Thursday, 29 August 2013

Van Turns 68

Van turns 68 on August 31 and every year I ask how will you celebrate?  I like to make it an exclusive Van music day.  I usually start with the older Them albums in the morning and continue chronologically till Born to Sing around 2 in the morning.    

Have you ever wondered what a guy like Van gets for his birthday?  He's the classic guy who has everything.  A DVD set of old British comedy shows?  A model of his private plane for the desk?  A scrapbook of articles from his Them days?  Striped pyjamas? A 100 pound voucher for a magic shop?

Happy 68th Van.  You're the greatest.  You rock more than Michael Buble!  You're better than T.A.T.U, Jimmy Osmond, Tiny Tim, The Cheeky Girls, Aqua, David Hassellhof, Milli Vanilli, Bros, Racey, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer and even Boney M!!!  But seriously, Van, we love you.  I speak for hundreds of thousands of fans whose lives you've enriched through your incredible music career.  

Now, a bit of info about the number 68.  (who said blogs aren't educational?) 68 is the largest known number to be the sum of two primes in exactly two different ways: 68 = 7 + 61 = 31 + 37. In normal distribution, 68% of values are within one standard deviation from the mean. 68 is also the atomic number of erbium. 68 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature for developing black-and-white film.  In the restaurant industry, it may can mean "put on order", being the opposite of 86 (number) which means "take away".

Summer '68 is a song by Pink Floyd on the album Atom Heart Mother.  Other performers turning 68 this year include Neil YoungEric Clapton, Deborah Harry, Gary Brooker from Procul Harem, Bob Marley, Rod argent from the Zombies, Jose Feliciano, Ian Gillan from Deep Purple, Donny Hathaway, Jandek (reclusive Texas artist), Davey Jones, Lemmy from Motorhead, Don McLean, Goldy McJohn from Steppenwolf, Ron McKernan from The Grateful Dead, Ian McLagan from The Faces, John McVie from Fleetwood Mac, Bette Midler, Rod Stewart and Al Stewart.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Van at the London Rainbow, 1973

The following post from Chuck Bauerlein is an incredible take on Van's Rainbow concerts from 40 years ago.  For the sake of brevity it has been edited but I urge you to check out the link.  His story deserves to be read in its entirety.

It's Too Late to Stop Now

After graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans, I flew to London in the summer of 1973 to take a six-week graduate course in “Modern British Fiction” in early July. When I landed at Heathrow, grabbed a glossy weekly called Timeout, devoted to pop culture and critical commentary.  I casually flipped through the magazine and came to an ad that immediately caught my eye. “Van Morrison, live at the Rainbow Theatre! July 23rd and 24th!” was the headline. But in thick, 60 point block letters, stamped over the headline were these soul-wounding words: “SOLD OUT!”  My heart sank.

Van Morrison was coming to London!!!!  Besides the Beatles or the Stones, there was no one I wanted to see perform more than Van the Man. He’d released a series of astonishing recordings around this time, including Astral Weeks, Moondance and Tupelo Honey. The three of them constituted part of the soundtrack of my college years. I had to try to see him. I stored the dates away in my mind and waited for the concert dates to arrive.

One fellow, a Nigerian student named Alfa, overheard me asking the others about Morrison tickets and he said he would go with me if I would wait until tomorrow. He had some studying to do that night….but he invited me to come to his dorm room after 10 and promised we could listen to Astral Weeks and play chess. So that’s what we did. He dropped the spindle over the record and Moondance never sounded so good.

When I grabbed a copy of the London Times at breakfast, the paper’s rock critic had written a glowing review of the first night’s show. The Times’ critic compared Morrison’s performance to the kind of funky spontaneity of the Band’s best live performances. That comparison and reference hooked me. I had to go.

Afra and I took the tube down to south London, where the Rainbow was located. We asked everyone we saw if they had extra tickets for sale. When we stepped off the underground, the exterior of the Rainbow Theatre was a carnival scene. The smell of marijuana wafted through the dank summer air.

Afra and I headed for the front of the concert venue looking for the standing room only line but we suddenly stopped cold. The queue was a mad scramble of pushing and shoving fans, fighting to get near the front of a small door on the side of the theatre. The price of admission was only two pounds, but already more than 200 people were in line. Afra shrugged his shoulders and started walking down the long line shouting out “Who has tickets!??!”

Despairing, I headed in the opposite direction and found myself under the Rainbow’s awning, staring through the glass doors of the auditorium at the lucky few who were already mingling inside. This dark haired kid about my age chose that very moment to come out of the theatre. We stood there looking at one another, confused by the circumstances of the moment. I knew him. He knew me. But how? Where had I seen his face? Who was he? Then it came to me. His name drifted out of the subconscious depths of my head. Dyer O’Connor. 
“Hey,” he said. “Don’t you go to Loyola? Weren’t you in American History with me?”
I explained I was taking a summer class at the University of London. That I was a big fan of Van Morrison but the tickets to the concert had been sold out before I landed in London. I was hoping to snag a scalped ticket.

“I have one for you!” he said. “My date cancelled on me.”

I looked over my shoulder for Afra. He had disappeared into the anxious throng at the standing room only line. Meanwhile, I had joined the lucky few. I passed through the doors of the Rainbow Theatre with Dyer O’Conner, a guy I barely knew.
Our seats were in the balcony, not more than eight or nine rows from the rail. The Rainbow had been designed as a gilded palace of Hollywood films in the early 1930s and was called the Astoria Cinema. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, if memory serves, and replicas of Greek statues were situated in nooks on the interior walls of the theatre. The Who played the first rock show there in December of 1971.  Eric Clapton, Queen, the Sweet, Little Feat and Bob Marley and the Wailers all recorded live albums there in the mid-‘70s. The venue is also believed to be the first place Jimi Hendrix burned a guitar on stage.

A journal I kept of my trip to Britain that summer has this entry for July 24th: “I can’t really remember what songs he did. Some from the new LP, Hard Nose the Highway. Also, “I Just Want to Make Love To You” – “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Gloria” – “Moondance” – “Caravan” – “Everything” -- “Wild Night” – “Moonshine Whiskey” – “Domino” – “Gypsy” and three encores. He finished with Listen to the Lion ….It was his first London appearance in eight years and I got to go! I still hardly believe it!

The band Van brought during his summer of ’73 tour was called the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. It was not a standard rock quartet. The bass, lead guitar, piano and drums were complimented by horns and strings: a sax and trumpet player; a trio of violins, a viola player and a cello player.  
The Rainbow concert seemed to teeter between two contrasting styles of music: the airy, light touches of Warm Love and These Dreams of You (which highlighted the delicate playing of the strings) and the brassy bombast of Gloria, Wild Night and the blues tributes. I had seen Morrison perform 18 months earlier at the Villanova Field House with a much different band. He was nervous that night, unsure of himself. 
His bearing at the Rainbow was much, much different. He was confident, not just a performer but a conductor. The performers backing him were in close orbit with him and he directed them with a casual nod of his head or a sharp glance. I had never witnessed any concert, any performance, quite like it. He held the audience in thrall and, during some quiet moments in the performance, the performance felt like a church service. The  audience began to engage the performer in call and response and small talk.
There were some moments, during his final tune, Cypress Avenue when the silence became too much for the audience to bear; when Morrison seemed to be waiting for someone to give him a signal to perform. This happened on several occasions during the journey of this amazing song. The effect felt magical…. And you can hear it if you listen to the song on It’s Too Late to Stop Now,  a recording of this concert that was released in February, 1974.    
About halfway through this epic version of Cypress Avenue, which goes on a mind-bending journey for 10 minutes, Morrison sings a phrase that I still hear as “And they say in France!” Then he pauses. I am uncertain if this is precisely what he is singing or not. Some wags in the balcony call out to him “France!” I was stoned, I know, and I have no proof of this except what I hear on the record, but I swear it was me and Dyer, feeling the effects of his Kenyan stick, shouting down to the stage from our balcony seats. He repeats the verse: “And they say in France!” We, now joined by half a dozen other emboldened (possibly stoned?) members of the audience, shout back the invocation: “France!” Morrison does his lyric a third time. One more time “France!” comes back to him.
Morrison, in complete command of both the audience and the moment, improvises a short series of vamps and tossed-off asides to the audience before his locomotive of a band crescendos in a heightened, audacious wall of noise that ends with Morrison shouting out his signature phrase at the climax of the song, giving his album its name: It’s too late to stop now! Then he exits stage right, striding like a lion.
It was a moment – a concert – I can never forget. Of course, having a record of the concert makes the details easier to assimilate and provides me with other half-remembered details of that eventful evening. When the record came out seven months later, I was back in New Orleans. I had long forgotten how buzzed I was when Morrison began playing Cypress Avenue.  But when the needle hit that part of the record where Dyer and I shout out “France!” I realised I had become a tiny thread in a magnificent quilt. I could hear myself on It’s Too Late to Stop Now.  
Dyer and I took the tube back to northern London, chatting about our recollections of what we had just witnessed.  We got off at different stops and I was sure I would see him again before I left London. I didn’t. And when I got back to New Orleans, I lost his address, scribbled on the back of the July 24th Rainbow Theatre concert ticket. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Call Me Up in Dreamland

Someone named Aghrivaine wrote the following post:

I dream I jam with Van Morrison

Very interesting dream last night - a pastiche of stuff that's in the news and recent events, with a dash of artistic struggles. I was wandering around a flea market, when I saw Van Morrison. He was rummaging through old records, and though I knew he was a private and kind of grumpy guy, I was surprised to see him. In the dream world, he'd very publicly left for Russia as a protest against the shallowness of Western society. (This is Edward Snowden in the news, peeking into my subconscious.) So I tentatively greeted him, told him that I'd found his music to fill a place in my heart that nothing else could quite fill. Then I asked what made him come back from Russia.

A cantankerous soul, he said, "I'm not back from Russia. You see nothing, OK? I'm just visiting for a wedding." (Yesterday I was talking with my boss about weddings and going home to see people for them.) I asked him what made him choose Russia. He said, "No bullshit. People say what they mean, and they spill what's on their minds. You gotta have a thick skin, but if someone tells you they're your friend, they are your friend for life." (This pertains to recent strains in my social circle. To put it mildly. And my own bad feelings about that and other past failed friendships.)

So I asked him if he wanted to get a drink. He begrudgingly said yes. Somehow this turned into talking about songwriting. And really, I admire Van Morrison's songwriting maybe more than any other living musician - his stuff is so lean and tight and meaningful without being unsubtle. It's a marvel of elegance - elegance in the mathematical sense, that he gets you from the start of the song right through to your heart in just a few notes, and then stays there. If I could write fiction like Van Morrison writes songs, I'd be incredibly successful. So I'm trying not to enthuse too much in the dream, and I figure by the time he finishes his beer he's on his way, but he says, "OK, let's sit down at a piano and write your song, OK?"

So we did, there was a piano there in the little bar we're in, and we grabbed a sheet of (conveniently available) sheet music. And I start to hum it to him while he plucks it on the piano, and I write down the words. And before too long, there it is - and so we play it together, he's on the piano and I had a little drum-kit with brushes, a snare, a small cymbal, just enough to lay down some jazz percussion, just supporting the piano, not loud. Just a base. And I fumble through this song, but I'm excited and I'm feeling it and it's fresh in my mind - and I'm getting supported by Van Morrison, who takes off on wild improvisation around the melody. And in a couple of minutes we're done and I'm beaming. And he says, "Yeah, not too bad. A good start."
And this is like the best compliment I've ever gotten in my life.  So I thank him for his time,  his talent, his teaching. And he says, "Look, I gotta do this Christmas thing for a friend. Why don't you sit in, do percussion?" I'm completely bowled over. Explain I'm not trained or anything, I was just playing by feel, but he's OK with that, best way to do it, in his opinion. So we go to this church basement and a dozen people or so are there, and we start to play some Christmas music. (This is because we watched the last episode of Orange Is The New Black the other day, which had a Christmas pageant.) And he plays this incredible improvisation on Joy To The World - it's a total deconstruction of the song, and then a rill and a whir and reel around the melody and back again. And I kept up on the drums, and it was really great, very satisfying deep in the guts, where your harshest critic lives. So we've done the set, and I ask him if we can play my song?

So he shrugs, and I hand him the sheet music, and we try it again. But it just doesn't gel this time. It's not awful, but it's not good, either. Stumble a few times, and I'm trying really hard to recapture that moment and it's just not working. So after we're done Van shuffles the paper around and I'm like, "I'm sorry, that's my fault obviously. I don't know the song well enough, I guess, I couldn't remember it."

And then I get a message from my subconscious about being an artist in the form of an admonishment from Van Morrison. "It's not because you don't know it well enough. That's not where it comes from, it's not about 'knowing' the song. It's about being honest, and singing without any kind of protection from the world. It's about making music that makes you vulnerable, and making that beautiful. If it doesn't hurt, you're not doing it right. And if it comes straight from your heart, but you don't know the song, you're still doing something beautiful - but if your performance is technically perfect but has no soul, no one will care."

Thank you inner Van Morrison. I can make art that matters, and that passes your standards, when I'm honest. But don't worry about how people perceive it, or getting it wrong, or be burdened by technique. Check.

parrismcb   -   I didn't know you appreciated Morrison's music too. His latest album, Born to Sing: No Backup Plan pretty much sums it up.

aghrivaine   -   The first thing I thought when I woke up was "parrismcb would love this." Between dream encouragement from Van Morrison, and a real life encounter with Henry Rollins, I seem to have my muses straightened out!
You know it's funny, I've loved Van Morrison since the 80's, but I just got Astral Weeks a few months ago. I can't believe it took so long - it's just one of the greatest albums ever made. Changed my life! And I really wish I'd figured that out in time to see him live at the Hollywood Bowl, that would have been stupendous!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Top 10 Van Sites

1.  Mystic Avenue blog   -   The Van Morrison News blog has returned with a new name.  The John Gilligan controlled site has the "latest and greatest" on the great man.  Surely this is the number 1 source to check on anything Van, especially current news?  Contains links to lots of other Van sites. 
2.  Van's Official Facebook page.  Lots of interesting stuff and with about 600, 000 likes it's obviously reaching a lot of casual fans. 
3.  Wikipedia   -    A great source of information and you can spend days following all the links.  Allows the reader to trace obscure parts of the Van story.  Accuracy and comprehensiveness are what the Van fan finds here.
4.  Gunter Becker's Song Database   -   Mr Becker has produced an obsessive site crammed full of information/data on just about anything to do with Van.  How does this guy do it?  Honestly, where did he find all those concert track listings?  The length of every song done in concert?  All the concert medleys?  Does this guy ever sleep? Amazing.
5.  Van's Official site.  It actually has content now!  Some great audio for the fans, but we want more.  

6. Van Morrison Cafe   -   Contains info about Van's bootleg output.  Really interesting stuff and a chance to check the accuracy of Mr Becker's site. 

7.  Amazon-  Yes, that's right Amazon.  It makes the cut because it's full of interesting reader reviews and comments about Van albums and books.  It also has 760+ songs available for short previews and purchase. 

8.   an ebay 'Van Morrison' search (Worldwide, all categories)   -   It's not just about the buying and selling.  Type 'Van Morrison' on ebay every so often and you'll be amazed at the array of Van stuff out there. One of the amazing things you find is how many ripoff CDs have been created from the Bang material. I'd love to know how many different albums that Brown Eyed Girl has appeared on. It must be hundreds if not more than a thousand. 
9.   Visions of Pat blog   -   Pat's blog is a fantastic from-the-heart blog.  It chronicles one man's career as a Vanatic.  However, he's slipped in the ratings since he started painting walls blue and adding yin and yang symbols and making movies about frogs! 

10.  Modestly, I nominate this site.  If Sunshine Coast Van Fans can make the Top 10,  things are pretty bad all over. Obviously the world is waiting for Stephen McGinn, Simon Gee and others from the Van Morrison Newsletter/Wavelength Magazine era to create their own Van sites.  Let's gather in the town square and demand they unlock the vaults!     

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Them Again 2013

Van fans in Northern Ireland just have to hear about the opportunity to see two 1960s members of Them.  A Them line-up is performing with the Sabrejets as part of the 2013 Woodstock Rhythm and Blues Festival. 
The 2013 Woodstock Rhythm & Blues Festival is the sixth year of the festival.  Highlights include Chris Farlowe and the Norman Beaker Band, Ronnie Greer Band with Ken Haddock & 3side Story, THEM & The Sabrejets, Rab McCullough Band & Voodoo Hounds and Grainne Duffy Band & The Blues Katz.  The event promises a number of great shows.  Chris Farlowe is also well-known to Van fans.   
The Them line up includes Eric Wrixon on keyboards and Billy Harrison on guitar.  Other members include Billy McCoy (guitar), Albert Mills (bass), Peter McKinney (drums) and Mike Wilgar (harmonica).  They will be playing at the Malone Rugby Club on Saturday, August 10, 2013 from 8 pm. Admission is only six pounds.  What an opportunity!  Tickets are available from the Belfast Welcome Centre.