Paleo Retiree writes:
The Irish folk/blues/roots bard Van Morrison has long been a notoriously un-count-upon-able live performer. A huge fan of his back in the day — he meant to me what Bob Dylan meant to tons of other people — I tried seeing him live twice; both shows were disasters. I’ve been in the presence of very few performers who radiated such a lot of unease on stage. He didn’t seem to like being up there, the band never found a groove … Flopperoo. Whatever their nerves and anxieties, most performers adore being in front of a crowd. They live for it; our feeling as an audience that the people on stage (or on the screen) before us are coming into their own by virtue of being up there is generally part of our enjoyment in watching performers. They seem to soar, both as talents and people. For Van, being on stage seemed to be genuinely agonizing, and the shows of his that I saw left me feeling very dispirited.
FWIW: Based only on seeing him a few times, reading a bit about him and my own imagination, I diagnose his case this way: he’s the rare performer/Aspie — an artist with a big drive to put his work in front of people who is nonetheless a genuine introvert. He’s a man whose inner nature is divided equally between a talent (an immense talent) that really needs to express itself and an unstoppable drive to keep the world at arm’s length. But do take my hunches with a huge grain of salt, please.
All the above noted, it’s also part of the Van legend that occasionally he delivers a great show. Why wouldn’t he? He adores music and reveres musicians — he’s been said to be at his happiest when alone with his record collection — and he regularly attracts top-flight musicians to work with him. When they’re speaking frankly they say that putting up with Van — his penny-pinching, his peevishness and crankiness, his ego — is worth it because the music-making can be so fulfilling. Van will evidently never be someone who’s going to establish and enjoy a warm, avid relationship with an audience. But when the phase of the moon is right, the music can transport him and his collaborators, and can take a sizable audience along for the ride.
The show I’m linking to here strikes me as very transporting indeed: mystical yet rootsy, folksy yet funky. It soars, dammit. Play the clip all the way through and let yourself really give over to the mood shifts, the pacing and the highs; if you’re like me you’ll feel that you’ve been taken to some pretty far-off places. There’s huge big-band sound coming from a small ensemble; lots of genius soloing from saxophonist Pee-Wee Ellis (who’d worked with Sonny Rollins and James Brown, and who did most of the horn arrangements for this show); numerous displays of scorching brilliance from the rest of the band; and heart-stoppingly precise yet rough-edged backup stuff throughout. It’s Van’s show, but what a first-class team this is. (On trumpet is Mark Isham, who went on in the ’80s and ’90s to become a prolific composer of movie scores.)
The show is raucous and exuberant in the let’s-burn-it-all-up-now style of the Stones circa “Exile on Main Street,” yet it’s also tender and poetic, full of heartbreak, loss and visions, and reaching far outside pop culture — to fairy tales, gospel, poetry, legends — for its musical and literary language, as well as for its daredevil effects. (A friend who dislikes Morrison dismisses his work as “fake jazz.” Yes! But it’s great fake jazz!!!) This may be just me, but I find the show’s musical/emotional impact to be almost too much, careening along with so much talent, imagination and feeling that it’s a little anxiety-making, even exhausting. Even at their slowest and most melancholy, the music and performing are on a wild high, walking along a razor’s edge, losing control entirely before circling back to the beat. The music’s an exultant, catchy, unlikely mix of folk, funk and Celtic broken up by extended detours into a variety of personal musical cosmoses; the lyrics remind me of Dylan Thomas, bursting to the point of nonsensicality with awareness of pain and beauty. It’s real modern-troubador stuff, with Van playing his voice like a blues/jazz instrument. “It’s boozy r&b trance music,” said the Question Lady. Yes! It’s all about the experience and the rhythms of sex — but sex in its broadest sense, an artistic/poetic/mystical one (think Tanizaki, Bataille, Henry Miller) that seems to have been forgotten these days. There’s little in the sphere of the arts that I find more moving than that.
- A good conversation with the notoriously hard-to-interview Van.
- A decent mini-bio of Van.
- The disc that Van had just released at the time this concert was recorded.
- Some Amazon reviews by Janet Minto, aka “Janet Planet,” Van’s wife from the early ’70s.
- A news report about some recent messiness in Van’s personal life.
- The website of guitarist John Platania, whose virtuosic noodlings added so much to the spellbinding quality of Van’s early recordings.
- A couple of postings I wrote at my old blog about similar folky/rootsy, burn-it-all-up artists: Townes Van Zandt and Shane MacGowan.