Van Morrison

By - Mar 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Blaine Schultz

Ducks don’t come much odder than Van Morrison. He refers to his biggest hit “Brown Eyed Girl” as “the money shot” when he deigns to play the tune live. Often times it is not on the set list and it is strange that a guy who doesn’t exactly banter with the audience would offer a pornographic backslap to introduce the tune. As the teenage leader of Belfast’s Them, Van wrote the garage-punk anthem “Gloria” and that tune typically gets short shrift as well at his performances. Yet give Morrison utmost credit for being true to his muse over the course of a four decade career. He’s gone from garage R&B to pop hits to the stream of consciousness masterpiece Astral Weeks to albums that veer dangerously close to New Age, but he’s always done it on his own terms. Only Bob Dylan and Neil Young have lead such long and winding careers.

For his 1974 appearance at the Montreux jazz festival Morrison’s most recent studio album had been Hard Nose the Highway – a likeable record but not exactly a career marker. For this date he’d left behind his sprawling Caledonia Soul Orchestra and, according to legend, assembled a piano/bass/drums group at Montreux. Very few artists, even in the open minded post-hippie 1974, would be willing to take such a chance with a pickup band of stellar players. Which goes a ways to explain why so few artists fall into a category with Morrison. And true to form, the set list reflects no expected choices and is littered with tunes that would be played rarely over the years. “Twilight Zone” eventually surfaced on the Philosopher’s Stone compilation as a different arrangement featuring an odd falsetto vocal. At Montreux Van acquits himself on acoustic guitar picking out spare bluesy riffs while Jerome Rimson’s upright bass and Pete Wingfield’s piano also take melodic turns. He also takes turns on harmonica (impressive) and saxophone (less so).

If the first show is a unique document the second avails its riches with repeated viewings.
In 1980 Morrison would again return to the expanded band format, highlighted here by ex-James Brown sax player Pee Wee Ellis’ extended solos. It is evident that Morrison trusts his musicians and gives them reign to tap into the moment while Morrison loses himself as well. “Summertime in England” builds to a Morrison and Ellis call and response near-Evangelical situation verging on hypnosis and as the tune fades the band launches into “Moondance” and Morrison looks like an alarm clock just went off in his head and he’s wondering what he’s doing onstage. This particular segment is a gem; that sense of a Holy Grail moment that players and listeners will tell you justifies an obsession – to paraphrase Van himself – sometimes “it ain’t why, it just is.” The next pair of tunes “Haunts of Ancient Peace” and “Wild Night” offers a similar juxtaposition. The set list is a near-perfect 15 song travelogue moving from trance inducing songs that just keep digging deeper to familiar radio hits. The subtle rearrangements of “Wavelength,” “Moondance” and “Wild Night” demonstrate Morrison and the band’s wonderful ability to bend and reshape the familiar in ways that challenge themselves as players while not sacrificing the integrity of the tunes. Over the course of the set Morrison plays some guitar, but like the 1974 set it becomes obvious how much of his music is directed by keyboard players (John Allair and Jeff Labes in 1980), especially song introductions and parts that set up solo showcases for the other musicians. For all the weight Morrison’s lyrics hold he is a generous bandleader in the mold of Bob Wills. VS

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