Live at Home/Concert à la maison
Our exploration of the great live recordings takes us today to the land of Northern Ireland. Van Morrison was born in Belfast and in 1974 he signed the exceptional "It's Too Late To Stop Now", a real firecracker where rock, soul, rhythm'n'blues and folk are mixed in a strong Irish stew!
It is also a balance album for an artist who thus closes ten years of a well filled career. First of all, within the group Them. A pioneer rhythm'n'blues band in Northern Ireland, it has been playing in pubs and concert halls. If the band evolves over the years, it keeps a very rock direction due to the personalities of the musicians: Van acts as a conciliator in the middle of a bunch of uncontrollable characters who are quicker to play their fists than their instruments. Journalists, show hosts and even the audience are all at the receiving end.
But when it comes to delivering music, the gang is unsurpassable: their cover of "Baby Please Don't Go" is torrid and their originals quickly become classics: "Gloria" became one of the most covered songs in the history of rock (The Shadows Of Knight, The Doors with another Morrison on vocals, Patti Smith...) and "Here Comes The Night" will make their first EP and first album huge successes and unavoidable references of any self-respecting rock discotheque. Because beyond the quality of the compositions and the compact play of the group, the voice of Van Morrison illuminates these pieces by its power and its mixture of black blues and Irish blues, this way of making the words drag in a lamentation straight from the Celtic heritage.
But the changes of musicians and the constraints of group and management begin to tire Van whose whole and intransigent character does not adapt well to it. He decides to leave the band to start a solo adventure. In order not to risk too much, he chooses to keep Bert Berns as manager. A man of the old school, able to sign concerts in all four corners of the country, to affix his signature in the credits of the songs in order to get royalties as a return on investment, owner of his own label and his own publishing house to round off the ends of the month (his artists are signed in exclusivity in each of his companies and thus bring him back to each sale of disc, of partition, of merchandising and to each radio, television, concert, advertising contract etc.
It is early 1967. Van Morrison wanted to change his life: the social and political situation in Ulster (and in particular in Belfast) was explosive. The partition of Ireland, the maintenance of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and the antagonism between Catholics and Protestants are hopeless.
Bert Berns knows a lot of people in New York, in the music business. So Van crossed the Atlantic and recorded some demos at the end of March: eight tracks with a very soulful tone where he was accompanied by session-men who gave his tracks a folk-jazzy tinge. Owner of the recordings, Berns decides to release them as is on his label Bang Records. Van Morrison is furious: for him, they were just working versions, intended to be presented to musicians and organizers for a tour.
The album, entitled "Blowin' Your Mind", is nevertheless good and will be abundantly reissued in the 70s, as Van's success continues. Success which, for the moment, is relative. It must be said that the singer does not hesitate to shoot him down in every interview!
However, the album contains some nuggets that would have deserved a better sound treatment but that let us foresee what will be the next step in Van's career. One clearly detects a Dylanian influence and on "T.B.Sheets" which stretches over nine minutes, the beginnings of the following album, "Astral Weeks" are already present: a long bluesy piece where the singer seems to improvise the text as the song goes along. The intonations are sometimes Jaggerian, with a bit of a snarl.
Van Morrison came to the East Coast with an idea in mind. His reverence for Bob Dylan drove him to the shores where Zim settled after his "motorcycle accident. Woodstock is located a few dozen miles north of New York City, in the middle of the sticks. An ideal village to escape from fame and its constraints. Van settled there with Janet Planet, a singer with whom he began to record. But his visa expires and he is threatened with deportation from the United States. Janet saves him by marrying him, which allows him to stay in the U.S.! He also had to untangle the imbroglio of his artistic contract: Bert Berns died in 1968 but his wife took over his business and did not want to let go of her star artist!
Van Morrison is approached by Warner Bros Records which wishes to integrate him in its new signatures. An agreement is finally found: Warner gives a huge sum for the time: 20 000 dollars for the contract and the triple to the widow of Berns for compensation. And the contract stipulates that Van will have to record 36 more songs for Bang Records, as a way to pay off his contract. He recorded all 36 songs (very rough improvisations, ironic pastiches like "Blowing Your Nose" or "The Big Royalty Cheque"...) in one marathon one-day session. Bang ends up with an unusable tape Van : 1, Bang : 0 !
Van Morrison is free, finally! He can stay in the United States, Janet Planet gives birth to a son and Warner finances an album of folk-jazz-blues recorded with New York jazz stars which will leave its mark on people's minds if not on the charts: "Astral Weeks". Under the direction of Richard Davis, a bassist who had played with Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and the Modern Jazz Quartet, the acoustic sextet recorded an album of four songs per side under live conditions. The songs were quite long and seemed to evolve in the studio with the finger, voice and eye of the singer, who was piloting the song on sight, revisiting it at each take and relying on the bassist to steer a ship with a supple but solid rudder.
"Madame George" sums up the general mood of this album quite well: a long, popular portrait whose music oscillates between long-form folk balladry and boundless acoustic blues, dotted with flutes and violin, under the unerring authority of a spartan but lyrical double bass. The whole gives a strong impression of spirituality combined with a meticulous observation of his contemporaries. The production, by privileging the space in the instrumentation, emphasizes the voice, the texts but also all the instrumental subtleties.
The album is received with rave reviews in all the press, musical or not.
But the public success is not at the rendezvous, at least not up to the hopes of Warner, nor the sums advanced to release the singer from his contract with the Berns.
A small tour follows before Van Morrison and Janet Planet meet again. We are at the beginning of 1969 and the recording of the next album begins with the same team (producer and musicians). But Van Morrison is worried about repeating himself and wants to prove to Warner that their investment will pay off. He stops the sessions before taking the reins and working with musicians from the Band's entourage. The songs are shorter, the inspiration more bucolic and the melodies more "catchy", between folk, soul and jazz. The album that came out in 1969 was called "Moondance" and once again, it was a huge critical success, this time relayed by a great public success.
But Van Morrison is caught in a writing frenzy. His new life in the Catskills seems to inspire him and he soon returns to the studio to write a follow-up to "Moondance". He kept the role of producer, reduced the number of musicians but formed a kind of choir that would lead his new compositions to the borders of gospel and street choirs. The new album is called "Van Morrison, His Band And The Street Choir", and remains in the vein of its predecessor, with the choirs abounding in addition. After working on the repertoire in the big Woodstock community house, the whole gang recorded in a New York studio and ensured the Irish singer's growing status as a top-notch singer-songwriter, as well as an ebullient stage performer.
The success is still there in the United States (less in the United Kingdom) so much this clever musical mixture set up by the singer seems to resonate with the various musics which rocked the descendants of the pioneers (country, Irish folk, ballads) and the black influences (soul, rhythm' n' blues, blues) and with the air of time which saw The Band reshuffle the cards of the American music with its first two albums and the great names to follow them (The Byrds, Eric Clapton, even the Stones).
The following albums will confirm Van Morrison's status. Far from fading, his style will assert itself along records with compositions that mix mysticism and sensuality, daily life and great hopes, earth and sky. "Tupelo Honey" (1971), "Saint Dominic's Preview" (1972), "Hard Nose The Highway" (1973) and "Veedon Fleece" (1984) are all masterpieces of an artist who succeeds in giving an impression of serenity in his music while his voice is constantly on the verge of exploding, like a volcano about to erupt. It is necessary to say that his couple separates and that for the first time since 1968, he returns to live in Ireland.
Recorded in Los Angeles and London, the live "It's Too Late To Stop Now", with the Caledonian Soul Orchestra, eight musicians capable of interacting with the singer at the slightest intonation of voice, at the slightest gesture, is a model of complicity between the singer and his band but also between the entire orchestra and the public. Published without any retouching to correct the levels or a small error here or there. Van Morrison wants to give to hear "the real thing", the real sound of his voice carried by exceptional musicians and an audience all the more warm that the rooms are of average capacity, supporting the interaction and the contact.
The first thing that strikes you is the cohesion of this Caledonian Soul Orchestra that accompanies Van Morrison in this live album that synthesizes the singer's career: started in soul-rhythm'n'blues mode, the double LP, presented in a luxurious cover with three flaps, offers a repertoire of these ten years that the Irishman has just spent concocting a music that combines his love of black music, rock, fol k and jazz.
From the piano intro of "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do", followed by the explosive entrance of the voice and the slow rise in intensity of the bass, the guitar, the drums until the entrance of the horns, we are seized by the swing of the whole. "Warm Love" follows and this ballad benefits from an arrangement that pushes the intrinsic rhythm of the song, constantly revived, intense. Van Morrison vocalizes like a wild Mick Jagger. The sequence with "Into The Mystic" allows the entry of the string section which, far from dulling the song, gives it its fullness while the drums and the bass compete with tricks to relaunch the song on which Van vocalizes like a beautiful devil. And what about John Platania's guitar licks, which remind the best of Steve Cropper's arrangements for Otis Redding.
The tempo gets into overdrive on "These Dreams Of You" which highlights the horns that take solo after solo before answering the singer on the chorus. The first side ends on a cover of Ray Charles, the sumptuous "I Believe To My Soul" where Jeff Labes shines particularly on the piano. The arrangement of strings and brass is a real showcase for the voice of Van who finds the intonations of Uncle Ray to give all its soul to this song. And if the choruses are not exceptional, it does not matter, their intensity compensates. And the piece ends on a superb brass pirouette that leaves the audience ecstatic. Because there too, the reaction of the latter throughout the concert, is in unison with the intensity of the singer and the band. Fans who can't believe their ears and who demonstrate loudly at the end of each track.
Side 2 opens with a funky "I've Been Working" (wha-wha intro a la "Shaft") and once again a Van playing with the horn section, to constantly boost the intensity of the song. And a bass-drums couple in full fire syncopation with the piano. One could think one was in a New York club, so tight does it sound. Barely time to breathe and a boogie shuffle of Sonny Boy Williamson starts on the piano: "Help Me" allows Van to dialogue with the slide or the piano before the horns start the machine on the final. "Wild Children" calms the game with its cascading piano and delicate guitar phrasing. Stuffed horns and carpet of strings give this ballad its aerial jazzy accents.
The riff of "Domino" is warmly welcomed, the song taking a wild tempo on this boiling rhythm'n'blues. The horns sound Stax and the rhythm section doesn't have a second to breathe! A vocal break allows to hear the audience clapping in rhythm (they are hot!). The clamor at the end of the song says a lot about the reception. Willie Dixon is then in the spotlight with a sensual cover of his "I Just Want To Make Love To You", all in human warmth, teasing slide, warm horns, slow piano, round bass. And Van urging to act! And the little Irishman seems to know the subject...
Side 3 begins with a cover of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home" taken on a very slow blues tempo on which Van prays like a desperate preacher, relayed at the end of the song by a fiery sax. The boiling pot of this piece contrasts with "Saint Dominic's Preview" which follows, a ballad all in strings and brass where Van Morrison's voice becomes more caressing. After the detour in black America, we are in an almost Irish atmosphere exported to the U.S.A. Back to the blues with "Take Your Hand Out Of My Pocket", a confrontation between the man in the street and a pickpocket, but also a thinly veiled criticism of an economic system that picks the pockets of simple people. "Listen To The Lion" comes back to put love at the heart of the debates, between shown and buried feelings. One of these songs where Van The Man lets us see his sensitivity under the armor of a grumpy man. His voice is sometimes of a surprising softness before "the lion" comes back to roar on the choruses. The constantly changing musical arrangement throughout the song (horns, piano, guitar, bass lines, drums) is a treat to detail. When the song slowly fades out, it takes several seconds for the audience to come out of their ecstatic contemplation and finally applaud.
The last side opens with two songs from the Them period: first of all, "Here Comes The Night" keeps this duality between a slow, bluesy-soul chorus, whose melody catches your ear from the start, and a verse taken on a fast tempo, a kind of jazzy shuffle with a marked tempo. If the version is less electric than by Van Morrison's former band, it is no less intense! "Gloria" is then an opportunity to get the audience singing along to this answering anthem whose intro causes the crowd to roar with delight. The version stretches out reasonably and its softer arrangement links it very naturally to the rest of the repertoire. In particular "Caravan" which is almost seamless and whose stature as a "classic" takes all its value after these two standards.
The song allows the singer to introduce his musicians and his catchy melody and chorus take the audience and the listener into this slice of splendid soul music.
It only remains to close this live on "Cypress Avenue", the only track of "Astral Weeks" selected but which enjoys this final place that says a lot about the attachment of the singer to this album, synonymous with artistic emancipation for lack of financial emancipation. At the end of the song, Van emphasizes the phrase "It's too late to stop now" by preceding it with a brass break that surprises the audience, before the band starts again. It is this phrase that gives the album its title, proof once again of the importance of the song.
If it's too late to stop, that's what Van Morrison will do for three years. While this live album closes a 10-year cycle that will have seen him go from Belfast to Woodstock and then California, from a rhythm'n'blues band to a collection of albums that embrace jazz, soul, folk and rock in the company of musicians from all horizons, Van The Man (as he is nicknamed) seems to want to put back together the pieces of an intimate life that has been shattered at the beginning of his 30s. It was not until 1977 that he reappeared with the album "A Period Of Transition" which left his fans wanting more.
The only exception to this retirement was his participation in the Band's farewell concert. On Thanksgiving day 1976, he joined the American-Canadian group to interpret two sumptuous versions of "Tura Lura Lural" and "Caravan" in front of the cameras of Martin Scorsese who would make the film "The Last Waltz".
This epic concert recorded at Winterland in San Francisco celebrated in (too) much pomp the swan song of a band that had also gone through a prodigious decade alongside Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, The Staple Singers, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr John, Bobby Charles! And the presence in the final backing band of Ron Wood and Ringo Starr for good measure. The Irishman's performance is so impressive that one wonders if this participation was not the trigger for his return to business.
His discography has grown since then to more than 30 albums that constitute one of the richest and most amazing works (solo or in collaboration with The Chieftains, John Lee Hooker, Joey De Francesco or Lonnie Donegan). A work where one can endlessly come back to pick. In the few vinyl reissues or in the originals!
Keep spinning !