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Artist: Van Morrison

Van Morrison

Bio

Sir George Ivan "Van" Morrison, OBE (generally known as Van Morrison) (born 31 August 1945) is a Grammy Award-winning artist from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He's a singer, songwriter, author, poet, and multi-instrumentalist, who has been a professional musician since 1958. He plays a variety of instruments, including the guitar, harmonica, keyboards, drums, and saxophone. Featuring his characteristic growl - a unique mix of folk, blues, Irish, scat, and Celtic influences - Morrison is widely considered one of the most unusual and influential vocalists in the history of rock and roll. He has received numerous music awards during his career, including six Grammy Awards (1996–2007); inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (January 1993), the Songwriters Hall of Fame (June 2003), and the Irish Music Hall of Fame (September 1999); and a Brit Award (February 1994). Known as "Van the Man" by his fans, Morrison first rose to prominence as the lead singer of the Northern Irish band Them, writing their 1964 hit "Gloria". A few years later, Morrison left the band for a successful solo career, starting with the album Astral Weeks. Morrison has pursued an idiosyncratic musical path. Much of his music is tightly structured around the conventions of American soul and R&B, such as the popular singles "Brown Eyed Girl", "Moondance", "Domino", and "Wild Night". An equal part of his catalogue consists of lengthy, loosely connected, spiritually inspired musical journeys that show the influence of Celtic tradition, jazz, and stream-of-consciousness narrative, such as his classic album Astral Weeks and lesser known works such as Veedon Fleece and Common One. The two strains together are sometimes referred to as "Celtic Soul," and Morrison rejects the characterization of his genre of music as Rock, citing Elvis Presley as a non-influence. He continues to perform regularly, and achieved his highest U.S. chart position (number ten on the Billboard 200) with his 2008 album, Keep It Simple. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.
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Van Morrison: Gonna Rock Your Gypsy Soul Melody Maker, Jul 1973

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"IT'S SHOWTIME, ladies and gentlemen! And here's the one you've been waiting for – the Caledonia Soul Orchestra with ... VAN MORRISON!"

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Birmingham Town Hall, jammed solid, bursts into relieved applause as the small, slightly tubby figure slides between the members of the rhythm section and places himself between the saxophonist and the string quartet.

"The photographer smiles, takes a break for a while, take a rest, do your very best, take five honey." As he sings, against a second wave of applause, he jams on a pair of shades, and them pushes them back onto his forehead. Time to take care of business.

So why has it taken the Belfast Cowboy seven years to come back and play to the British?

"There were a lot of complications before ... the business trip an' all that. Now seemed like the right time."

Any special reason why now?

"No. Everything just came together."

'Blue Money' gives way to his new single, 'Warm Love'. Bill Attwood and Jack Shroer play a piquant muted-trumpet / alto sax line as he sings the lyric, with that "when push comes to shove" line so reminiscent of Smokey Robinson. Between songs, Van stands immobile: left hand on the mike, right hand halfway down the stand, rocking it gently back and forth. He's poised, prepared, riding the growing mood, unwilling to let the tension drop.

He doesn't seem to have done much playing in the past few years. Why not?

"That's not true. We gig all the time. It's just not publicised because they're not big gigs.."

Where does he best like to play?

"Clubs and small halls .. dance halls, but there are very few of those around any more. People are getting so lazy. It used to be like at the old Fillmore when everybody was up, but now they all lie on the floor."

A slappy backbeat from Dave Shaar's drum introduces Bobby Bland's 'Ain't Nothing You Can Do', given a solid bar-blues treatment with big trumpet-led riffs. Jeff Labes switches from grand piano to Hammond organ for a solo which brings back a whiff of the Flamingo days. This music is meant to communicate feelings.

"I like clubs because you can get into more intimate details of a song. When you're singing about certain things, everybody can hear the words and what you're saying."

He doesn't object to waiters circulating and glasses clinking?

"No because usually they put their drinks down when they get into it."

For the first time, the strings – two violins viola, and cello – pick up their bows for 'Into The Mystic'. They supply a perfect commentary to the line "I want rock your gypsy soul," and as Van sings "When that foghorn blows," Shroer's baritone answers him with a deep, booming blare. The sound, over-resonant at first from the high ceiling, is clearing up now. During the songs, the audience is silently respectful; at the end of the each, their enjoyment is plain.

How has he kept more or less the same band together for such a long time? He doesn't answer, but his guitarist John Platania, explains that they don't all live near each other. Platania and some of the others live on the East coast, while Van and the strings and horns are in California. That "big silver bird" brings them together for the gigs.

Jeff Labes' rhapsodic blues piano, rippling against the strings, introduces Ray Charles' 'I Believe To My Soul', one of the musical high-points of the entire concert. The stop-time breaks, leaving space for Van's vocals, are incredibly precise and dramatic. While the trumpeter takes a showy solo, Van stands at the rear hands on hips. They play 'These Dreams Of You' exactly as they did at the Fillmore East in 1970 complete with Shroer's raucous alto solo – he looks just to damn young to play in such a mature, old-time style. The ghosts of a hundred Harlem jump altoists rise and applaud – and the angelically pretty blonde cellist smiles wide.

How did he put the band together?

"I met John in Woodstock, around '69." Platania had previously been with a group on the same label as Van, Bert Berns' Bang Records.

"I met Jack there, too, he and Jeff were with the Colwell-Winfield Blues Band."

Is he specially important to the band?

"Well, everybody's important."

Bassist David Hayes is from California formerly with Jesse Colin Young's group during and after the Youngbloods' split.

Is it hard for him to find the right musicians to play his music?

"Yeah. It's more difficult when you don't know what you're looking for. This is not a singer with a band, or a band with a singer – it's a whole thing."

Platania adds: "Most musicians are only into one thing, be it jazz or rock or whatever, and they aren't sensitive or open enough to know that he covers it all."

'I Just Wanna Make Love To You' is slow, oozy, menacing funk, and Platania steps out of his normal role as provider of 1001 Unforgettable Fill-Ins to take a stinging solo. Each time he gets to Willie Dixon's title line, Van leaves it open for the audience to join in. At first there's silence, but by the third time of asking they've cottoned on and roar lustily. 'Sweet Thing', from Astral Weeks, is a fleet 6/8 swinger, the strings building soaring climaxes with the aid of Shaar's quicksilver drums, while Van plays tricky rhythmic games against them. Once again, Platania plays the feelings of the song rather than merely the notes, and for the coda they all slide gracefully into a cool 4/4. It's perfect – but what a surprise when he follows it with an old Them Song, the lovely 'Friday's Child (Can't Stop Now)'. The treatment is full-bodied and satisfying, but somehow properly reticent – nobody in this band wants to be a solo star. Van leaves and somebody announces that there'll be an interval while the musicians take a drink.

Jeff Labes does the string arrangements these days, and he's got the classical training for it. Does Van find them at all restricting?

"Oh no. They can ad-lib too. Sometimes, for the record, they've been written after the vocal has been recorded, written around it."

Platania adds: "When it comes to improvising, sometimes they're a little inhibited because of the discipline that they've been subjected to. But they're starting to get into it."

All four string-players, it turns out, are from the Oakland Symphony Orchestra – and their leader is the orchestra's master, violionist Nate Rubin. Do they understand Van's music?

"Yeah, and they can feel it too," he says.

During the interval the grand piano is tinkered with, and – surprise – Van's mike is moved down to the floor, in front of the stage and on the same level as the audience. Apparently he thinks that the stage is too high, hampering communication. Now, about eight feet above him, the band roars into 'Here Comes The Night', another Them favourite. It's a strange sight, indeed: the blue spotlight picks up the singer and the first row of the audience, and unfortunately he's invisible to the people in the side balconies and behind the stage. But there seems to be a stronger bond between the performer and the listeners, and he certainly looks more nonchalant, gripping the mikestand in the same pose, a cigarette casually dribbling smoke from his fingers.

Does each of his albums have specifically-designed concept and character of its own?

"Yeah ... but usually the concept doesn't come around until you start listening to the playbacks."

But each album seems, to this listener, to accentuate some particular facet of his music. Is that conscious?

"Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. It depends on what you're working for, and whether you do it all at once or in pieces ... or if you're over drawn at the bank that day, or if your car breaks down, or .... That's life."

At last, the audience starts getting up and clapping along which is what he wants (although he's not about to ask for it). It happens first on 'I've Been Workin'', which is wonderfully fat-sounding, featuring another jagged alto solo shot through with sunshine, and a screaming coda, Van yelling his head off above the band. 'Listen To The Lion' brings the mood right down, misty and floating, the trumpet and tenor sax meshing prettily with the strings.

He's made some classic hit singles in the past, both with Them and as a soloist.

"I like making them. It's fun. I think I'm getting away from that, though. I'd like to be able to release triple and quadruple albums, but sometimes it's really hard to do. A while ago the record company was asking me for singles, so I made some – like 'Domino', which was actually longer but got cut down. Then when I started giving them singles, they asked for albums. I don't mind. As long as they cooperate with me, I'll cooperate with them."

His next release will be a live double-album, culled from tapes made at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the Troubadour in L.A., and hopefully the two Rainbow gigs this week. And the next studio album?

"A christmas album, probably. We tried to do it last year, but we were under too much pressure. You have to start making a Christmas album on January 1, if you want to get it out. We'll probably do a few original songs, and some of the old things like 'White Christmas' and that thing, 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...' All that stuff Romantic."

He moves back to the stage again for 'Green', which turns out to be the frog's song from Sesame Street. For the first time this night, he does something I noticed three years ago: when the audience slips in its applause of song-recognition after the first few bars, he inserts a spoken "Thank You," sliding it into the second line of the tune with all the professionalism of a hardened cabaret entertainer. And then it's 'G-L-O-R-I-A', with a strutting feeling more akin to Roy Head's 'Treat Her Right' than to the original Them record. Near the end, he lets the band burn alone until most of the audience is on its feet, bellowing the chorus.

Much has been made, lately, of the jazz tinge which has always been present in his music. What are his specific influences?

"I like it all. Yeah, that 1940s blues stuff, and everything from King Pleasure and Count Basie to ... oh, I dig it all."

Does he still play tenor sax, as he did with Them sometimes?

"Yeah, but not on concerts. Whenever I get the opportunity I play, but I don't often get the chance to work on it, unless I take off to the woods and ... uh, woodshed for a while. It's a ...business in itself."

Were those reports from New York four years ago true, that you played gigs with Albert Ayler?

"Oh yeah? Maybe I did, and I didn't know about it. Strange things happen in New York."

Suddenly the concert is rushing ahead on pure adrenalin. After the relatively sober precision of the first half, the hall is ablaze with joy. Platania whips the band into a gale-force 'Domino', and many people sing along with 'Brown Eyed Girl', which features a startling acceleration into the second verse. Then, assuming a new stance as the master of stagecraft, Van cools it right down for Sam Cooke's 'Bring It On Home To Me' – and, wonder of wonders, moves from his rigid pose into a series of snappy histrionics including back bends and foolery with the mike-stand. The band stay right with him, adding to his gestures. 'Moondance' passes in a finger-snapping blur, and it's noticeable that his voice is beginning to crack. Not surprising – the concert is now 90 minutes old.

Why did he move from Woodstock to North California two years ago?

"Woodstock was getting to be such a heavy number. When I first went, people were moving there to get away from the scene – and then Woodstock itself started being the scene. They made a movie called Woodstock, and it wasn't even in Woodstock. It was 60 miles away. Another myth, you know. Everybody and his uncle started showing up at the bus station, and that was the complete opposite of what it was supposed to be.

Why California?

"Well, I heard they had good oranges there. Actually, I'd been sidetracked: I'd planned to go there a long time before, but I detoured."

Does it suit you?

"At this stage of the game, I'd say yeah."

Isn't it too laid-back?

"No, that's not really where it's at. That's another newspaper number."

Why did he decide to build his own studio there?

"I figured I'd be doing a lot of recording, and it eliminates all the stuff of booking time somewhere and getting 45 engineers."

As he goes into 'Caravan', the atmosphere feels like it's wired direct to a nuclear power station: "Turn off your electric light, then we can get down to what is really wrong, reely-rong rillyrong." The world's best white blues singer? Maybe – but he's definitely the world's best Van Morrison. The strings make a surprise entrance, with an ethereal four-part invention of great purity and logic. The rhythm section lays out, the strings take it down to pianissimo, and Van smiles knowingly. He waits, waits, waits, and then ... "TURN IT'S UP!" and he's slippin' and sliding' across the stage, bending and kicking. It all hangs out. The audience have given him help, and now he reciprocates in full measure. It's the last song, and he pulls the band to a halt before disappearing.

Has this tour scared you away from doing any more like it?

"No, it's made me want to do it again, as often as is physically and mentally possible."

How often is that?

"Well, sometimes I feel like gigging at four in the morning, but nobody's around."

Whipped on by the roadies, the crowd demands more. Before long they're all back, the string section settling down and switching on the reading-lights attached to their individual desks. They choose 'Cyprus Avenue', and it's a long way from the tortured, desperate performance he gave the song at the Fillmore three years ago. Then the line about "My tongue is t-t-t-tied" gave a sense of tragedy, of impeding personal disaster for the singer. Now, he turns it into a joke. But when he cuts the band off, and waits for silence to fail, the nerves are still stretched taut. Once again, he holds the audience like a puppet-master, delaying until we're ready to snap before unleashing that final command: "IT'S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW!"

The band crashes, he spins on his heel, and stalks off. It was all you could ever have wanted.


Auctions

Top Albums

The Best of Van Morrison cover art

The Best of Van Morrison

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Moondance cover art

Moondance

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Astral Weeks cover art

Astral Weeks

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Top Songs

Brown Eyed Girl cover art

Brown Eyed Girl

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Moondance cover art

Moondance

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Into The Mystic cover art

Into The Mystic

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Crazy Love cover art

Crazy Love

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And It Stoned Me cover art

And It Stoned Me

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Sweet Thing cover art

Sweet Thing

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Domino cover art

Domino

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Recommended Songs

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The Weight by The Band

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Free Fallin' by Tom Petty

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