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Posts tagged ‘Van Morrison’

‘Astral Weeks’ in Camden Town

Astral WeeksIf your name isn’t Van Morrison, it takes some kind of courage to tackle Astral Weeks, one of the sacred texts of the late ’60s. No one has ever really explained how the singer, his American musicians and Larry Fallon, the arranger and conductor, and his producer, Lewis Merenstein, came up with the unique blend of idioms that make the album so distinctive. Jazz, folk, rock and blues are all in there, but so thoroughly metabolised that the eight songs create, for the length of a long-playing record, an idiom of their own. In his lyrics, too, Morrison plunged head-on into a new world of poetic spirituality.

So when Orphy Robinson and the Third Eye All Stars presented the album at the Jazz Café last night, there was an element of risk. Morrison himself performed it in its entirety on a tour in 2009, but it was his right to do so, and he brought it off quite satisfactorily, although he couldn’t quite summon the magic that had occurred during three rushed days in the late summer of 1968, when he worked with musicians he didn’t know in a line-up that adhered to no known formula. The idea of someone else taking on this precious and delicate creation and trying to invent variations on its wild, hypnotic swirl of emotions seemed foolhardy, to say the least.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. The 10-piece Third Eye band — Robinson on vibes and percussion, singers Joe Cang and Sahra Gure, flautist Rowland Sutherland, cellist Kate Shortt, Justina Curtis on electric piano, acoustic guitarists Mo Nazam and John Etheridge, bassist Neville Malcolm and drummer Mark Mondesir — chose not to attempt a radical reinterpretation of the material. They played it straight, content to infuse the music with their own freewheeling spirit.

A couple of solos — Sutherland on “Cyprus Avenue” and Robinson on “The Way Young Lovers Do” — brought the house down, while Malcolm and Mondesir did a fine job of following the template established on the original by Richard Davis and Connie Kay, who had no idea who Morrison was when they turned up for the sessions but found themselves devising a new application for their jazz chops in service of the grumpy little Irishman who barely spoke to them.

Neither Cang nor Gure attempted to imitate Morrison. They just sang the songs with a respect that did not prevent them from injecting their own energy into this hallowed material. I had never imagined that I would want to hear anyone singing “Madame George” other than its creator, but Cang — after successfully calling for quiet as the guitars strummed the intro — delivered it in a way that, like the whole evening, did no disservice to a high-wire masterpiece.

Forever Van

Van's 70thVan 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

Terry Adams on the cello

When I went in to see A Late Quartet, a new film by Yaron Silberman that includes a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken as an ageing cellist, I was already thinking about string quartets, and cellists in particular. A friend had just sent me a link to the YouTube clip of an event that took place 40 years ago this summer and which represented probably the first successful introduction of a string quartet into rock music: the 1973 tour by Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra.

That tour was commemorated in the classic double-album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, some of which was taped at the Rainbow Theatre in North London. I was there that July night, along with just about everyone I knew. It was the gig of the year, not least because Morrison was returning to the UK for the first time since his days with Them, and it was no surprise to me when it turned out to be an absolutely perfect night because I’d seen them a week or so earlier, at Birmingham City Hall, and that had been spectacular enough. In the meantime I’d talked to Van and some of the musicians in order to write a combined review/interview/preview of the London shows for the Melody Maker (the piece is archived, if you’re interested, at the subscription-based library

At that point Morrison had been living in Northern California for a couple of years, and to the regular line-up of his excellent six-piece band he’d added two violins, viola and cello. Playing arrangements written by the keyboard player Jeff Labes, the string quartet added depth and texture to favourites such as “Into the Mystic” and “Listen to the Lion”. As the concert neared its end, they were featured at length on a magnificent version of “Caravan”, in a passage representing a wonderful moment of baroque and roll.

But I know exactly why my friend sent me the clip of that performance of “Caravan”. It was to remind me that this was the night we all fell in love with the blonde cellist.

When those who were at the Rainbow that night gather to reminisce, the name of Terry Adams invariably finds its way into the conversation, accompanied by swooning gestures. It’s like the face you glimpse through the window of a bus and never forget.

Along with Nate Rubin and Tim Kovatch (violins) and Nancy Ellis (viola), she was a member of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. Forty years later she is still active in the Bay Area, playing in  musicals in San Francisco theatres and performing with the recording orchestra at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch film studio. She also runs something called the Nob Hill String Ensemble: “Whatever you’re planning — a wedding and reception, private party, or company convention — Terry will work with you personally to help create a mix of elegant classical, light-classical and popular music to help brighten your special event.” When Morrison put together the band to play Astral Weeks live in 2009, she and Nancy Ellis were recalled; they can be heard on the album recorded at the Hollywood Bowl concert.

That warm July night in 1973, anyway, Teressa “Terry” Adams took her place in rock and roll history. In the clip, you’ll see her responding to Van’s introduction with a smile that some of us swear we can still see hanging in the sky above Finsbury Park.