Tuesday, 27 January 2015

What's Wrong With This Picture? (2003)

Here's most of Rob Horning's take on Van's 2003 album What's Wrong With This Picture? which doesn't rank among his best.  No one has this in their Van Top Ten.  

Van Morrison is a deeply strange performer—just check out the footage of him in The Last Waltz, where, in his unitard and cape, he looks as though he were just beamed down from Mars for his exuberant, bizarrely histrionic performance of Caravan, which seems largely out of sync spiritually with everything around it. The band itself seems mystified by him—though he is making a dramatic spectacle of himself on stage, he seems trapped in a private world of his own. It’s clear he’s maniacally driven to perform, but whether or not he cares about any specific facts about the audience is hard to tell. Morrison’s music often seems that way, preoccupied with the singer’s personal obsessions with his tortured spirituality or, as is increasingly the case, the grievances of being famous. 

Morrison has apparently had his troubles with record industry personnel all along, beginning with his reportedly acrimonious relationship with Bang! Records honcho Bert Berns in the late ‘60s. And since as early as 1973’s Hard Nose the Highway, he has been complaining bitterly of music business cynicism and phoniness. Thanks for the Information from 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher and Professional Jealousy” from 1991’s Hymns to the Silence returned to the theme; but nowhere has he sounded so vehemently disgusted with everything related to being a music professional as he does on this album, where virtually every song finds him venting about the how much he hates being a celebrity, how he has contempt for those who misconstrue his styles, how people in the press are “scum”, and how consumed he feels by his own legend, for which he seems to disavow any responsibility.

There are some signs of a sense of humour—he even breaks into a chuckle on the opening song—and these are almost enough to make one believe that Whinin’ Boy Moan is an arch piece of self-deprecation—almost, but not quite. The complaining reaches its apogee on Goldfish Bowl, whose refrain runs “I don’t have a hit song, I don’t have no TV show / I don’t have no reason to live in a goldfish bowl”. One could be hopeful, and pretend that he’s in character. But it’s much more likely he’s just speaking from his heart, as guarded and paranoid as it seems to have become.

The logic, too, of the lyric seems slightly preposterous; at first it seems modest, but then it seems more like wilful blindness that he claims to believe that he has no idea why he would have devoted fans who cherish the music he made in the past, music that dignified his Celtic roots and extended their international influence, music that embraced a sophisticated, philosophical view of religion, cutting through its dogma to the solace it could by and the wonder it can inspire.
Too many myths he sings on another song, sweeping away all interpretations and appreciations of his past. Now it’s admirable that he wants to fight the cult of personality that’s sprung up about him, but wouldn’t a better approach be not to mention it at all? By pleading so insistently that he wants to be left alone, he makes you believe he actually wants the opposite. If the attention his records garner make him so frustrated, one wonders, why does he bother to make them at all?
Still, it is this contradiction, and his stubborn refusal to age gracefully and be marginalised by being made legendary, that makes him so interesting, making him as alienating as he is fascinating, investing his music with a tension that animates what might otherwise be staid. One can’t exactly complain about the music—more of the jazz/blues/soul blend he’s perfected the last decade, sounding like a Ray Charles record from his ABC/Paramount years recorded with a digital sheen. The songs all follow standard blues progressions, and nothing in the way they are structured will surprise listeners. 
Continuing his tradition of employing lost British stars from the ‘60s, Morrison here brings back Mr Acker Bilk of Stranger on the Shore fame to play clarinet on the gentle mid-tempo shuffle Somerset, one of the album’s few truly relaxed numbers. It’s a lovely song, giving a sense of how much more pleasant this album could have been had Morrison set aside his gripes and concentrated on what he does as well as anyone: injecting a soulfulness into quotidian scenes of comfort without ever making them mawkish. But maybe the unforced, and uncheapened nostalgia of the album’s gentle moments is only earned only by his unflinching honesty about what annoys him. He is a master at enabling us to feel what feels; but for too much of this album, that’s an unfortunate gift.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Van Tribute Band That Releases Albums?

Van Morrison tribute band The Belfast Cowboys and its off-shoot band St Dominic's Trio have released albums. The Belfast Cowboys have released a self-titled on Frozen Rope Records in 2008 while the St Dominic's trio album is called Switch. Cover bands just don't do this sort of thing!  If they do they don't tend to sell well outside of the band's geographic base as most fans of the covered artist would prefer the originals.  It does show the band's confidence in itself as interpreters of Van's music. Minneapolis' The Belfast Cowboys not only do Van Morrison's material justice, they capture the vibrancy and energy of Morrison from his Them days.

The Belfast Cowboys CD opens with Cleaning Windows (Minneapolis version); its true to the original version while adding some local flavour. The Funk/R&B underpinnings of this song are as fine as Morrison ever imagined and it gets the album off on the right foot. The album's second song, Wild Night is a treat. Lead singer Terry Walsh performs a bit of musical transubstantiation here, nearly projecting the essence of Morrison for the first of several performances on The Belfast Cowboys. Walsh leads the band through reverent and coherent readings of Into The Mystic, Real Real Gone, Bright Side Of The Road and several other Morrison classics but hits a musical climax on Jackie Wilson Says. The whole band is inspired on this song and you forget for three minutes that you're listening to a cover band. Other highlights include Bright Side Of The Road, Caravan and Precious Time.

The Belfast Cowboys are a first class cover band. The nine-piece band provide a window on Van Morrison the performer 35 years ago. The energy and joy of that young man have been replaced by the wisdom and serenity of the consummate performer who is still musically active today, but longtime Morrison fans will appreciate this honest and reverent look back on the young man he was.

The Belfast Cowboys was formed on St Patrick's Day, 2002.  The nine-piece band collapses down to the three piece St Dominic's Trio for some shows.  The band features several veterans of the Minneapolis music scene, including singer Terry Walsh and sax man Vic Volare.  In August, 2009, The Belfast Cowboys headlined at BB King's Blues Bar in Times Square, New York City. 
In July, 2010, The Belfast Cowboys played a three hour set for a crowd of 15,000 while opening for Chicago in Stillwater, Minnesota. In March, 2011 The Belfast Cowboys played shows in Ireland.  In July of the same year The Belfast Cowboys played at Moondance Jam in Walker, Minnesota.  In 2012 and 2013 the two bands played over 250 shows combined .

The Cowboys have become one of Minnesota's most popular bands, playing monthly shows at Lee's Liquor Lounge and Whiskey Junction, travelling only when their feet get itchy or the offer is too good to refuse.  St Dominic's Trio plays every Tuesday at Nye's, monthly at Morrissey's, and one weekend a month at Kieran's in downtown Minneapolis.
Celtic Soul

Meanwhile if you're looking for a great Van show in Ireland and Northern Ireland this year check out this blog's favourite Van tribute called Celtic Soul. Looks like they have a full schedule for this year.  If you're planning a trip to Northern Ireland or Dublin this year check out the current concert schedule below:  

31st January 2015   -   Black Box, Belfast

21st Feb 2015   -   The Hot Spot, Greystones Co Wicklow

28th Feb 2015   -   Market Place Theatre, Armagh

21st March 2015   -   Spirt Store, Dundalkm

28th March 2015   -   Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick

24th April 2015   -   Courtyard Theatre, Newtownabbey

15th May 2015   -   Purty Kitchen, Dublin

28th June 2015   -   Antrim Castle Gardens, Antrim

26th Sept 2015   -   The Black Box, Belfast

24th Oct 2015   -   Mill Theatre, Dublin

6th Nov 2015   -   Riverside Theatre, Coleraine

21st Nov 2015   -   Ardhowan, Enniskillen

Friday, 16 January 2015

Veedon Fleece: Insurance Policy for the Soul?

Here's most of Mr Meade's genius post about the greatness of Veedon Fleece. Mr Meade has certainly come up with a brilliantly written piece that traces his discovery of Veedon Fleece and contrasts it with Astral Weeks. I tried not to steal all of this but found it difficult to edit much out.  See the post in its entirety by clicking above.  

The Van Morrison Insurance Policy for the Soul 
by Matthew Thomas Meade  May 6, 2014

Part I: Where I Tell you How Much I Love Van Morrison

I never would have listened to this record had it not been for that breakup.  
Sometimes you need a good breakup to lead you into something.  You use the end of the relationship as an excuse for working out more, or gardening, or maybe even something creepier like pursuing lepidoptery.  Every once in a while your aching soul will lead you to a record like the oft overlooked Veedon Fleece.

I fell in love with Morrison back in those days when the fact that my parents also loved the guy was a good thing.  They giggled while I danced arrhythmically to Ro Ro Rosey in the living room with my toddler’s Buddha belly and peanut butter and jelly crusted cheeks.  I can remember It Stoned Me coming on my mom’s oldies radio station.  We would belt out the chorus singing, “Ohhhhhhhhh the water… Ohhhhhhh the water… Let it run all over me,” neither one of us were aware of the implications of the song. 

After that, I made sure to keep his Best Of catalogue handy, digging on Domino and Jackie Wilson Said when I needed a changeup from Otis Redding or The Animals.  I learnt a bit about Them and grooved on their version of Please Don’t Go. I discovered Gloria (by way of Jimi Hendrix, of course), and I came to hate the sexless and vapid John Mellencamp/ M’chel N’degochelo cover version of Wild Night.

I bemoaned the grumpy, late career slide into MOR mediocrity that was happening concurrent to all the discoveries I was making during my adolescence in the 90s, but I refused to allow a bad word to be spoken in my presence.  Only I could complain because Van knew I loved him.  Van and I had an understanding.

Part II: The Part Where I Fell in Love with Astral Weeks
And then, as can be expected, a shaman like friend, one familiar with the dark arts and bad weed, introduced me to Astral Weeks.  I bristled at first.  I resisted its strange rhythms, its pulsing, mystic waves.  I complained of the way it would tempt with the vaguest whiff of the accessible, carefree melodies of Morrison’s early work, and then trap you when you fell for the trick, thereby imprisoning you behind the bars of its bittersweet musings.

Though I had resisted at first, I soon came to love, and embrace the record and then quickly eschew all other Van Morrison work once I realised that this 40 some minute record, impossibly made by a 23 year old alcoholic, was probably the most extraordinary and perfect musical achievement of the 20th century.

As my teen years gave way to my 20s, my love for the record grew.  I started putting Ballerina on mix CDs for girls I hardly knew, thinking this would surely make them love me forever.  I told people on a regular basis that “I would never grow so old again,” to which they would inevitably respond, “Bob Dylan, right?”

And then I discovered that there was someone who loved Astral Weeks as much as I did.  It made me feel like the kid running from song to song on that record, all fresh for the world and bursting at the seams with love.  We moved in together and ignored all of our problems and listened to Van Morrison almost constantly.  For a 6-month period in my early 20s we lived on nothing but tap water, 2-day-old pastries discarded by Starbucks, and the innocence and purity that gushed from the song The Way Young Lovers Do.

And I am pretty sure I was sublimely content. I won’t go any further into what the contentment was like because it was special and private and a little embarrassing.  It’s also none of your damn business, and I’m not really comfortable discussing that kind of happiness, but rest assured it was magnificent, and rest assured the break up happened soon after the apex of our happiness. 

I tried to listen to it, of course.  I played the tape at night, with the lights off, in secret, nude and wrapped in nothing but a sleeping bag.  I would don my headphones and press play, but the imagery was too blinding, the smells too potent, the memories associated too vivid.  The record was not just a shimmering achievement of its own.  It had the ability to take on the qualities of those it had encountered, like Chiang Sung from Mortal Kombat, and it could assume the identity of my ex, torturing me with smiles and smells, allusions to, and images of happier times.  It proved too daunting.

So for a period of time, my life was without Van MorrisonI wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself.  Then Veedon Fleece emerged. I wasn’t looking for it.  I was actively avoiding all things Van Morrison by this point.  But the record just sort of appeared, finding me in a way that was too supernatural and strange for me to get into here.  Suffice it to say that I may as well have acquired the record from a mysterious curio shop in Chinatown.

Perhaps the strangest thing about it was that, I had never heard of it.  If the title had ever come up I must have lumped it in with all that out of touch late period stuff that I thought I could ignore.  Stuff like the too smooth Wavelength (1978) and the embarrassing Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983).  But it turned out that this record had a reputation, like some legendary figure you hear about in your highschool, some hip thug whose name was called in homeroom everyday, but who never appeared. I learned that Robyn Hitchcock had covered Fair Play, C. J. Chenier (son of fabled king of zydeco Clifton Chenier) had done a zydeco tribute to Comfort You and Elvis Costello gushed about Linden Arden Stole the Highlights.

It was Sinead O’Connor really confounded me.  I had been using to nurse my post relationship wounds, (like you do) and I stumbled across excerpts from an interview on the Dave Fanning show where she did the unthinkable.  She compared Veedon Fleece favourably to the record that everyone knows is Van’s masterpiece.

“It is far superior to Astral Weeks,” she said.  “This is the definitive Van album with the definitive Van song, Who Was That Masked Man?

Some people never got over the fact that O’Connor tore up that picture of the pope.  For me, daring to challenge the supremacy of Astral Weeks was a far more rebellious act.  A far more daring demonstration.  Not only that, but she compared it to a record of which I was only vaguely aware.  I mean, had she said that St. Dominics’ Preview was doing something that Astral Weeks wasn’t she would have been wrong, but at least she would have the celebratory Redwood Tree to bolster her argument.

What is this strange record?  What did these others know that I didn’t?  Could they possibly be onto something that I had missed?  Was I too busy obsessing over the contentious, unreleased Bang recordings?

Was I finally being punished for complaining about how much of a pussy he sounded like on Moondance? (I had only been denigrating the song.  I swear to god.  Not the entire album…)  Should I have been worshipping at the altar of Astral Weeks? Had I been doing wrong all along?

Part III: The Part Where I Talk About Veedon Fleece
Once I put needle to vinyl, it felt like I was somewhere familiar.  Not home, of course, but a place I was supposed to be.  It wasn’t the place I was used to, decorated with cracked steel rims, smelling of Shalimar, with a clear view of Cyprus Ave. It was somewhere new. Incense and pot smoke were present underneath the splashes and strokes of the acoustic guitar.  Mustiness stored for decades wafted up from the swirling piano.  The flute was the steam from a mug of tea.

Though the record is serious, it doesn’t bog you down with its own heavy sentiment, or mire you in unnecessary intellectualism.  Here the soulful mysticism that you have heard so much about is fully on display, matured and leavened into a shape the likes of which could only be made by someone in their 30s.

Released in 1974, Veedon Fleece was recorded after Morrison’s on-stage persona had evolved from the precocious, to the bold, to the eccentric, to the sublime.   By the mid-70s Van Morrison had become more than just a rock star.  He was spoken about in hushed tones by people who knew what they were talking about (scribes like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus), and emulated by people who knew what they were doing (people like Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and anyone who ever made looking like a middle school math teacher sexy just because of what they were saying).

Indeed Veedon Fleece was released during this period, two whole years before the infamous, scenery chewing appearance in the Last WaltzWhat is a veedon fleece?  Exactly?  If I were to define it, if Morrison were to define it, it would sap it of its mysterious protean quality.  All people head out to SF in one way or another when they are young.  All young people are searching for the veedon fleece. 

In Who Was That Masked Man? Morrison asks “Ain’t it lonely when you’re living with a gun?”  The generation who was making music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was learning all too well what a weight it is to live with a gun.   But a gun is only one of many things the people who populate these songs have to learn to live with.

In Who Was That Masked Man? a butterfly trapped behind glass becomes yet another allusion to the idea of youth and beauty frozen in time.  It is that same youth and beauty that seizes Linden Arden, that makes him so jealous, and makes him react so violently. 

How is it that Van can sound simultaneously like a grumbling 66-year-old miner and a like a shrieking 13-year-old girl?  The way he mumbles and squeaks, hisses and whines, makes him sound like some mad, animated caricature.  Some distant, deranged cousin of Steamboat Willy. But everything he does and says, every kick, every howl and grumble is a part of some abandon the music is making this man experience.  Some singular emotion he is channeling and trying to allow you, the listener, to experience.
The songs on this record are not about the evening fading into morning.  But it’s not about the darkness either.  It’s not a record about how things are over now.  It’s a record about the cruel heat of the afternoon, and how you can keep your temperature low enough to survive until sundown.  It’s a record about how to keep going after you’ve lost your sight from staring for too long at the sun.  A record about how the light can kill everything at the same time that it makes the grass grow and your soul clean.

The record blossoms from this heat and light, beginning with the first notes of the deceptive invitation that is Fair Play and evolving through the pristine first side.  The suite at the end of the record, comprised of Comfort You, Come Here My Love and County Fair is misleading.  It hints at a soggy pastoral bliss that is dishonest in the context of the rest of the album.  If there is a flaw on the record it is the way that this finale sort of meanders too pleasantly to a close.  But that is no matter because any flaws, any failings of the record are incinerated by the blinding, radiant, near nuclear light of the record’s centrepiece.

Part IV: Where I tell you about You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River

You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River is nine minutes long, but it presents itself as an even longer work. It sucks you into as if it were not a song, but some kind of lost season, releasing you only after you’ve lived folded inside of it for a period of months, emerging to find bruises you don’t remember acquiring and dry, dead leaves in your hair.

Now, if you hear the first few moments of the urgent 12/8 time signature of You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River and you don’t know what the song is about, you should just turn it off, because you are not yet ready.  You should go get in a near fatal car accident, or fall in love with a man who will never love you, or be accused of a crime you didn’t commit or some shit like that.

Those first few scat-like utterances of You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River are the exclamations of a man who has gotten to “That Point.”  That Point is a place in your life where you realise how futile are your efforts, how unfair is the world, how exhausting is the plight.  Which plight?  The Plight.  You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River, is a paean to that realisation.  It’s a building constructed to process the paperwork created by the kinds of anxieties people like Cervantes and  Moses made careers writing about.

And that’s the magic of the record.  It gives you a place you can go when everything else has been taken from you.  It does the kinds of things for people that the man who made Astral Weeks didn’t even know people needed to have done for them.

Part V: Where I Pit Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece against one another in some sort of Sick Mono Y Mono style battle To the Death

Now, I have no interest in pitting these records against one another in some sort of sick, mono y mono style battle to the death, partly because it’s brutal, and partly because I would be worried Veedon Fleece would emerge from the Van Morrison cock fight pecked to within an inch of its life. (Though, you never can tell about these things. The record is elusive and chimeral, surprising you at every turn, telling you it is one thing and then emerging as another. It is a master of the stick and move, of the fake, the faint and the roll, and this just might keep its head attached to its body were it to fight the younger, stronger more Clubber Lang like and permanently younger Astral Weeks.)

But, here is the thing: I am not recommending that you listen to this record.

This is your insurance policy for the soul.  Try to imagine, if you will, a world where someone takes Astral Weeks from you.  Try to imagine that you too have lost this record in a messy divorce, or you have contracted some strange form of Oliver Sacks type neurological Musicophilia where the songs from Astral Weeks no longer cohere as music, or that you have been enrolled in some kind of a Clockwork Orange style hypnotism program which will take from you the ability to enjoy gang-rape, ultraviolence or the effervescent Slim Slow Slider.

Buy the record for that eventuality.

Now, let me be clear, just because Veedon Fleece is under glass, awaiting your inevitable emotional collapse, it doesn’t mean that you should stop listening to Van Morrison.  You should continue spinning his records.  As often as possible.  You have plenty of options, besides Veedon Fleece after all.  You could enjoy the hyper sweet Tupelo Honey, the rich and soulful His Band and Street Choir, or It’s Too Late to Stop Now, the great, two disk, live record which would be pretty much perfect even if it didn’t include the superlatively boozy cover of “Bring it on Home to Me.”  You could always throw on your trusty copy of Astral Weeks, of course.  I do.

For my money though, I don’t think you can do any better than the aforementioned performance from The Last Waltz.  In a single song, it sums up everything you need to know about getting your heart broken, putting it back together again, and loving Van Morrison.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Contest Crazy ...

It's a crazy time for Van contests it seems.  

1. Over at the fabulous Mystic Avenue blog John Gilligan is giving away a copy of Lit Up Inside to three lucky responders.   

2.  Even Van's getting into the act with free copies of Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl on vinyl to give away.  All one has to do is name the albums that letters have been cut from ransom note style to form the message Merry Christmas. Five people who respond by January 2nd will be the lucky winners. Go to Van's official site for further information. 

3.  Finally, Katherine Duckworth from the City Lights blog/website/publishing company, etc. is advertising another contest for Van Fans.  Here's what she says:

Van Morrison Lit Up Inside Contest

Some folks honestly can’t remember a time in their life without Van Morrison. Maybe it was Brown-Eyed Girl that appeased both you and your parents as a fussy four-year-old on a long car trip, Astral Weeks that got you through some horrific break-ups, or the lesser known but equally groovy T.B. Sheets whose harmonica solos did something inexplicable to your core. We all have them. We all know for certain they are ours alone. We all have Van stories.  Are you an Astral Weeks or a Moondance kind of soul?

At City Lights, we definitely want to hear your Van stories! Send us your best Van Stories! Whether it is a memory attached to a song, or a chance encounter with Van himself, we want to hear it! We’ll post our 5 favourites here on the blog and, if yours is chosen, we’ll send you a copy of Van Morrison’s collection of lyrics (curated by Van himself) recently published by City Lights, Lit Up Inside.

You can e-mail your stories directly to vanstories@citylights.com.  (Only folks who send their stories to that email will be considered for a prize.)

The deadline is Monday, January 19, 2015.

For maximum share-a-bility, please limit your stories to one page – that’s roughly 1,000 words.