Just lately a couple of vintage (1973/1974) videos of Van Morrison have come my way and I’ve been able to remind myself of just why the old curmudgeon seemed like such a major player at the time.
The first one is to some extent a visual companion to Morrison’s great double-live opus ‘It’s too late to stop now’, which for me is second only to ‘Astral Weeks’ as his finest hour. The video was shot at London’s Rainbow Theatre in July 1973 and offers us about an hour of Van in full flow, ably assisted by the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, a sprawling 10-piece ensemble which showed much of Morrison’s material to its best advantage. All the more surprising, therefore, that it was a band he failed to keep together for too long. Morrison just handles the vocals and leaves the playing to the CSO who, as well as the usual bass/drums/guitar/keyboards set-up, also featured trumpet & sax plus a string quartet dominated (visually) by the mind-bogglingly gorgeous San Franciscan cellist Terry Adams. Most of the selections parallel the tracks heard on ‘It’s too late to stop now’, with definitive versions of ‘Warm Love’, ‘Caravan’ and Muddy Waters’ ‘I just want to make love to you’. The video sound is a bit imbalanced and it’s hard to hear the horns, but the performance more than compensates.
Of course Morrison’s connection with the audience is very tenuous….a gruff ‘thank you’ at the end of most songs and mumbled band intros towards the show’s end is as good as it gets. I’ve never quite figured out why he is such a mardy old git, really. I saw him at the Apollo in Manchester in the late 1970’s which was probably his first serious UK tour since the one featured on video here. It was a hot Friday night with a packed & enthusiastic Mancunian crowd. So, what does this icon of the counter-culture do? He comes on and launches into a perfunctory opening 10-minute medley of his ‘big hits’ – ‘Moondance’, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Caravan’ – so you know immediately that you’ll not hear those again. This means that we get to hear the then-current and rather forgettable ‘Wavelength‘ album pretty much all the way through. Ooooh, yipee.
So, about halfway through what was an insultingly brief 65-minute set ( grumpy encore included)an enthusiast up in the Circle shouts out for ‘Into the Mystic’ or ‘Listen to the Lion’ or one of those classic songs, at which point, the Belfast Cowboy almost visibly bristles and starts abusing the audience (‘What’s up with you people?’) and the city (‘I thought this was a working town!’) before tetchily counting in the next number from ‘Wavelength’.
So, not a good gig and not a good impression created by a guy for whom I’d always had a lot of respect. Looking at the Rainbow video, it’s possible to see that Van isn’t exactly that chummy with his own band; you’d hardly call the onstage mood ‘relaxed’, despite the fact that the audience is clearly lapping up every minute of what is a great show.
The second video was recorded the following year (1974) at San Francisco’s Winterland and shows another side of Van Morrison. This time, we see the singer-songwriter – he remains seated and playing acoustic guitar for most of this show. This footage is in black & white and concentrates entirely on Morrison – we see very little of the band, though it is obviously not the Caledonian Soul Orchestra backing him here. He seems much more relaxed in this video, so perhaps it’s British audiences that rile him. The material is similar, although some tracks from the ‘Veedon Fleece’ album have now made their way on to the setlist – notably a superb rendition of ‘Streets of Arklow’. My suspicion is that this was the footage from just one camera on a multi-camera shoot that for some reason or another never got an official release. It’s harder to watch than the Rainbow footage, though not without its moments.
For me, 1981’s ‘Beautiful Vision’ was the last truly great Van Morrison album. Since then, we’ve had the Christian interlude and the (almost) patented trilby & sunglasses sub – Blues Brothers look of latter years. He’s really become one of the great survivors, I suppose, but it’s been quite a few years since I felt that I needed to listen to his latest CD.
That was until last year, when he did what Arthur Lee and Brian Wilson had previously done so successfully in presenting ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ respectively in their entirety – on stage. Inevitably, Van Morrison turned to his ‘classic’ opus, ‘Astral Weeks’ , recording it at the Hollywood Bowl. Only two words are needed to sum up this project………total disaster. Where Lee and Wilson were scrupulous in nailing the original arrangements and vocal parts, Morrison’s ‘band’ sounded under-rehearsed and ragged and the man himself unwisely used the original ‘Astral Weeks’ songs as a jumping-off point for some low-grade pseudo-jazz vocal improvisations which did neither the original pieces nor himself any favours. The whole point of these ‘reproductions’ is surely to reproduce the original work as closely as possible. The Astral Weeks re-make conspicuously failed to do this and just emphasises how it’s unwise to go back unless you can still cut the musical mustard….