Between 1968 and 1972 Van Morrison released 5 LPs of outstanding quality. “Astral Weeks” is an essential record, “Moondance”, the first full price LP I ever bought. To choose a favourite depends on which you have listened to most recently. These songs, together with his time with Them, formed a formidable body of work and, in 1973, when he undertook a major tour, he assembled a group to do them justice. The Caledonia Soul Orchestra included brass and string sections together with talented and committed soloists. This clip is long but shows Van and the band at the top of their form. There is a guest appearance by Van’s daughter, Shana.
The show was Morrison’s take on a Soul Revue. He had recorded only his own songs but included versions of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Sonny Boy Williamson songs in the set. This “Cyprus Avenue” is more muscular than the ethereal original but has the same power and beauty. Van’s incantatory vocal is a thing of wonder. It may seem awkward and hesitant if you are new to this but I find it convincing and soulful. I saw him doing his thing once and an audience member tried to join in with the rapture. A brusque “Fuck Off. I’m working” and Van had left the stage. It seemed fair enough at the time, he is serious about his art.
The “It’s Too late To Stop Now” tour, captured on vinyl and on film, is one of the great rock tours. A year later I was pretty thrilled to get a ticket to see the Caledonia Soul Orchestra at a summer festival. Just weeks before the gig we were so looking forward to Van broke up the band. We did not have to worry. He got a pick up band together and they sounded like this…
“Street Choir” from “His Band and the Street Choir” LP is a personal favourite of mine. This version, stripped of the responsive backing vocals, cuts the song to its Celtic Soul bones and I love it. This band was a little too dependent on the keyboards of Pete Wingfield but it also put the spotlight back on Van Morrison. I have seen better concerts by him but you always remember your first time, don’t you ? He was great, encored with “Brown Eyed Girl” and then the Allman Brothers played for three hours. What a good way to spend a day with your friends.
In 1977 Van Morrison released an LP appositely titled “A Period of Transition”. As a maturing artist he still searched for a fusion of craft and spirit. I think the craft was perhaps a little more evident on these records. “Veedon Fleece” (1974) is not the record to introduce someone to Morrison’s work but it is still an impressive piece of work. In concert he continued to add value to the great songs of the early 70s and in 1980 returned to Montreux with another big band.
Now “Tupelo Honey” is an LP to impress the uninitiated. There’s a softer, more romantic feel perhaps reflecting his domestic life. The celebratory “Wild Night”, the bodacious energy of “Moonshine Whiskey” and the classic country tinge of the title track are all outstanding. Here Van is moving into the 1980s, into a style and fashion which would produce further great work.
Some of his Caledonia Soul brothers had rejoined him, still sympatico maybe less freedom to take it where they found it. Van had hooked up with another musical giant who became the arranger and musical director of the band. Saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis had worked with James Brown in the 1960s. He has co-writer credits on “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (O.M.G. !). He brought the touches of jazz, of blues, of soul to wherever the songs needed them. His opening notes to “Tupelo Honey” capture the warmth and the beauty of the tune.
I saw Van play with Mr Ellis a couple of times. The opening instrumental, maybe “Moondance”, would be used for the band to feel their way into things and could be a little safe. All this was forgotten as a great band and a wonderful singer move through the gears and just flew together. A sense of wonder and a sense that you were watching a unique performer and performance. Good Times.