Music Du Jour: Van Morrison in 1980

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.

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About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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13 Responses to Music Du Jour: Van Morrison in 1980

  1. Fenster says:

    I saw him live just once, in Hyannis, on Cape Cod. This was probably 1967, right after Them and around the time of his first solo record, the one that immediately preceded Astral Weeks. He was a kind of regular for a time on the Cape. Astral Weeks made mention of his time in Massachusetts in the liner notes:

    http://oldworldwisdom.tumblr.com/post/3036996411/i-saw-you-coming-from-the-cape-way-from-hyannis

    My friends and I went to see him because of the string of singles he made with Them. Little did we know.

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    • How was the show? He was so young then … Hard to imagine someone so young made “Astral Weeks” and “Moondance” …

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      • Fenster says:

        It taxes my memory to remember anything specific. But I vaguely remember being satisfied that he rocked out nicely. He was yet to develop his many later personae of Celtic bard/troubadour/jazz stylist/poet/mystic. He probably did Brown Eyed Girl and probably used the venue to introduce his more personal side to come. But we almost certainly sang along heartily to the hits too– “G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria!”

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  2. I saw him in the late 90s/early 00s on a triple bill at the (then) Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim: Joni Mitchell, Morrison, and Bob Dylan. Morrison was pretty bad. Just as stiff, awkward, and uncomfortable as you describe. Mitchell performed solo standing at the mic with an acoustic guitar and I recall the arena swallowing her up. Dylan was OK. I got to see three superstars, but they were all off their game that night.

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  3. mr tall says:

    I’m a long-time Van Morrison fan, PR, but have never heard him live. Thanks for this exceptionally insightful post. The comparison with Dylan Thomas never occurred to me before, but it’s perfect. So much barely-controlled genius in both men! There’s really something about those Celts . . . .

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  4. Callowman says:

    I love him, but his live performances are very uneven, for the classic Irish reason according to a friend who was involved with a couple of his later tours. Said friend found him extremely manipulative and would flare up at the mere mention of his name in the immediate aftermath.

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  5. chucho says:

    I always liked his performance in “The Last Waltz.” He doesn’t seem entirely comfortable, but it’s fine because of the laid-back and celebratory nature of the concert.

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    • Much as I love the music (and much as I love watching the other bandmembers) in the clip I posted, I have a hard time watching Morrison in it. He’s into the groove … but he still looks like he’d be happier hiding under a rock. And why did he choose to wear a close-fitting shirt? Did he think that’s what a rock star has to do?

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  6. peterike says:

    I got lucky and saw him on a great night, around 1979 or 1980, in fact supporting the “Into the Music” album you site. I suppose it was the U.S. leg of the same tour as your clip. I remember coming out of that show totally elevated — but then I was a lot younger and music meant so much more to me at that age. I can’t imagine any show producing the same effects on me today.

    And was “Into the Music” his last great album?

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  7. Pingback: Early April Saturday Night Linkfest | Patriactionary

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