We discovered a new place yesterday, AROY which is right next to the beltway and Ft. Apache in a strip mall. Nothing fancy. Just a cheap and solid lunch spot.
Thai specials were $6.95 to $8.95 and include small soup, fresh Thai roll, lettuce, and entre of choice. Food was every bit as good as any casual Thai place — but super fast and affordable.
Marieta and I dined for $18.50 and left very satisfied.
Inside is clean, somewhat spartan, but real silverware, and amenities. It’s a bargain for the money.
When I used to travel all the time, Thai food was often my “go-to” road cuisine because rarely have I had a bad experience with Thai menus. Las Vegas is packed with cheap and good Thai restaurants. I really don’t need more choices, but do also like to step out and try new places, on occasion.
If you’re in the mood for good Thai food at a bargain price and live on the West Side, AROY is yet another solid recommendation.
“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 5
Part 5 (Days 29-35) of an ongoing retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 29
“Your Mind is on Vacation” (1995)
On May 3rd, 1995, Van Morrison booked Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London for an afternoon. This was to be quite an exclusive engagement. Van brought in three fellow jazz masters and within just five remarkable hours recorded an entire album that became, How Long Has This Been Going On.
There was no audience that day. The only witnesses to the impromptu jam session were the musician themselves, including two of Van’s longtime collaborators — Pee Wee Ellis (on sax) and Georgie Fame (on piano). It’s practically unthinkable that Van and friends recorded 14 tracks in all that day, including four original songs. Again, in just FIVE hours.
The rest of the songs, 10 in all, were jazz covers. One of the covered songs was Mose Allison’s 1976 composition, “Your Mind is on Vacation.” This song has been recorded by an eclectic mic mix of performers, at different speeds, and done in various styles. Elvis Costello, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, and Van Morrison were but a few to add their signatures to Allison’s classic.
Typically, most covers are not as good as the original. However, Van and the jazz ensemble absolutely kill on this tune. Even though there’s no live audience, the vibe very much sounds and feels like a jazz nightclub, which is precisely what Van was aiming for in the session.
RECOMMENDED: First, listen to the original release by Mose Allison, which is very good. This original recording is HERE. Then, play the 1995 remake with Van in what amounts to a live take. No overdubbing. No filler. No autotune. No special effects. No mixing. No real post-production. Just pure jazz.
Van’s long career has been driven by erratic spontaneity. Fans never know what direction he’ll swerve next, nor what project he’ll undertake, nor know just who might appear alongside him in the studio. In a recording industry strictly driven by genres and pigeonholing, Van has never succumbed to boundaries, something which has probably cost him exposure and sales. He’s done disparate albums categorized as rock, blues, jazz, country, folk, meditative, skiffle, soul, traditional, and even appeared on movie soundtracks. He might do a jazz album one day, and engage in gospel music the next.
Interestingly, when Van was asked about these sessions sometime afterward, he noted that the album wasn’t planned. Van and his jazz compatriots had all been talking about doing a jazz album together for 25 years, dating back to the “Moondance” period. Then, everyone discovered they happened to be in London with a free day, so Van said, “Let’s do it.”
How Long Has This Been Going On fared poorly just about everywhere, except in the U.K. where it charted at #1 in the jazz genre.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 30
“Naked in the Jungle” (1974)
Some songs sound far better when performed live rather than the studio version. “Naked in the Jungle,” performed in 1974 at Van’s live set in Montreux, Switzerland is a perfect example.
The song was composed sometime in the early 70s and was a staple of Van’s live shows during that prolific period of both touring and recording. However, other than appearing on several bootlegs and one obscure live album with a limited release, the track remained unavailable publically until more than 20 years later. It’s baffling as to why there was such a lengthy delay, given the tremendous energy of the song and the distinctive electric-techno riffs, which were cutting-edge sounds in that time period. Certainly, the opportunity for a hit record was missed.
Van’s “backup band” here is stellar. And that’s an understatement. Dallas Taylor, the former drummer for Crosby, Stills, and Nash, is on drums. Taylor is extraordinary on this track and seems to play so effortlessly. I like how the camera on this video focuses on the musicality, including Taylor’s drum work. Jerome Rimson is on bass, who is equally up to the task. But the real star of the track, perhaps even outshining Van on vocals and acoustic guitar, is Pete Wingfield on the Wurlitzer organ. Watch the hand movement here, which for a live set is pretty amazing. Incredibly, this backing trio of session musicians didn’t play together prior to this engagement at Montreux. Yet no one misses a note, nor skips a beat. Other than a few rehearsals, the band never did any studio work nor other tour dates (though Wingfield did appear on Van’s later album, Into the Music). A great song is made even better here by the spontaneous energy from each musician.
Eager to separate himself from the rock genre, Van sought to play at jazz festivals and outlier events whenever possible. Montreux was one of the biggest and most prestigious jazz gatherings and being invited to play was a big deal. Van made two Montreux appearances — one in 1974 and the other in 1980 — which are among his best live shows. Perhaps this is some indication he took these gigs more seriously than standard tour stops. In an upcoming series of “lessons,” I’ll devote more time to the Montreux backstory, which has some fascinating twists and turns.
Van’s appearance here is also worth noting. Looking every bit like the math Graduate Teaching Assistant with the 70’s-era glasses, beige corduroy pants, and brown shirt, Van is very much anti-hipster. He’s so uncool, that he’s actually cool. While David Bowie was doing Ziggy Stardust, Elton John was displaying wild costumes, and Mick Jaggar was prancing around stages, Van — very much their contemporary — went in the totally opposite direction. “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC, NOTHING ELSE” Van was quoted as saying.
This clip says everything about being into the music with no regard for commercial sales nor personal flamboyance. It’s one reason, of many, Van has a very unique following. Like aged scotch, it’s not for everyone’s tastes. But it’s an acquired appreciation.
“Naked in the Jungle” is a great song, enhanced here by exceptional musicianship. Have a look and a listen and see if you agree.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 31
“Spanish Steps” (1987)
One of Van’s edgier instrumentals is “Spanish Steps,” which opens the album, Poetic Champions Compose.
Van intended this album to be composed entirely of jazz instrumentals. But after writing and recording the first three tracks, in typical VM fashion, he veered off-script and opted instead to add a grab bag of songs of varying genres. That inexplicable whim made this album terribly difficult to pigeonhole — was it a jazz album or a pop album? Unfortunately, the mid-1980s were a rigid time when vinyl records (and CDs which were first introduced) were sold in retail stores and strictly categorized by genre. There were different music sections and most buyers didn’t cross into other areas. Van’s recordings, particularly from this period with so much varied instrumentation, never quite fit in anywhere.
Indeed, Van has always been something of a musical nomad.
Circa 1987 was also the height of the MTV era when pop music was accompanied — some say dominated — by music videos. To produce a hit single, a music video was absolutely mandatory. Well, Van never gave a damn about any of that, and just did his own thing. That’s one reason most readers, even fans of Van’s music” are unlikely to be familiar with the recording being examined today.
Poetic Champions Compose received a mixed response from critics. Rolling Stone magazine dismissed it as “a cranky self-imitation.” Over time, the album has gained some traction and respect. From listening to “Spanish Steps,” it’s easy to understand why there are mixed feelings. The song is gritty. It sounds like something Quincy Jones might have recorded in the early ’60s.
Van often does much of his own saxophone work in live performances and in some recordings. He does great work here on the lead sax. Also, pay particular attention to the tempo change about midway through. Very creatively done.
Sometimes, words aren’t necessary. All we need to hear is the sound of the sax to change our mood and go to a different place.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 32
“Tupelo Honey” (1971)
“….You can’t stop us on the road to freedom. You can’t stop us, ‘cuz our eyes can see….”
“Tupelo Honey” is the title track on what began as a country-western album. Van had spent the previous two years writing dozens of new songs while living in upstate New York. He was heavily influenced by his neighbors — namely Bob Dylan and members of The Band who had veered away from electric guitars towards acoustics and a more folk- and country-based sound
Van had just come off two successful albums released in the previous year heavily rooted in jazz and R&B. So, shiting to a very different musical genre posed significant career risks.
One of the downsides to Van’s newfound success and fame was having to fend off groupies and other distractions. Just as he began recording these tracks, he got fed up with the local scene and abruptly moved across the country, settling down in Marin County. California. Van’s sudden relocation meant he’d have to form a new backup band from scratch and also hire a new production team. Already beset by a reputation for being difficult to work with, Van hoped to be able to find suitable musicians and freelancers in the Bay Area. While Van enjoyed a few steady sidemen over the years, this impulsiveness led to a revolving door of band-mates that made every new recording and touring a tedious process.
Tupelo Honey is to Van Morrison what Nashville Skyline was to Bob Dylan. That is to say, just as the 1969 album represented a significant break from expectation, Van was also searching for some simpler musical distillation. Just as Dylan thought the New York music scene had grown stale — and so, he looked south to Nashville where recording studios were popping up and many of the best songwriters and session players were relocating — Van’s bolt for the West Coast was a similar act of rebellion. There he would be able to craft a more homespun folky sound.
Van got what he wanted and Warner, his new recording label, got their new album. “Tupelo Honey” is arguably the strongest track on the 11-song collection. The single was a modest hit, charting at #27 in the U.S. Also, an unusual reversal of fortune for Van, the album sold very well inside the U.S. but bombed elsewhere it was released. Hence, it’s a mixed bag of both success and failure.
Surprisingly, Van later regarded the album as one of his worst, saying the songs were just “a bunch of leftovers” from too much time spent in Woodstock. The trial and stress of putting an entirely new band together and being pressed to go on tour again within weeks also contributed to a feeling for rejection for the material.
Nonetheless, “Tupelo Honey” remains a lovely song with some beautiful lyrics, clever instrumentation, and a catchy sing-a-long chorus. The song title refers to a specific type of honey produced in and around Tupelo, Missississippi.
“Tupelo Honey” might seem simple and country-themed, but it slowly expands into something far more powerful over more than 6 minutes in duration, driven by a rousing combination of percussion, folksy guitar, and Van ad-libbing many of the unusual lyrical connections and bridges.
Finally, while Tupelo Honey wasn’t really the folk/country album Van had originally planned, 37 years later he went into the studio and recorded Pay the Devil, a collection of country classics and some originals. So, Van did eventually deliver on the full folk/country theme, albeit many years later.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 33
Van Morrison’s near-pathological loathing of the media and his distaste for granting interviews is comically epic. Or, epically comical.
Consider this story. Years ago, Van was in a Paris hotel room while on a tour break. Per his record contract, he’d agreed to grant a half-hour interview to a top journalist with Le Monde, one of the biggest publications in France. The interview seemed to be going relatively well, when out of nowhere, just as the reporter was in mid-sentence asking a question, Van looked at his wristwatch, then snapped, “your 30 minutes are over. We’re done.”
The roots of Van’s distrust and deep resentment of media, show business, the music industry, and fame will be the topic of future lessons. However, this topic has driven Van to write a number of provocative songs that vilify his critics and unnamed members of the press. One such song is “Fame,” from the 2003 album, What’s Wrong With This Picture?
This is one of 13 original compositions, mostly blues-oriented, which earned him a well-deserved Grammy nomination for Best Album. Over the years, this album has been largely forgotten by the public due to a voluminous number of other recordings — before and since.
Van’s lyrics are both masterful and incendiary. I particularly love the Andy Warhol reference. I won’t give away any surprises. You’ll just have to listen.
In one of my earlier notes, I wrote about “Greta,” off the Born to Sing: No Plan B album, which is a tribute to the late Greta Garbo and her intensely private manner which became a life of self-seclusion. “Fame” is very much in the same vein, though he doesn’t play as nice on this recording. Van tears into the media and like a junkyard dog and doesn’t let go. Not since Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” (1982) has there been a more spirited attack on the establishment press than this bluesy chestnut.
Note that this initial recording (off the 2003 album) is the only one available on YouTube. But it cuts off at the 3-minute mark. Van re-did the song as a duet on the utterly forgettable 2017 album, Roll With the Punches. This later version sounds unrehearsed and lacks the vocal clarity of the original. However, Van’s harmonica work on the recent version is quite good.
Also note this original version of “Fame” isn’t the same hit song composed and recorded by David Bowie (1975).
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 34
“The Way Young Lovers Do” (1968)
Astral Weeks was Van Morrison’s second solo album and is widely considered to be his masterpiece. In the half-century since its release, it’s been deciphered, discussed, debated, and dissected by everyone from rock critics to fans to poets to fellow musicians. The seminal work is often ranked as one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
Yet, Astral Weeks isn’t a rock album at all. It’s in many ways the antithesis of a rock album. It’s not an outward expression so much as an internal sojourn. Each song in its own way cements the collection as a whole, yet none of the tracks was suited for top-40 radio airplay nor destined to become a hit single. Van is clearly intent on exploration on his terms.
The album was Van’s follow-up to the success of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” but it was a monumental disappointment both personally and for the record company. It sold poorly. At the time, critics largely ignored it. It took years, decades even, to gain the respect and reverence it rightly deserves.
Astral Weeks is best listened to alone, purely as a musically meditative exercise. There’s nothing conventional about the lyrics, melodies, timing, nor messaging, which like most great works in literature are open to the broadest possible interpretation. One can listen over and over again and gain something different each time.
Whatever one’s opinion is on this melancholy and weirdly complex album, it’s astonishing that Van wrote and composed this entire body of work on his own at age 23. He had no George Martin-figure in the studio nor an alter-ego to share ideas with. Indeed, Astral Weeks is the complex distillation of a lone struggling musician strumming a guitar over and over again, trying to get it right, experimenting with different lyrics, and re-arranging the melody into idiosyncratic patterns. It’s a Salvadore Dali. It’s a Jackson Pollock. It sounds like nothing of its time.
“The Way Young Lovers Do” has been criticized as the weakest track on the album, described as “uncomfortably out of place,” which I think is a terrific place to begin when discussing this work.
Unlike conventional rock which is written in quadruple metre, “The Way Young Lovers Do” is in triple metre, a jolt to standard pop music convention. With its odd syncopation and multi-layered instrumentation, the song is a virtual narcotic of sounds. It’s a trip.
Nothing on this track sounds quite like it fits — the jazz beat, the double bass, Van’s wailing vocals, the ode of young love in the lyrics. Everything clashes., even the backing echoes of horns and strings. Yet, oddly enough — it all fits.
Quoting my good friend Benjo DiMeo, who resides in Paris and is a fellow amateur music aficionado: “Long ago I read that Van just asked his musicians to go crazy on their instruments, without paying too much attention to each other. Don’t remember if this applied to the whole album or just this song, but you can hear it clearly here.”
Rock critic Craig McCallister wrote:
“Astral Weeks is a critics’ wet dream of an album, consistently frothed over and placed at the upper reaches of ‘Best Albums Ever’ lists. It’s a particular kind of album; a heady mix of rock, folk, jazz, and soul which doesn’t always hit the mark for me, but, when it does, bullseye!…..Van sketched out the track on his acoustic guitar and encouraged the others to fall in behind him. Going against the grain of late 60s studio work, Van didn’t prepare chord charts or musical scores. Instead, the whole thing was kept together with head nods, subtle glances and the unspoken telepathy that happens between seasoned pros. What was recorded for posterity is essentially the first run-through of the track.”
VAN MORRISON DOCUMENTARY:
PART ONE (EARLY YEARS)
Here’s an excellent documentary on Van’s early life, from 1945-1964 (up through the creation of Them). Well worth watching if you’re following the MasterClass.
The main takeaway from this 10-minute segment: Van grows up on a steady diet of country-western music, the blues, jazz, skiffle, and other influences. He gets into rock n’ roll because “there was no other outlet for what I really wanted to do.”
I’ll post more segments as the MasterClass continues, going forward.
The difference in a good restaurant and a great restaurant can be summed up in one word:
It’s the details that matter. The small things. The little touches.
Flaming Fajita is a Tex-Mex restaurant on W. Tropicana. Marieta and I have dined here perhaps 20-25 times. The food is very good. The service is friendly. The prices are reasonable. It’s an above-average eatery in most ways.
But what makes Flaming Fajita great are the DETAILS.
Consider this complimentary sampler that comes when we sit down, at lunch no less, when prices are cheaper. The warm bottomless basket of chips, with three side dips. But the kicker is the slices jalapeno peppers with roasted onions on the side. Served without asking. Free of charge. To me, that’s class. That’s a bargain.
The lunch margarita is $3.99 — so what you are looking at in the photo (above) is essentially $3.99 worth of food. The Tuesday special is any TWO items off the menu, with rice and beans, for $11.95.
No, this isn’t the greatest Tex-Mex food I’ve tasted, though it’s always reliable and quite good. What makes me take 10 minutes out of my day is when I see a private establishment go out of their way to serve the customer and take pride in the presentation and value. So, let this post serve as my personal endorsement.
BTW, there is one other Flaming Fajita location, on Water Street in Henderson. I’ve had two people tell me that spot is even better than the westside location. But, I have never been there.
Glad to share what I think is one of the better lunch places in Las Vegas, especially if you reside on the west side (or in Henderson).
Las Vegas is a highly-competitive city for Italian fare. Fueled by transplants, retirement, and international exposure….quality, ambiance, and price varies widely. I’ve witnessed a dozen Italian restaurants open and close in this city. As soon as one goes out of business, another one down the block opens its doors.
I’ve been greatly anticipating the new Limoncello’s opening for months. It took over a mediocre Mexican-food restaurant location on West Sahara between Cimmaron and Durango, invested heavily in remodeling, and now looks every bit the stylish but traditional Italian eatery-bistro.
The building and decor are magnificent. The dining area is unusually spacious. The first impression was positive. I also liked the host asking if we preferred a table or a booth. Most seating staff doesn’t do this. So, let me give credit where it’s due.
I’ll also acknowledge the service and management did a very thorough job. Service was attentive — perhaps even too much so. On a few occasions, the table conversation was interrupted. I don’t like that. But, that’s a small detail and I’d rather see the waitstaff trying hard to please rather than mired with indifference.
Food quality was good. Nothing exceptional. But good. Admittedly, I saw only three entres and tasted two, so my score of the food probably deserves a grade of “incomplete.”
Limoncello’s mistakes and misses were small, but gradually added up over the course of our 90-minute stay to the overall grade of disappointment:
— prices were a little high for a neighborhood eatery.
— chairs are terribly small and uncomfortable
— there’s no music in the restaurant [this might be considered a good thing by some, but it seemed very quiet on a night with perhaps 10 tables occupied in a 35-table (est.) restaurant].
— the waiter tried to take my guest’s plate away when she had plenty of food still on the platter. I don’t get the “rush” here, and this happens a lot in upscale restaurants. Please stop it.
— I ordered baked lasagne. The temperature was inconsistent. Lukewarm on one side. Piping hot on the other. This would be a non-issue if I paid $11. But for $18 (no frills, everything else ala carte), a poorly heated product is unacceptable.
— Food portions were small.
— Parmesan cheese, which is a standard accompaniment in any traditional Italian restaurant had to be requested. The cheese should have been delivered on the spot at the time of dinner presentation.
— Bread was peasant-style…very rustic. I presume this is a stab at authenticity. But the bread was a teeth breaker. Not good.
Bill for three came to $115 with tip. We shared on an appetizer, had three entres, and two Stella draft beers. That price would normally be in line with most upscale dining establishments that delivered on all fronts. But Limoncello missed too many checkmarks. I simply didn’t feel we got our money’s worth.
There are way too many good Italian places all over town to return. I hope Limoncello improves and eventually does well. I like having good restaurants in my neighborhood.
A few generic thoughts on this week’s wild-card round of playoff games:
Many bettors step up their bet sizes because playoff games are more meaningful. This is wrong. Playoff game odds/numbers are often the worst matchups to handicap and bet on. I’d much rather bet on two losing teams playing a late-season game than any of the so-called premier matchups.
Unlike regular-season games where motivation, fatigue, internal team disarray, and other intangibles can influence the outcome of a game (and create the basis of a bet), all teams are motivated and ready to play come playoff time. There really is no “bet against” team, as is the case during the season when teams and players aren’t expected to play at peak level.
None of us gamblers (and certainly not fans) have any inside information as to what will happen in a playoff game. Any legitimate rumor or betting edge would already move the line (and totals, props, etc.) before it reaches the betting public. I know nothing more than anyone else, nor does anyone who takes this endeavor seriously. Anyone who claims to “know something” is lying.
So, why am I wagering on this week’s games? I’ll explain below in my weekly writeup.
I’m now up for the season about 23 percent ahead of the starting bankroll. Let’s hope the strong second half of the season continues for four more weeks.
One Wager: Saints Team Total Over 28.5 (-115) — Risking $287.50 to win $250
Comments: Let me explain the reasons why there’s more that I *don’t like* betting this game:
— It’s tempting to bet New Orleans on several connected wagers to a Saints victory (game line, first half, team total over, money line, etc.). However, I see -400 money line as a bad number. If these two teams were to play four times under identical conditions, my projection is — the Vikings would win perhaps a quarter of the games. In other words, I predict they’d go 1-3 in four hypothetical matchups. Hence, I see this as closer to a -300 lay price and even then, there’s no actual value. So why not bet the Vikings at +300 (which is the price?). Again, no value here. I’d probably bite at +350 or higher.
— Laying -7.5 with the Saints is problematic. That half-point off touchdown scares me. At -7, New Orleans is probably a solid bet given the roll they’re on at the moment, but the best price I see comes with -135 vig. I’m not paying an extra 25 cents to capture the half point-off the 7. So, that’s a pass.
— Minnesota at +7.5 looks tempting. But I’m seriously concerned with the disparity of playoff experience between these two QBs in the post-season. Future Hall of Famer Brees is 8-6 SU in the playoffs and generally performs well in games like this, and he’s even stronger in the first round. Meanwhile, Cousins has made one start in his mediocre career, which was a blowout loss when he was with Washington. I’m wary about betting unproven starters, especially why they could be badly outmatched. So, no play on the Vikings plus the points.
— Saints team total looks to have slight value for a number of reasons. First, New Orleans will be on a delirious high for this contest. They’ve been waiting for a year to get back to this spot, hosting a playoff game at home. This could be their final playoff home game given the route they would likely take, even with a victory. So, the Saints should be ecstatic here and ready to roll, particularly on offense. New Orleans has been a scoring machine since Brees returned from the early-season hand injury. Saints have eclipsed the 28.5-point mark in 8 of last 10 games. Saints have gone 6-2 over that mark in all home games this season. Bottom line is — New Orleans has proven time and time again they can score. So, I’m willing to bet over a slightly higher-than-average team total, even with the hook added to four touchdowns (28.5). One more point: I don’t see New Orleans slowing down late in the game, even with a lead. They’ve been burned in playoff games before. New Orleans was still throwing the ball in late-season games when ahead by big scores. Hence, this offense is likely to be in gear for 60 full minutes. Finally, it goes without saying the New Orleans receiving corps may be the best in the league.
— Another factor that sways me to New Orleans scoring points is the impressive sack totals allowed by the Saints. When Brees has time, the Saints score and win. It’s that simple. New Orleans protected Brees very well in second half of the season. Even though New Orleans throws more passes than average (and is subject to more sacks), they ranked third in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed. If Brees has time, this spells trouble for the Vikings defense.
— So, why not also bet the game OVER 49.5? It’s tempting. If Saints get up on the scoreboard, this game could turn into a shootout. But that’s the last thing the Vikings want. Minnesota will aim for a ball-control, milk-the-clock game plan that wins time of possession and keeps the high-octane Saints offense on the sidelines. If somehow they are successful, this game could fall under. Let’s credit Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer for being a defensive guru. Moreover, the Saints defense could make Cousins have a miserable day. My bottom line opinion is — there’s a better chance New Orleans scores 28.5-plus than this game goes over 49.5. Of course, both could very well happen.
— Note the 14.5 on the Saints first-half team total. That half-point is very problematic and keeps me away. It’s more likely New Orleans breaks the 14-point threshold in the second half, when defense is tired, Minnesota makes offensive mistakes in desperation when playing from behind, etc. So, even though I’m bullish on the Saints scoring, I see that first-half total as a bad number.
FINAL DECISION: One wager only, on the Saints to score at least 28.5 points.
Seattle at Philadelphia
One Wager: First Half — Seattle PICK (-110) — Risking $275 to win $250
My first instinct was to pound Seattle at this price (PICK). Eagles’ injury situation is epic. While they’re somewhat healthier now, it’s hard to see many strengths on this team, which has struggled repeatedly in multiple games this season, even down the stretch facing outmatched opponents in must-win games. I don’t see what others are looking at with the Eagles, unless they look at Seattle as a *bet against* team based on some false metrics, including a really porous defense. The question is — does Philadelphia have the weapons to take advantage of Seattle’s weaknesses? I’m not so sure they do. Here are my thoughts on various numbers connected to this matchup:
— Philadelphia has been a very slow starting team in a majority of their games. The Eagles do tend to adjust at halftime. But for some reason, this team doesn’t look prepared early on, in the first half. Hence, I lean to Seattle strongly based on team performances in the first half. I also suspect the Eagles’ younger players, many with no playoff experience, might need a little time to adjust.
— Let’s also remember, Eagles QB Carson Wentz hasn’t won a playoff game yet. I’m a fan of this gutsy player, who gives it all on the field. But that’s a concern if you’re backing the Eagles. During their Super Bowl season a few years ago, Nick Foles, the backup took all the snaps. Wentz is also 0-3 in his career against Seattle, including a 17-9 loss earlier this season.
— Russell Wilson. Enough said.
— Let’s keep in mind that Seattle was 11-5 this season while Philadelphia went 9-7. Seahawks went 5-0 this season on the road in the East time zone, so I’m not sure there’s ANY concern with Seattle as the road team here. A perfect 5-0 record, both SU and ATS for any West Coast team traveling three time zones is impressive. However, I see this as Seattle being proven as a battle-tested road team.
— I’m very concerned about Seahawks losing 3 of their last four games. However, those were to division rivals. The other two Seattle losses were to New Orleans and Baltimore, and there’s no shame in those defeats.
— The total at 45 was tempting as a contrarian over play for me. Total opened at 45.5 and dropped and I might have bit into the apple at 44.5 and certainly 44. But, it’s gone back up again to 45.5. So, this rates as a pass. Some handicappers are pushing the under really hard here, and I see some basis for that wager based on playoff games being a little more conservative offensively, combined with some reason for optimism the Eagles’ defense might rise to the occasion. The bottom line for me is — mixed information will keep me from betting this total, either way.
— Team totals care about where they should be. I see no value on any of those numbers. 22.5 is team total on both for the game. Slightly lean to at least one of these teams reaching the 23-point mark. But not strong enough to bet it. Interesting numbers at 10.5 both teams in the first half, with some higher juice leaning to the under. Wish I could capture a 1o, in which case I’d probably bet either team over that number.
— As stated previously, it’s tempting to play Seattle for the game as a pick ’em. However, given the Eagles’ slow starts this season and some concerns this injury-depleted team could make mistakes early on, I think the optimal wager is betting Seattle in the first half. Note that there is one place in Las Vegas (MGM) which lists Seahawks minus .5 in the first half at +120 but also has Eagles at -1 and -105 for the game. That’s one of the more unusual number combinations I’ve seen for any playoff game. But it also tells me the Eagles slow starts but solid halftime adjustments in previous games are being factored into the spreads.
FINAL DECISION: One wager only, which is Seattle in the first half, at pick’ em.
SATURDAY: In the Saturday games, I risked a total of $1,492.50 to win $1,250. The 4-0-1 result is posted in the updated figures above. Here were the plays, with comments:
GAME: BUFFALO +3 vs. HOUSTON — Risking $275 to win $250
FIRST HALF: BUFFALO +1 — Risking $275 to win $250
FIRST HALF: BUFFALO TEAM TOTAL OVER 8.5 POINTS (-130) — Risking $325 to win $250
Comments: Since 2003, underdogs have covered in 55.6 percent of all playoff games. That’s enough to make me look mostly at dogs, and then pounce on one when the team look optimal conditioned to pull off an outright upset. I think that’s the case with the Buffalo Bills here, playing at Houston Texans in the early Saturday game. First and foremost, the Bills field the better defense. Come playoff time, I like betting on superior defenses. We are also getting points, in both the first half and for the game. Initially, I was planning to wager Buffalo +1 for the first half only. However, I saw several books move the game line to +2.5 and I was still able to get the +3 at the old price of -110. So, unless the line moves back to +3 by game time, I’m getting line value. On paper, these teams look pretty evenly matched. Both are 10-6. Both rested starters in the final week of the season and appear reasonably healthy. Neither starting QB has playoff experience. What tips me towards Buffalo is  the clear advantage on defense,  a suspicion Houston offense is a bit overrated (in Texans last 10 contests they didn’t score more than 28 points in any game),  getting the key number +3 with the dog (and +1 in first-half which is significant),  strong performance historically of underdogs in playoff games, and finally  the record of road dogs in 2019, which are covering 60 percent of the time in all games, which is historically unprecedented, which also tells me home-field edge might not be what it used to be. I also like Buffalo to cover the low number in the first half on a team total. It’s important to capture the 9 and 10, and 8.5 gives us a win on those two numbers: 14, 17, 0, 31, 3, 10, 14 were the first-half points allowed in each game by Texans since their mid-season bye. So, I have three wagers in all, each connected to the Bills as the live dog.
FIRST HALF: TENNESEE +3 at NEW ENGLAND — Risking $275 to win $250
FIRST HALF: TENNESSEE TEAM TOTAL OVER 8.5 — Risking $325 to win $250
Comments: I see some respected handicappers on New England, citing “line value” on the dynasty team laying just -5.5. That sounds reasonable and history is certainly on the Patriots side given their extraordinary success in the post-season. However, Tennesee might be the worst possible team the Patriots could face at this point — a solid rushing team that doesn’t make many mistakes nor turn the ball over, an offense led by a veteran QB with lots of experience playing in Foxboro, and perhaps most shockingly ….. an offense that is scoring a ton of points: 35, 28, 21, 42, 31, 42, 35, 20, 27, and 23 since QB Ryan Tannehill became the starter. While New England fields the #1 defense in the NFL in several categories, they did seem to draw opponents when they were struggling at their worst, namely the Jets, Dolphins, Redskins, Giants, Browns, Cowboys, Bengals, and a heap of other trash. So, I see those numbers as being slightly inflated. Also, consider New England’s collapse in the previous game, where they blew the chance to get a bye. That’s not just an outlier of a loss to shrug off. That wouldn’t have happened to Belichick-coached teams of the past. Patriots in last four home games — lost to Miami, had to stave off a last-second scoring chance by Buffalo to win by 7, lost to Kansas City, and barely beat Dallas 13-9. That’s four less-than-stellar performances by the Patriots at home. So, I can’t lay -5.5 with this team. It seems obvious the Titans should be the play here getting generous points, but I’m going to skip the strong temptation to take the +5 and +5.5 in some places. Note that +6 is probably a wager for me. Instead, I do see strong value with Tennessee +3 in the first half. If the Titans are to win the game, they likely have to avoid falling behind early. With a solid rushing attack, I expect this will be just the right formula to make that happen. And, in a similar wager with identical justification to the team total (Titans over 8.5), I do see value on the team that’s been scoring like crazy the last nine weeks of the season to eclipse what seems like a low number. Weather is forecast with drizzle and 40 degrees. I don’t think this hurts the run-heavy Titans as much as possible the Patriots so slippery conditions could actually work in our favor. Two wagers on this game, both on the dog Titans in the first half.
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%
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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?
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.