Monday, 14 January 2013

Van Morrison & Linda Gail Lewis - Waterfront Hall, Belfast - 23/09/2000

Van's collaboration with Jerry Lee Lewis's sister, Linda Gail Lewis was always controversial.  (Ms. Lewis is an interesting character having been married nine times including three by the time she was 16!) The album that resulted from their collaboration, You Win Again, is considered by many to be Van's worst.  Concerts Van performed with Linda and her Welsh band the Red Hot Pokers were soundly criticised.  Most often questioned was the actual playing skills of the band.  Finally, the two had an acrimonious split with Linda claiming some pretty bizarre things about Van.  What follows is an edited version of an informative if somewhat unflattering  review of the September 23, 2000 Van concert held in Belfast. 

I'll give you an account of the recent Van Morrison gigs at Belfast with Jerry Lee's sister Linda Gail Lewis.  This 'review' will focus on 23 September.
I was a huge fan of Van's previous band, which was led by guitarist and strong backing vocalist Johnny Scott - seeing those musicians play was half the fun for me, to be honest. Van was the main reason for attending a concert, of course, but I loved watching each of the other extremely talented musicians on stage. I was shocked to learn that I had bought a ticket to a concert by a very different band, who did not appear to impress many fellow fans. I am also not a country fan at all. But I was full of admiration for Van for having reinvented himself and trying his hand at yet another type of music, and I was willing to give it a go and support him as best I could.
Then, on Friday morning as I prepared to leave for my flight to Belfast, I put on the new single 'Let's Talk About Us.' I had been rushing around, and the single made me stop. Sadly, this was not because I was so moved by the music. On the contrary, I was so convinced that it was utter tripe that I started to wonder whether I should bother to make the trip, which I could ill afford, and I resolved to sell my London ticket. I hated the music. Linda Gail Lewis' voice grated on me, and it seemed to clash with Van's. I could find no redeeming features until, thank goodness, Van was joined on the third track by good old Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber.  In the end, since the flight was pre-paid and I wanted to visit friends and that great city, I braved the trip, fully expecting to detest the concerts. I was wrong; they were great fun.

Van was booked to play the wonderful Waterfront Hall, which seems remarkably intimate because of its sensible layout despite its 2,235 capacit

The magnificent Bap Kennedy, elder brother of Brian and former member of Energy Orchard, which covered Van songs and opened for Van in the 80s, opened for Van on both nights with his band. I've long been a fan of Bap's, and I highly recommend his Steve Earle-produced Domestic Blues CD, which includes a guest appearance by Nanci Griffith (another tolerable country artist), as well as his next two CDs-one full of Hank Williams covers and the next full of songs inspired by Williams and Elvis Presley. Incidentally, Bap said during his Friday set, 'Do any of you know my brother?' Girls cheered enthusiastically, assuming he meant Brian, until Bap added '...Jimmy at the post office?'

Before Van took the stage both nights, an announcer introduced a special guest: Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. No one really knew how to react. When he appeared on stage, it was clearly a comedian cleverly imitating him, then doing the same to Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley and others. John McBlain is apparently fairly well known to the locals, and I am told he has opened for Van before. His jokes were, as you would expect, all political. The stranger I sat beside on Saturday who immediately struck up a delightful conversation with me, as Belfast souls do, told me that they always laugh at such topics--you've just got to, he explained. As Gerry he said: 'How do you pack a hundred Orange Men into a telephone booth? Tell them they're not allowed to march in there.'

His act was pretty much the same both nights, and on the second night, which I shall detail first, since I was more aware of it and it was slightly more fun, the Red Hot Pokers took the stage as he was finishing. I was thrilled to bits to see the magnificent Leo Green was with them, albeit without his usual radio pack mike (no leaps into the audience tonight, then). A sax with a radio pack did rest in front of Van's spot all night, but he never played it.

The Red Hot Pokers (RHP) were four men dressed in Hank Williams-era grey suits with long jackets that had velvet lapels. You could tell that Leo was only an imitation RHP as he was missing the velvet. 
Some wonderful things I can say about the show right off:-
(a) I got to see Leo and Van play together finally;
(b) I finally got to see Van play an instrument other than the harmonica;
(c) Van was in a great mood and chatted more (or more audibly!) than I'd heard before, and all of the performers had a fair amount of energy;
(d) I got to hear Van perform a lot of songs that I'd not heard him do live before, such as Jackie Wilson Said [even if you hate the 'greatest hits' lot, you must admit that is a wonderfully constructed song in terms of making you want to jump up and sing along];
(e) there were no steel guitars!!!;
(f) the show had clearly been changed so that it was once again a Van show with special guest Linda Gail Lewis (LGL), rather than a joint venture including numerous songs by her.  Realistically, I think very few if any people anywhere were spending that kind of money to see her perform. 
At 8.35pm, the RHP, including Leo Green, took the stage and gave a lively performance of Jump and JiveNed then introduced LGL as if she were her brother Jerry Lee.  She strolled on and stood singing Here Ever After before taking her place at the piano. Linda has a silly little girl's voice that often resembles a more powerful version of Minnie Mouse, but it is actually a decent voice live. I still maintain that the album--what little I heard of it over the weekend--sounds appalling because Van and LGL do not mix well on the recording. Live, however, things are vastly improved.
After playing tambourine for the first number, Leo spent most of the second, a slower LGL number called the Dark End of the Street (I suppose), searching a box of reeds for the one that would work wonders on that amazing saxophone of his. The Paul Double character switched to alto sax during this song for an impressive solo. The other sax on stage remained neglected in Van's spot.

At 8.45pm, Van joined them for the fourth number. He stood in the wings (well, stage left without curtains), wearing a guitar and smoking a cigar, which he threw onto the floor as he came on stage. He played electric guitar first, whilst the night before he never ventured from the acoustic.  But no matter how hard I tried, I could not hear his electric guitar contribution at all. Van and Linda launched into their new single, Let's Talk About Us, which was a hundred times better than the recorded single.  Also, Van's voice is always spectacular, regardless of what type of music he sings.
When they finished, Van skipped the middle man, that is, the role previously played by Johnny Scott who would have taken Van's whispered instructions and passed them on to the band.  As he frequently did during these shows, Van told the band via his mike what they were to play next, rather than letting the guitarist do that part. You Win Again, he said, and even with LGL adding what sounded like whining rather than vocals, the song worked.
Van slipped into his usual mumble mode to introduce These Dreams of You, which he sang mainly backed by the guitarist's vocals, but LGL joined in more subtly from time to time. The crowd really welcomed a song they knew, and Leo's tenor sax duelled excitingly with the alto sax.
The seventh track, about the only successful suggestion on both nights by the guitarist, was Old Black Joe, which Van coughed and almost laughed into the mike at the beginning. It started slowly, with the minute horn section almost standing to attention playing nothing. When they joined in, blasting away, full of energy, the hall got excited and everyone started clapping to the beat, Ned pretended he was Chuck Berry with his solo, and LGL did the first of many excellent imitations of her brother Jerry Lee on the piano. The crowd went mad when the track finished. Whether these songs were supposedly country or not, everyone was having fun. 
At this stage, Van changed to acoustic guitar and took the band into In the Midnight. The crowd began to applaud once they recognised it, and he stopped to say 'thank you,' and then eventually finished the song with 'Stop up and see me sometime.'
Then Van said that he wanted to explain the next one as it was the first single he ever sang on. Mervyn Solomon was in the audience, he said, and he was the man who allowed him to make it. Could the song have been Don't Start Crying Now? It certainly had 'Cry Cry Baby' in the lyrics. As soon as the spotlight hit Leo at any time, he gave an amazing solo, usually watched and clearly admired by Van, and shook so much that he seemed in danger of combusting spontaneously like a Spinal Tap drummer. Every time he played, the audience loved it and applauded afterward, even if a certain someone had already begun singing. The show really should have been a Van Morrison/Leo Green feature, with special guest LGL.
Next was another classic, thank goodness: Rough God Goes Riding, complete with another amazing Leo Green solo and, bizarrely enough, that Van Morrison bloke wandering into the realms of doing Clint Eastwood impressions, chatting about sarsaparilla and saying 'Listen, Punk, make my day!!' Everyone loved this performance. 
The audience erupted when they recognised the first line of Cleaning Windows and continued to clap to the beat throughout the song. The guitarist was illuminated for a solo that was not that exciting, but the baritone saxophonist played a mean bongo (or two) during the song--and I know it makes no sense but I am certain that I heard Van yodel after one chorus.  I had not been drinking,  honest.  
Next came a sock-hop slow dance number called If You Love Me, which resembled All in the Game at times, and included a great harmonica solo from The Man and a fabulous baritone sax solo from the bongo-saxophonist. The band followed that with the bluesy Baby (You Got What It Takes) which was, again, vastly superior to the recorded version. The audience again clapped to the beat of the song, and even loved the verse Linda sang on her own.

Van then said he was going to 'Pitch at Linda here--what are you going to do? ' and she led us into her song 1-2-3, I'm in Love Again, which could easily have been a Mary Chapin Carpenter song, at a very quick Jerry Lee Lewis pace, complete with Linda banging on the keys of the piano as her brother would. The guitarist added more Chuck Berry-type guitar, whilst Van remained just off stage, unbuttoning his jacket, removing his hat and allowing his sweaty balding head to be affectionately wiped down by a woman.
I am not sure of the title of the next song. It sounded like a Bill Haley type of classic, with LGL playing quickly on the piano, Leo blowing his sax so madly that he seemed to almost run permanently out of air at the end, Van returning with his acoustic guitar and singing about inviting someone over to his 'pad' and stammering out that I'm a Nervous Fellow.
Next, Ned Edwards, whilst still wearing his guitar around his neck, began to play the fiddle, and the piano started The Healing Has Begun, I believe. This was the only song where Ned played steel guitar so it did sound countryish, but it was bearable, and his solo was impressive. A roadie ran on, as he did a few times, to add a sheet of lyrics to Van's music stand. Leo's thrilling sax solo ended up somehow sounding just like a Jimi Hendrix guitar masterpiece. LGL started to contribute more, and Van looked, for the first time that evening, noticeably yet perhaps coincidentally disgusted. In fact, his back was to her almost all night, which hadn't been the case the previous night, and he usually faced Leo and the guitarist, rocking side to side more than I have ever seen him do. When Van directed the band to get quieter, everyone did except perhaps the drummer and definitely LGL, who was still plonking away on the piano fairly loudly, but I expect she'll learn! On the previous night, she even interrupted his introduction to the song by hitting a few notes in the piano, then said 'oh, sorry' and then launched back into the notes again so that Van gave up talking.

On Saturday, Van then gave us some marvellous finger-picking on his acoustic guitar, which I had always assumed he could not play better than a few chords on rhythm, but he sounded like the great fellow-Belfast boy, guitarist Colin Reid. Wow. Again, when he quietened everyone so he could sing the middle part, he had to do so over the din of the piano, as LGL just didn't seem to understand that she should follow his directions and not always fight to be the star.

Van impressed us with further finger-picking skills during the introduction to The Outskirts of Town. Van was in excellent voice on both nights, and here, he growled out at times in a method reminiscent of Them's original recording of Gloria, whilst other times switching to smoother, fuller B B King style vocals. Lee Goodall's alto sax solo sounded exactly like something that should be playing in a dark and misty alleyway in a Philip Marlowe film noir. This merged into, I think, C.A.D.I.L.L.A.C., with Van almost getting carried away on vocals.
We were treated then to a medley of Goin' Down to Geneva/Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35/Brand New Cadillac. Van introduced the first part by saying he'd written the song in Geneva--then saying, no, in Montreaux, 'near Geneva. It' s about a singer from way back, Vince Taylor, and incorporating some other stuff along the way.' The beginning was loud and fun, and VTM stood back to allow the attention to focus on LGL for a change, who offered another Jerry Lee Lewis type solo on the piano. During Leo's inevitable solo, Van kept shouting towards him, 'Yeh!' and rapidly rocked from side to side as if he were a child's toy charged by Duracells. His own mouth organ solo was amazing, and the only choppy part of the medley was when LGL had difficulty following Van whilst backing his vocals. If he held out a note longer than expected, it seemed to throw her completely. I know it is not easy, but the old band read Van so well, they were amazing musicians.

Not for the first time, the guitarist suggested a song to Van, who refused it--in this case Van opened his arms and shrugged, as if asking how they could possibly do that. Sometimes Leo would suggest something to the guitarist, who would pass on the suggestion to Van using telephone game tactics, and Van would love the idea. In this case, the idea was Philosopher's Stone, including an amazing solo that surely sucked the breath out of Leo, and a lovely flute contribution by the bongo-saxophonist.
Jackie Wilson Said came next, and the audience loved it. Leo ventured into his normal hip-wiggling now, and fired away on his sax at the appropriate moment. Linda's vocals were fine, but again, they seemed to have too much presence, and it just didn't work hearing 'Ahm en hay-ay-ven' for 'I'm in Heaven', which is not her fault.
Ned then made his one suggestion that Van welcomed, Precious Time. However, I do just absolutely hate her contribution to this song. The harmonies she tries to add to the chorus are so different and so loud that it is distracting to the point that it made me think the song would have been more at home on a Shaun Cassidy album, and that scares me! The guitarist adds sufficient backing vocals, really.
Van then made the usual dreaded request for a big hand for LGL and 'big hand for the band,' and we knew he was off. Indeed, he went off stage and had his balding head wiped affectionately again. He returned after the band started the Rock and Roll Medley of, amongst other things, Shake Rattle and Roll and Roll Over Beethoven. The children--Leo and his fellow saxophonist--whipped the crowd into a frenzy and actually got us on our feet! Van left during this number, and Linda finished off by playing the piano for two seconds with her foot. It wasn't quite Jerry Lee, but frankly, how many women in their 40s or 50s could lug their leg up that high without an hour's stretching first?

That was it. An exciting, delightful, fun show. Not a Van classics show, but thankfully lots of Van and not too much LGL, who was fine, but not my reason for being present. The fun, fast and jamming, foot-tapping songs are welcome. I still think I will detest my copy of the album.
I'd also like to say how much I loved meeting my fellow Van fans in Belfast and seeing old friends, not to mention visiting such a magnificent city once again.

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