Van Morrison is 70 today, and I’m listening to his birthday concert, live on the radio from Cyprus Avenue in Belfast. Yes, it’s that Cyprus Avenue, where he made us all, no matter how far away, imagine how it would feel to be caught one more time.
The last time I saw him was at the Albert Hall six years ago, when he performed Astral Weeks with a band including Jay Berliner, who played guitar on the original 1968 recording, and the cellist Terry Adams, a much-admired member of his Caledonia Soul Orchestra in 1973. It was an excellent concert (as it needed to be, given the price he was charging for tickets), and later it was possible to relive it with the album recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl, although nothing could replace the soul-baring tension of the original.
The first time I saw him was at Fillmore East, New York, in April 1970, a few weeks after the release of Moondance, with the tight little band that had recorded it, including John Platania on guitar and Jack Schroer on saxophones. He was utterly brilliant, and I seem to remember that he kept his eyes tightly closed throughout the set. Most of the songs were from the new album, but he also did a wonderful version of “Cyprus Avenue” which led Geoffrey Cannon to describe him (in the Guardian) as “bursting with his adolescent passions, now past, stuttering in his need to understand the urgency of sexual desire, and of visions of beauty.”
I was at Birmingham Town Hall in 1973 for his triumphant return to Britain after a seven-year absence. That was the Caledonia Soul Orchestra tour, which climaxed with an electrifying gig at the Rainbow in London (partly commemorated in the great live double album titled It’s Too Late to Stop Now). The gig I wish I’d been to was the ones at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco and the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, California, in 1994, captured as A Night in San Francisco, featuring John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Jimmy Witherspoon, Candy Dulfer, and Georgie Fame on Hammond B3. In the medleys of “Moondance” / “My Funny Valentine” and “In the Garden” / “You Send Me” / “Allegheny”, Van is at his very best.
In Belfast this afternoon — via BBC Radio Ulster, upon whose producers and engineers may a thousand blessings fall — he’s just done “Moondance”, “Born to Sing” with Chris Farlowe, an utterly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, and an ultra-cool medley of “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Parchman Farm” and Slim Harpo’s “Don’t Start Cryin’ Now”, which was Them’s first single in 1964, when Van was 19. Maybe if I cross my fingers and hold my breath he’ll do “Vanlose Stairway”, about a girl in Copenhagen, with its great opening lines: “Send me your picture… send me your pillow….” But it’s his birthday. He can do what he wants.
* The photograph is from irishrocknrollmuseum.com
A friend of mine was in the Van Band back in 1994 when they did the live album A Night In San Francisco. The band then took it into the studio for repairs, a la the Springsteen five LP box set. There were so many repairs and they were so long in the studio fixing this live album Van The Man was heard to comment, “…a night in San Francisco…yeah, and a month in the studio!”.
I think I’m rather sorry you chose to share that, Sid…
Van is not only a great writer and performer, he’s also a great Bandleader, perhaps a characteristic not too common in rock music. He picks good musicians and used them well. His live albums (especially Too Late To Stop Now, Live At The Grand Opera House Belfast and One Night In San Francisco) are all quite different in feel, yet all feature great bands and great performances.
It may have been an album launch, but I’m pretty sure it was the post-gig party for the Rainbow show at the White Elephant on the River, where someone from Warners told me the party cost more than the total royalties Van had earned.
One of my top three or four gigs ever.
I’m listening to BBC Radio Ulster now. I was excited that night. Remember talking to you in the foyer of Rainbow before the concert. You said, “I saw him in Birmingham last night. It was the best thing I’ve seen since the last time I saw Van Morrison.”
I’d watched the Caledonian Soul Orchestra sound-checking that afternoon and probably mentioned that. Chatted with Mick Jagger and Shep Gordon (separately) later at the Warner Bros after-show at the White Elephant Club in Chelsea.
Well I only just spotted your post, so I missed the broadcast – BUT it’s on the radio Iplayer for the next 29 days.
Last time I saw Sir Van was at Vince Power’s “Nell’s Jazz & Blues” club in West Ken this spring. He had a great band, was cheerful and put on a great show. He’s as good now as he was 40 years ago, isn’t he?
Thanks Richard – I woke at 3.30am here in New Zealand but by the time I checked the phone for the time and saw your post, it was near 4.00am: the gig had just finished. Probably just as well. I’ll look forward to hearing it tonight, and all the other BBC Ulster coverage. I’ve been having a Van revival lately – curiously spurred by the royal honour and I am no fan of royal honours – not honours per se though they have been deeply devalued here. For some reason I keep wanting to hear A Period of Transition. Often regarded as a runt of the litter, but he makes his band work hard (not unusual, I know). The version of ‘Kansas City’ is the only song on the recent Duets I keep returning to, mostly for the groove – the drummer sounds like he was thrown out of the army for putting too much soul into his military rolls on the snare.
PS – last week this popped up in my YouTube feed – I had no idea it existed. It’s a public interview Van Morrison did in Northern Ireland in 1988 – he almost looks happy to be there. Probably because he’s in the company of Derek Bell, the pianist of the Chieftains who looks like a high school teacher from the 1950s. Eccentric chap and a subtle, lyrical pianist. Jokes are even cracked, and music is shared. Lovely versions of Celtic Ray and In the Garden. So often with Van I think of that moment in Auf Wiedersehen Pet when Derek, seeing Oz sing Merle ‘aggard, says “Ow does sumpin’ so beautiful come outta sumpin’ so oogly.” Not this time. He seems to be smiling a lot more lately. .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IuNJuTxtYU
I’m with you on NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO. Didn’t care for it at first. It first seemed to be a shout from and to the past with a cast of past their prime stars. I’ve not seen Van live, but these days if I want to get as close as I may ever need to be to one of his live shows, I put this one on. It is rough in spots but that is where some of the real charm comes from. In the meantime maybe I’ll get lucky and catch him live yet.
Thanks to your alert on Twitter I caught the majority of the concert live, so thanks for that, Richard. There’s an hour of highlights on BBC4 this Sunday at 10 – presumably from the afternoon concert. The late show had a quite different setlist (still no ‘Cyprus Avenue’ tho’) and can be found in the usual places. Here’s how it went: looking forward to hearing Kingdom Hall live for the first time since I saw him twice in 1978 (too young to have seen him earlier!)
01. Celtic Swing
02. Kingdom Hall
03. Carrying A Torch
04. Whatever Happened to PJ Proby *
05. Cleaning Windows
06. Days Like This
07. Precious Time
08. Mystic of the East
09. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
10. Sometimes We Cry
11. Baby Please Don’t Go >
12. Parchman Farm >
13. Don’t Start Crying Now (Slim Harpo song, also Them’s first single)
14. Whenever God Shines His Light
15. It’s All in the Game
16. Stand By Me **
17. And The Healing Has Begun
18. Help Me
19. On Hynford Street
* with PJ Proby
** with Chris Farlowe
The TV show seems to have been mostly the evening show. And it was bloody awful. How the hell did they manage that?
Listening to the San Fransisco live album now for the first time courtesy of Spotify. I am completely blown away by it. Thanks for the heads up guys. Will try to buy the physical copy on my next trip to Fopp Records.