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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment