into “Whiskey River,” a surprising breakout hit from 1972 when the singer initially transitioned from an awkward-looking, hopelessly out-of-place third-rate performer into a long-haired bandana-wearing hippie who no longer attempted to hide his twangy rough-sounding nasal-driven voice.  The rebellious honky-tonk tune brought the crowd to its feet, proving again that Nelson still has the ability to work a room, even in glitzy Las Vegas.

The tight set list included 17 songs, including a mix of new material, a few familiar hits, and (surprisingly) many songs by other fellow country legends.  Spontaneity wasn’t part of this act.  This was a meticulously-scripted show from start to finish, intended to deliver Nelson not so much as a nostalgia act, but an artist who very much remains at country music’s creative apex of past, present, and future.

“This one’s for Merle,” Nelson said to the audience as he gave a solo rendition of “Reasons to Quit,” the 1983 hit he co-wrote with Haggard who passed away a few years ago.  Nelson also paid tribute to the late Waylon Jennings, his fellow Texas outlaw.  Decked in a cowboy hat during the first third of the show, he also sang the old Hank Williams’ chestnut, “Hey, Hey, Good Lookin’.”

Nelson’s vocals were remarkably strong, especially for an octogenarian.  But it was Nelson supurb guitar work that was most impressive and the biggest stunner for those unfamiliar with Nelson’s pedigree and skills as an artist.  Strumming and plucking “Trigger,” his hopelessly faded and beat up wooden guitar that was the only personal belonging salvaged from a 1970 house fire that marked his final goodbye after struggling for years as a songwriter in Nashville, the braided troubadour proved his can still bend the strings and pick notes.  In fact, Nelson’s guitar work was, there’s no other word for it but — exceptional.  Many musical icons can rely on younger backup stage performers to carry the heavy load and fill in details during a performance.  Not Nelson.  He plucks and picks every single lead melody of the entire set himself, and his finger work on the frets could easily be seen on the giant screens.  This was truly amazing to watch.

Given Nelson’s surprising guitar prowess, one of the evening’s highlights was the show’s only instrumental number, “Stardust,” the title song off of his 1982 best-selling masterpiece that once showed an alternative side to Nelson’s songmanship.  However, Nelson’s finest moment came when he performed the crossover 1970 hit, “Yesterday When I Was Young,” written and sung by Roy Clark off his Shades of Country album.  When Nelson with his heavy nasal vibrato sang the song’s final stanza, one could have heard a pin drop:

There are so many songs in me that won't be sung
I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue
The time has come for me to pay for
Yesterday, when I was young.

To say Nelson’s band was restrained would be an understatement.  His backing accompaniment had no drum kit, only brush sticks with a single snare.  One sideman played harmonica.  Another plucked a stand-up bass.  Someone else in the band played soft acoustics.  A big black grand piano took up much of the stage, but never overwhelmed Nelson, the clear frontman conducting the entire performance from beginning to end.  No doubt, the singer-songwriter who’s composed more than 1,000 tunes himself, including 40 top country hits, and knows a great many more classics committed to memory, took understandable comfort in having a small screen monitor directly beneath his feet teleprompting the lyrics.  However, it appeared Nelson didn’t need the visual crutch very often.   He didn’t miss a note, not a lyric.  May we all be so mentally astute when we reach his age.

For those expecting to see and hear more of Willie the unapologetic political and social activist who participated in countless progressive causes over the years, including the annual Farm Aid concert to help support America’s farmers, that particular silo didn’t make an appearance on this night.  His show was remarkably apolitical.  One suspects Nelson might be determined to keep some would-be critics at bay, by not speaking to the crowd about controversial topics, despite the great political and social divide throughout the country.  Alas, this was a moment of reflection and unity.

Forty minutes into the show, a large American flag was unfurled and replaced the Texas flag as the band’s backdrop.  Was this a statement?  Not sure what the point of this display was, perhaps to self-identify himself with Americana, or just to prove to his audience that pot-smoking liberals can be patriots, too.

The evening’s most amusing moment came in the 16th song of the set when Nelson, an avowed proponent of marijuana use and legalization, sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”  Even though the song might not be as well known as his other hits, most of the crowd could be seen and heard singing the catchy chorus along with Nelson, everyone willing to enjoy the free-spirited celebration.

The show did have some gaps.  One major disappointment was Nelson not performing an encore.  After what turned out to be his final song, “Still Not Dead,” off the 2017 God’s Problem Child album, the band returned to the stage and it seemed Nelson would answer the standing ovation for an obligatory curtain call.  However, the auditorium lights then came on and the show was over.  It’s uncertain whether Nelson was simply fatigued, or the 10 pm hour right on the nose marked a preset termination time.  Given this was the first of six straight nights of shows — probably the former.  Nelson would be justified preserving his energy and voice, and no one in the crowd seemed to mind.  But for $120-a-seat tickets, one final song and a hearty farewell from the country icon would have been the perfect closer.  It was only a small blemish on an otherwise wonderful experience.

Curious to learn more, I discovered that Nelson has been forced to cancel some performances in recent months due to his tireless travel and associated bouts with fatigue.  Performances are likely to be inconsistent, from now on.  But at least a few things are certain:  Willie Nelson can still sing and perform just as well as during anytime in his illustrious career, and there won’t be many more chances again to see a legend of this stature who given us so many wonderful songs for more than 60 years and invented an entire genre of music.

You’d be “crazy” not to go and see Willie Nelson if and when you still can.


Note:  Thanks to Dan and Sharon Goldman for the show tickets.





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Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

Movie Review: Elton John Musical Biopic “Rocketman” Crashes and Burns




Elton John’s preeminence as a flamboyant rock n’ roll troubadour is deeply grooved into our vinyl consciousness.

His mesmerizing 1970’s songbook is arguably the most astounding output of any solo artist over the past 50 years.  While his gold records revolved at 33 rpm, his fame spiraled at 78 speed.  His eccentricities, outlandish stage costumes, a sham marriage when he tried to play it straight, and hypersexuality were fodder for ceaseless gossip and scandal.

His musical career soared to extraordinary highs, packed sports stadiums, and survived craterous lows.  His celebrity remains indisputably global, gender neutral, cross-generational, and yet all of his music is crassly commercial.  To millions of fans and even those who aren’t, but can’t help but hum the harmonies to his hit songs, Elton John isn’t just a stylish trendsetter.  He’s painfully honest, wallowed in imperfection.

“I have taken every drug; I have fucked everything that moves,” Elton John once told a startled interviewer.

So given these realities, a well-documented public life, combined with Elton’s John’s unapologetic openness about his private ordeals, how is Rocketman, the purported collaborative movie biography, such a misfire?

There’s no excuse for this.  None.  I should have loved Rocketman.  Ostensibly,  I’m the target audience.  This movie was custom-made for devoted fans who grew up with his music.  Consider Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John’s 1973 double album masterpiece, was one of the first records I ever purchased with allowance money.  I recall the excitement, hastily unwrapping the new album jacket encased in cellophane, the smell of the record, carefully placing vinyl discs upon the family turntable so as not to scratch it, hoisting the needle, sprawling myself across the shag carpet, and then following along with liner notes penned by lyricist Bernie Taupin as Elton John’s music took me to imaginary places that seemed otherworldly.

How could they possibly blow this?

There are so many things annoying about this movie, I don’t know where to begin.  So, let’s start at the beginning.

In the opening scene, Elton John enters rehab.  He’s been on a steady decline for a decade.  He joins a group therapy session at what looks to be an AA meeting.  Inexplicably, he’s dressed in full stage regalia — looking something like a giant insect that swallowed a court jester.  Yet no one in the group seems to think it’s a big deal that Elton John, one of the most famous people in the world at the time, is sitting there, about to tell us his life story.  Are these people alive?  The rest of the addicts just sit there the whole time like they’re listening to Joe the Plumber apologize about drinking way too many beers at the company picnic.

So, the next two hours of therapy are utterly dominated by this self-centered superstar obsessing about his life, causing me to wonder — hey, what about the other poor souls who have their own addiction problems?  Don’t they get some talk time?  Do they have to sit here for two hours and listen to this guy babble?  I guess so  — because it’s Elton John.

Snippets of Elton John’s many hits appear throughout the film, although he sings none of them.  More on that creative oddity in just a moment.  Most of us will recognize every song.  There’s no filler, nor experimentation here.  We get a predictable stream of best sellers.  The movie soundtrack has all the originality of a “Greatest Hits” compilation.

The songs intend to stitch together some hopelessly disjoined biographical timeline when none actually exists.  To illustrate the awkward misuse of music, when Elton John launches into his lengthy confessional by reminiscing about his early childhood growing up as Reginald Dwight (his real name), a flashback transposes us into a 1950s street dance overlapped with The Bitch is Back, off the 1974 album Caribou.  How did this scene make it past the first draft?  Why is a 7-year-old boy from Middlesex barking out The Bitch is Back?  That was the first instant I leaned forward in my theater seat and went — “huh?”

That bizarre opener pretty much obliterated any appreciation of artistic expression.  Elton John’s hits are recklessly scattered all over the storyline.  Wherever any lyric might coincidentally connect to a real event in his life, it’s exploited to the max, though in no way reflected what was going on at the time.  For instance, we hear the early songs, mostly composed when Elton John had no discernable demons nor any destructive bad habits, which are misused contextually so as to imply that each song was a cry for help, the emotional intensity magnified by the succession of each album.  Moreover, Elton John’s song lyrics — so often sweltering in pain and loss — was almost entirely the creation of collaborative co-writer Bernie Taupin, who for the most part escaped his songwriting partner’s voyage aboard the paparazzi parade branded the Titanic.  Taupin may indeed have projected some emotions onto Elton John, the performer.  But the film’s quilting of music and narrative is disingenuous.

To the film’s credit, all songs were re-recorded and sung by Taron Egerton, who does quite an admirable job playing Elton John.  Egerton, not widely known before taking this role, was a bold casting decision and he delivers both commanding vocals and convincing performance.  Egerton’s challenges cannot be understated.  Other rockstar movie bios usually miss the target, often embarrassingly so, which is tough to hit when the superstar is as prominent a public figure as Elton John.  However, Egerton nails both the incomparable musical demands and the swaggering persona.  Even more impressive, the actor gives a credible performance transforming into the self-destructive rock icon over the span of a decade, meandering back and forth between a joyously contrived onstage performer juxtaposed against the miserable misanthrope left alone in hotel suites with a bottle of vodka and spoon piled with cocaine.

Way too much of the movie focuses on Elton John’s continuous slide into addiction — with drugs, alcohol, and sex.  It’s an all-too-familiar story we’ve seen before.  There’s nothing new here.  While Elton John’s personal problems do make for an empathetic confessional, I’d have preferred greater insight into his songwriting and the creative collaboration between John and Taupin.  The movie cheapens what must have been a grueling artistic process — releasing ten gold albums in just six years — grossly oversimplifying the effort it took to create so many memorable pop songs.  Artistic revelation is reduced to the pianist taking a sheet of paper with lyrics scribbled by Taubin and then composing a near perfect melody within 15 seconds.  Frankly, it’s ridiculous.

Audiences may have some difficulty commensurating with Elton John’s problems.  By the mid-1970s, the rock icon was reportedly pulling in $85 million a year.  He had everything going his direction — prodigal talent, fame, riches, and the creative freedom to do anything he wanted.  Yet, Rocketman crashes and burns.  Yes, this did happen.  Just don’t expect me to be sympathetic.

The film goes to painstaking lengths to convince us Elton John’s emotional breakdown was borne out of a childhood void of love.  His parents, who divorced, are reduced to cruel caricatures.  Neither are appreciative of his talent or success.  In real life, Elton John has spoken affectionately about his parents, especially his mother.  A 2013 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on NPR provided the revelation that even when young and confused about his sexual orientation, Elton John’s mother was emotionally supportive.  So, either Elton John was lying then in the interview or the filmmakers now have taken their artistic license and run off a cliff.

Rocketman does manage to take its touchiest subject and portray it in a manner so as to be both true to the subject matter while not ruffling feathers of the conventional mainstream.  Portraying homosexual acts on film does pose a serious dilemma for filmmakers.  Whether we’ll admit it or not, that remains taboo in cinema.  Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which somehow managed to brush the gay Freddie Mercury completely under the rug, this film portrays Elton John’s steady romances and flings with credibility, without the exploitation and sensationalism.  Straight men won’t wince.

Rocketman has received mostly positive reviews.  Perhaps this speaks to the evergreen nature of Elton John’s immense musical catalog.  Or maybe, critics rightly perceive this film biography as honest to its subject matter.  Then, there’s Taron Egerton’s magnificent performance.  There are things to like about Rocketman. 

Unfortunately, this marvelous musical journey is marred by unnecessary distractions and way too many voids.  By the final scene where Elton John enters the MTV age and performs what turns out to be the self-prophetic I’m Still Standing, a catchy ripoff of Gloria Gayner’s mega-hit I Will Survive, we’ve gained no added insight as to the man behind the glittery glasses nor his music.  Never mind that I’m Still Standing was written years before Elton John entered rehab in 1990 and had nothing all to do with the recovery process.   Like more than a dozen annoyances in this film, the truth isn’t bent.  It’s broken.

Perhaps the gravest falsehood in the film is an early scene when Elton John is asked by music publisher Dick James what stage name he’ll take for his first record.  On a whim, the young pianist says “Elton”……and then “John” as his eyes wander and fixate on a photograph of John Lennon hanging in James’ London office.  Fact is, Elton John actually took his stage name from London bluesman Long John Baldry.  So, why lie?

Quoting Elton John, the appropriate description of Rocketman is indeed a sad situation:

It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd.
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.

MY RATING:  I give Rocketman 3 stars out of 1o.  This film is a pass, even if you’re a big fan of Elton John’s music.


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