During his down and out days. Van Morrison used to live on Green Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After “Brown Eyed Girl” had hit during the summer of 1967, Van had followed his stars to the Boston of “Bosstown Sound” notoriety. Back then, the Boston Tea Party presented mainly local bands and the most popular of these was a group called the Hallucinations, which proved to be the forerunner of the J. Geils Band.
The Hallucinations used to do Morrison’s classic “Gloria” as a regular part of their show. One night, in front of an unusually restless crowd they introduced “the man who wrote this song” and Van came out to sing it in front of their very hard arrangement. No one seemed to know who he was. Frustrated and out of control he stood on the stage shouting meaningless phrases and incoherent syllables like some crazed demon. The audience’s mood went from indifference to hostility until one of the group’s guitarists grabbed the microphone and, in a fit of anger, screamed at the audience, “Don’t you know who this is? This man wrote the song.”
I saw Van Morrison over a year ago, playing second to the Band. He introduced most of the songs from Moondance there and they all sounded great. His band was great. The arrangements were great. Unfortunately, Van himself was again not in control of himself. And it wound up being just another one of those concerts that has given him a reputation as a stiff of a live performer.
Well, ladies and gentlemen. I saw Van Morrison perform a month ago, in front of 3,000 people, and he ain’t no stiff. As he was beginning his half of the concert I felt myself getting nervous at his nervousness. He took an exceptionally long time to tune and was obviously worried. He opened with a hesitant and shaky “And It Stoned Me,” but when he hit the second number, “These Dreams of You,” everything fell together. From then on, for the next hour and a half, he was like a locomotive moving down the tracks picking up steam at every stop.
When Van Morrison starts burning, it is without the mannerisms and posturings we have come to associate with stars. Short, uncharming, unglamorous, and unsmooth, he simply stands in front of his band, guitar in hand, and sings. There is no affectation. Everything is revealed and nothing hidden by the games of a false shaman. As he churned through the classics of Astral Weeks, and then “Moondance,” “Come Running,” and most of Moondance. I kept thinking that he was singing with the kind of feeling and fervor that some other artists have by now lost.
After “Moondance” the band left the stage for a solo by Van and then came back, minus the horns, for a superb “Ballerina.” When he got to “Into the Mystic,” the music was steaming and the audience was close to frenzy. The horns, which had trouble finding themselves earlier in the evening, were now providing perfect support for his voice and Van himself kept opening up, more and more, with every new verse and chorus.
The performance could have stopped there but now the three women who comprise the touring Street Choir joined Van for a great “Crazy Love” and “Domino.” He ended it all with “Caravan.”
For an encore Van offered “Cyprus Avenue.” Working his way up to a ferocious conclusion, he stood before the audience shaking his head back and forth, hair falling about him, looking like a man insane. Finally, with tension mounting, he ran across the stage, ran back again, jumped over a microphone chord, held the mike up to his face and screamed, “It’s too late to stop now,” and was gone.
Van Morrison’s road has been rocky, and it has not left him unscarred, but it is now obvious that he has not only made it through his personal bad times, but that he has come upon a period of great personal creativity. Beginning with Astral Weeks, he has released three albums of extraordinary quality in the last two years.
Moondance is, in my mind, one of the great albums of 1970. In it Van presented his fully developed musical style. The songs were gospel tinged but also touched with ballad-like prettiness. The band swung with the freedom of good jazz groups but locked itself into the simple melodic structure of the songs. The lyrics were simple, personal, and intense. And the singing was all things to all people: gospel, jazz and rock. Morrison has a great voice and on Moondance he found a home for it.
If Moondance had a flaw it was in its perfection. Sometimes things fell into place so perfectly I wished there was more room to breathe. Every song was a polished gem, and yet too much brilliance at the same time and in the same place can be blinding. The album would have benefited by some changes in mood and pace along the way. One or two light and playful cuts would have done the job.
On His Band and the Street Choir he seems to have realized that and has tried for a freer, more relaxed sound. Knowing he could not come up with another ten songs as perfectly honed as those on Moondance, he has chosen to show another side of what goes on around his house.
“Give Me A Kiss,” “Blue Money,” “Sweet Jannie” and “Call Me Up In Dreamland” are all examples of Van’s new, rollicking, good-timey style. “Give Me A Kiss’ is old rock and roll done with a light, jazzy touch. The chorus is enhanced by some simple back-up singing and, as on most of the record, drummer and associate producer Dahuud Elias Shaar moves things along perfectly. “Blue Money” features a sort of pumping piano by Alan Hand and a great nonsense chorus by Van and some of the Choir. “Sweet Jannie” is a straight shuffle about, presumably, Van’s wife Janet Planet: “Sweet Jannie, won’t you come out tonight wanna take you walking, by the pale moonlight,” and then, “Oh, baby c’mon, take me by the hand, I don’t want to stop walking, till we get up to the preacher man.” John Platania’s lead guitar is cool and mellow and plays against Van’s voice perfectly. And Van sings the blues with a lack of pretension we don’t normally associate with white singers.
“Call Me Up In Dreamland” is the sing-along of the year. Like “Blue Money” it has a sort of doubled bass in the bottom but the chorus, sung by what seems like everyone on the record, is especially powerful:
Call me up in dreamland,
Radio to me man,
Get the message to me,
Anyway you can …
While “Blue Money” sounds almost too loose and “Give Me A Kiss” for all its drive, a bit too conventional. “Call Me Up In Dreamland” is both loose and familiar, but still sounds thoroughly original and fresh.
As if to balance this assortment of light material, there is a group of down tunes all identified by the prominent use of acoustic lead guitar: “Crazy Face,” “I’ll Be Your Lover Too” and “Virgo Clowns.” The former is about a man who pulls out a gun and announces, “I got it from Jesse James.” The other two are simple love songs, the latter urging the girl to “Let your love come fill the room.”
On the rocking material the arrangements involving the whole band are kept to a simple minimum, with most of the creative sounds coming from the high pitched horn section. On the ballads, the rhythm section is kept loose with the lead acoustic predominating, and the horns, again, adding a distinctive and unexpected touch. Van’s singing is as smooth and powerful as it’s ever been. Occasionally he employs some eccentric phrasing that disrupts the flow of the music rather than enhancing it, but much more common is the soulful intensity with which he sings. “You’ll be my queen, I’ll be your king, Then I’ll be your lover too.”
The creative core of the album lies in four songs. “Gypsy Queen” is a sort of tribute to the Impressions that doesn’t really sound like the Impressions. It merely gives Van an excuse to use his falsetto, which he does brilliantly. “I’ve Been Working” is one of two songs on the album that makes direct use of Van’s roots in modern soul music. The born riff could have found its way to a James Brown session without any problems. The chorus in which the horns and Van’s voice come together to say “Woman, woman, woman, you make me feel alright” is breathtaking. And the rhythms especially bass, drums, and guitar are an awful lot funkier than one would have expected.
Finally “Domino” mixes that R&B funk with some pop lyrics and melodic ideas and it turns out to be Van’s top ten single. The guitar figure at the beginning of the cut is not only a great way to start a single, but a fine way to begin the album. Van’s singing is at its best, as all its eccentricities and nuances make sense here: “Oh, Domino, roll me over Romeo, there you go …” The bass, drums and horns it all hangs together as well as anything cut recently in Muscle Shoals or Memphis.
As “Domino” opens the album with a show of strength. “Street Choir” closes it with a burst of both musical and poetic energy which is not only better than anything else on the album but may well be one of Van’s two or three finest songs. Here, the keyboard holds the arrangement together, while the Street Choir enhances the chorus as they do only as well on “Call Me Up In Dreamland.” And finally, Van’s lyrics take over to complete the album’s statement,
Why did you leave America
Why did you let me down,
And now that things seem better off,
Why do you come around,
You know I just can’t see you know,
In my new world crystal ball,
You know I just can’t free you now,
That’s not my job at all.
His Band and the Street Choir is a free album. It was recorded with minimal over-dubbing and was obviously intended to show the other side of Moondance. And if it has a flaw it is that, like Moondance, it is too much what it set out to be. A few more numbers with a gravity of “Street Choir” would have made this album as close to perfect as anyone could have stood.
But notwithstanding its limitations. His Band and the Street Choir is another beautiful phase in the continuing development of one of the few originals left in rock. In his own mysterious way. Van Morrison continues to shake his head, strum his guitar and to sing his songs. He knows it’s too late to stop now and he quit trying to a long, long time ago. Meanwhile, the song he is singing keeps getting better and better.
Van Morrison: Rock on.