Jef Labes, a keyboardist who’d first hooked up with Van Morrison on the classic Moondance album, was back working on a new record with Morrison in 1973 when his boss flashed on an idea. “He said, ‘Let’s put together a tour with strings and everything!'” Labes recalls of what was, at the time, a fairly untested concept. “Not that many people were traveling with a string section. Except maybe ELO.”
On preceding albums like Saint Dominic’s Preview and Tupelo Honey, Morrison was on a groundbreaking creative roll, blending elements of jazz, folk, Marin County country, R&B and rock & roll. Now came the moment to bring that no-boundaries blend to the stage, and Morrison’s comment to Labes, who excelled at string arrangements, was the first step. Soon enough, Morrison had assembled the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, a 10-piece band incorporating four string players and a horn section (and named after a legendary unreleased jam from 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir). With that band, Morrison would be able to explore nearly every facet of his music onstage, and those exuberant, musically expansive shows, in the U.S. and Europe throughout 1973, would be a pinnacle for Morrison and his creative vision. “He wasn’t looking to repeat himself,” says Labes. “He wanted to create a new show every night.”
For Morrison, who always saw music as a cathartic experience, the experiment couldn’t have come at a better time. He and his first wife, Janet Rigsbee (also known as “Janet Planet”), had broken up, a bitter experience Morrison chronicled in a new song for the tour, “I Paid the Price.” “That was definitely a statement on his marriage,” says guitarist John Platania, who co-wrote the song with Morrison. For at least part of the tour, Morrison’s daughter Shana, then three, accompanied him, along with her nanny. His daughter’s presence seemed to calm Morrison, as when she’d dance along with the music. “It was a very exciting time with that group,” says Labes, “but it was also hard for him since his marriage was breaking up. It was a mixed bag.”
Yet starting with their first shows, a trial run at L.A.’s Troubadour club, it was clear that the Caledonia Soul Orchestra were up for the challenge of supporting Morrison’s musical journey. Anchored by Labes, Platania, bassist David Hayes and drummer Dahaud Shaar, the rhythm section could lock in like the tightest blues band on covers of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket” and “Help Me,” thrash out gritty versions of Morrison’s Them gems “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night,” or revel in the joyous swing of “Come Running.” And those were just the starting points. With the string quartet sawing away, “The Way Young Lovers Do” and “Cyprus Avenue” would each stretch out to nearly 10 rapturous, into-the-mystic minutes, providing ample room for instrumental solos. “We could take the songs anywhere Van wanted to take them,” says Platania. “Every performance of each song was different.” (According to Labes, Morrison took a degree of inspiration from the band in other ways: “We had this cellist, Terry Adams, who was very attractive – a strawberry blonde with a bubbly personality,” he laughs.)
Sometimes sporting then-fashionable platform shoes, Morrison was his usual lost-in-the-music self, rarely addressing the crowd and keeping his band on its toes with subtle, furtive gestures. “He had these signals behind his back,” says Platania. “He would flash his hand and spread his fingers out. We knew instantly we had to bring it down and then we’d build it up again.” Morrison was also stretching out himself, toying with his phrasing or elongating syllables like a jazz singer; his vocal on “Moondance” rarely repeated the recorded version. By the time the set inevitably ended with a rousing “Caravan,” Morrison was also doing uncharacteristic kicks in the air, especially at the Rainbow Theatre in London. At those shows, his first British concerts in years, he was greeted like returning royalty.
Yet by the end of the tour, Morrison was feeling drained, emotionally and physically. “I remember I was in Belgium, sitting in my hotel room looking out the window, and I was thinking, ‘This isn’t worth it, man,'” he told RS in 1978. “These record-company people were always ear-bending with their line: ‘He never works,’ and I blew that one out the window. I wasn’t going to let show business control my life. So I decided to take a break, get my shit together for me, and think about what I was doing being in this music business – it was becoming oppressive.” He also complained of back aches from the physically exertive performances.
With that, Morrison folded the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. “We were sad to see it end,” says Platania. “But in those days, he would say stuff like, ‘The show doesn’t have to go on.'” Thankfully, at least three shows on that tour were recorded, and the resulting double live album, 1974’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, one of the most gripping concert recordings of that era, immortalized that band and moment in Morrison’s career. (Around 2009, Morrison reconvened those players for a reunion but ultimately changed his mind about that show, opting to recreate Astral Weeks onstage with musicians from that era.) “You’re not on every night,” Morrison told writer Cameron Crowe during the tour. “You can’t be on every night. But I can honestly say that with this group of people, it’s mostly on.”