Sunday, 4 October 2020

Van Morrison - Collecting Bottle Tops (1967-1974)

 


Blowin' Your Mind (1967)


Brown Eyed Girl/He Ain't Give You None/T. B. Sheets/Spanish Rose/Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)/Ro Ro Rosey/Who Drove The Red Sports Car/Midnight Special  

"He never has been, never will be anything approaching a psychedelic user – wants nothing to do with it, wants nothing to do with any drug of any kind" - Janet Planet
                              
The first solo Van Morrison album is a strange, short affair and one, I suspect, that Morrison has long since disowned. It was released without his consent, so, for many people, his solo career began with Astral Weeks, the following year. Whatever its derivation, it is actually, I find, a surprisingly good listen. The sound quality is superb, almost a revelation, and you can hear the seeds of Astral Weeks being sown here and there across the album. The cover is pretty awful though.

A lot of the material is very reminiscent of the work he did with Them, particularly He Ain't Give You None, which has that blues guitar, swirling Dylanesque organ and crystal clear cymbal sound that Them utilised a lot, almost like Dylan's Blonde On Blonde "wild mercury sound". This is great track, actually, "I got messed up in a place called Notting Hill Gate..." Van tells us, as he evokes "backstreet jelly roll" for the first time. For 1967, this is a great slice of bluesy rock. Obviously influenced by Dylan, but impressive all the same. Brown Eyed Girl had kicked off the album before that and it just stands alone as a great single, totally incongruous in the Morrison canon, of course, but none the less wonderful for it. 

T.B. Sheets is a menacing, morose song concerning a premature death. It rumbles industrially on for around nine minutes in a bassy, bluesy Stones-influenced way, but is very effective and very disturbing in places. "I can almost smell your T.B. sheets on your sickbed.." is not something you want to listen to for pleasure very often. Written by one so young, it is a shocking and mortally aware song. In many ways, though, it is one of the best sixties-style blues he had recorded, though. It is actually quite remarkable.

Spanish Rose has a jaunty, Sandie Shaw-type melody, some Spanish guitar and a Latin-ish finger-popping rhythm. Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye) is very Rolling Stones, circa 1965-1966 influenced piece of blues pop with some impressive guitar parts. The tracks on this album have mid sixties Dylan and Rolling Stones all over them.

Ro Ro Rosey is a pumping, upbeat (again Stonesy) sort of Brown Eyed Girl meets Gloria. It is another one that has many echoes of Them about it. Indeed, if you did not know, you would say it was Them. 

Who Drove The Red Sports Car is a wonderful slice of early Morrison bassy, slow grinding blues. Morrison is particularly impressive on the "ad hoc" vocal improvisation at the end. 

The album ends with a harmonica-drenched cover of Midnight Special. Every now and again, Morrison plays this live, or on Jools Holland's show. It is played rockingly here, with some razor-sharp guitar. You know, I have been pleasantly surprised digging this album out again.

Astral Weeks (1968)


Astral Weeks/Beside You/Sweet Thing/Cyprus Avenue/The Way That Young Lovers Do/Madame George/Ballerina/Slim Slow Slider 

"It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison's previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by The Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work" - Lester Bangs         

After some what would prove to be somewhat typical legal wrangling and general bad feeling with Bang Records regarding the rights to most of Van Morrison’s back catalogue thus far, or something like that (too complicated to bother with now), an album was finally recorded.

Morrison was now, in 1968, moving clearly away from the fast-paced rhythm and blues that had characterised his output while part of the beat group, Them, and some of his solo recordings from 1967. Rather than going “psychedelic” like so many other groups and artists, Morrison was starting out on a long journey into self-awareness, spirituality and mysticism that would dominate so many of his recordings for many years to come. He was now inspired and motivated by poetry, philosophy, the arts, the countryside and the great works of literature. Musically, his love of jazz, folk and soul would come to the forefront and he would develop a new style of vocal that often involved repetition of single refrains many times - “just a like a, just a like a, just a like a, just a like a, just a like a, like a ballerina...” or however many times he repeated it. It could, in my opinion, get irritating at times, but it was certainly unique and gave his vocals a real recognisability.

Lyrically, that good old chestnut, “streams of consciousness” always rears its head when Astral Weeks is discussed, and, it has to be said that a lot of the lyrics have no obvious meaning  or point of connection. They just express a series of feelings, images and characters. A good example is my personal favourite track, and one of Morrison’s finest of all time - the intriguing, perplexing Madame George. Just what was it all about? Does it really matter? It just has a great feel - slowly brooding, a wonderful jazz/soul backing and Morrison’s mystifying lyrics. Every bit of it is sensational. When Morrison first sings “down Cyprus Avenue..” it still sends tingles down the spine. I also love the percussion and flute fade out. Just eight minutes of soulful redemption. Incidentally, Marianne Faithfull did an absolutely stirring, evocative version too.

The album was recorded by jazz session musicians not previously known to Morrison, or familiar with his music.  They were in a studio and Morrison was in a booth with his acoustic guitar. Nevertheless it worked to a tee. The instrumentation is fantastic throughout. To this day, apparently, the identity of the flautist remains unknown.
                
The beautifully rhythmic acoustic flourishes of Astral Weeks kick things off and Morrison’s plaintive,soulful voice joins in, expressing lyrics about “slipstreams”, “viaducts” and “dreams”. A read a review which said at this point, Morrison was up there with Dylan. They were right. This is Morrison’s Blonde On Blonde, for sure. This was still 1968, remember. This was “pop” music as it hadn’t really previously existed. The song’s several minutes just wash over you as if you are lying in a warm bath.

Beside You starts with some beautiful crystal clear acoustic guitar and a cutting, slightly too-loud vocal from Morrison. It is one of his first overtly spiritual songs. The guitar, flute and the almost ad-hoc vocal intertwine most effectively.

The same applies to the mystical, swirling Sweet Thing with Morrison at his pastoral,  bucolic best, speaking of “gardens wet with rain” (an image he would revisit on 1986’s In The Garden). Over an insistent shuffling bass and percussion backing, Morrison and the musicians push the song onwards and upwards to a kind of creative nirvana. That voice and that fluttering flute and sweeping strings. One of his best songs of all time. All romantic positivity and sensitivity (that such a notoriously “difficult” man could be so tender, lyrically, has always fascinated me).

The melodic bass introduces us, with a lovely harpsichord refrain underpinning it, to the wonderful Cyprus Avenue. Morrison gets all nostalgic about a street from his youth and some stunning violin joins in. Yet another magnificent track. Morrison is in complete control here, despite being in another room.

What is strange is that on all the many Van Morrison compilations over the years, only Sweet Thing from this sensational album is ever included. Why not Astral WeeksCyprus Avenue or Madame George. The beauty of digital programming, of course, is that they can be added.

The Way That Young Lovers Do is a jaunty, brass-driven, jazzy short sharp piece of fun that many feel is incongruous in the context of the album. I disagree. It livens things up a little. 

Don’t worry. Madame George is coming. I remember hearing Robert Elms introducing it on radio once and he simply said “this is a mighty, mighty record”. He was right.  I can’t listen to it without getting all watery-eyed.  Those cymbals at the end and Morrison vocalising us out, on that train. Just heavenly.

Morrison repeats “in the back street” quite a bit on Madame George. Maybe there was something in his “Bruce Springsteen stole some of my lines” claim after all.


Ballerina seems almost “live”, as if they just improvised on the spot, which, apparently is something close to the truth. The beat remains ever insistent - acoustic rhythm, bass, percussion. Just intoxicating. It sounds great in the latest 2015 remaster. As indeed does all the album. Van sings as he did on It’s Too Late To Stop Now, in total control, yet sounding so spur of the moment. In some ways, parts of this are the best bits on the album. 

Slim Slow Slider is the most mournful song on the album, its repeated blues-style vocals tell of a girl’s tragic demise. It is, for me, the only song that does not have any uplifting, inspirational qualities. There is always that feeling of hope, of spiritual redemption in the other tracks. Not in this one. It comes to an abrupt end. Somehow I feel this magnificent piece of work should have faded out gracefully, not with a slamming of a door. Never mind though. It has been one hell of a journey.

** PS - the extras include some “alternate takes”. The take of Madame George is enjoyable but I prefer the original. Ballerina, however, is excellent, with some big, booming saxophone parts. Slim Slow Slider is great too, bassier, I think, with some nice clarinet(?).




Moondance (1970)


And It Stoned Me/Moondance/Crazy Love/Caravan/Into The Mystic/Come Running/These Dreams Of You/Brand New Day/Everyone/Glad Tidings

"Every time we'd drive past Dylan's house ... Van would just stare wistfully out the window at the gravel road leading to Dylan's place. He thought Dylan was the only contemporary worthy of his attention" - Janet Planet             

After the phenomenal, unique album that was 1968’s Astral Weeks Van Morrison was back two years later in early 1970 with this seminal album of Celtic soul and jazzy laid-back rock. Later that year, in November, came the introduction to horn-driven Celtic soul that was His Band And The Street Choir, an album that I have always thought came before Moondance, It didn’t, but somehow sounds as if it should have, such is the rawness of that album in comparison to Moondance’s slick professional ambience.

Moondance is a marvellous album. Not a duff track on it. Seriously. It is packed full of energy, soul, atmosphere, vitality and excellent musicianship from beginning to end. This 2013 remaster is truly outstanding. As good a reproduction as I have ever heard it - balanced, warm, crystal clear and punchy.

It begins with the so very Irish
And It Stoned Me, a mid-paced, folky but soulful slice of Celtic majesty that sees Van musing about the county fair, the rain coming down and fishing poles. Just entrancing stuff. - Van's voice, the sumptuous horns, the piano. All of it. Simply marvellous.



Then comes Moondance, known by many these days. Very jazzy and open to many different jazz interpretations. It has an infectious feel to it. Irresistibly rhythmic. The bass is beautiful on this remaster, the acoustic guitar so clear. Just such a joy to listen to. 

Then there is Crazy Love - what a beautiful piece of pure soul. Once again, fantastic instrumentation. Big, full bass again and Van's voice is lovely. It was the first track I ever heard from this album, back in the late seventies. It was in a record shop in London’s Leicester Square. I asked them who it was (I knew only Brown Eyed Girl at the time. I was still a teenager). I was hooked on Van from that moment on. It is short, but beautifully created song with Morrison’s voice on top form. Since Astral Weeks he has developed some deeper tones to it. There were just a few times on that album when it grated just a tiny bit. Not on here.


Caravan is a copper-bottomed Morrison classic. Full of gypsy imagery about a bucolic travelling life on the road and delivered in that unique Celtic soul style that Morrison was making his own. It is impeccable from beginning to end. That bit around 2.32 when Van says "the caravan is painted red and white" and then a bit later when he tells us to "turn up your radio". And then the horns kick in. If that is not musical perfection I don't know what is. 

Into The Mystic is possibly even better. An understated, beautiful bass intro. Then into a “stream of consciousness” gentle and captivating Celtic soul song, complete with an ethereal mystical (as the title would suggest) atmosphere and foghorn sound effects - "when that foghorn blows". Van singing how he wants to "rock your gypsy soul". Just perfection. Van Morrison has had a long career, but there have been fewer better songs, in many ways, than some of those on this album. Particularly the two just mentioned. It certainly was too late to stop now. 

The “Celtic soul swing” thing kicks in for the next two jauntily upbeat numbers - Come Running and These Dreams Of You. While not emotional, evocative soul anthems, they are both incredibly catchy, strident and punchy numbers. The former is lively and joyous. Celebratory. The latter one of Morrison's best soul numbers. Great horns. Van really had the knack for a vibrant tune on this album. No extended reflective workouts as on many other albums. It is his most accessible, dare I say commercial album. Just listening to it again is such a pleasure.

 

Brand New Day. Oh my. One of my favourite Van Morrison songs. A wonderful gospel soul sound. Great verses building up to that killer chorus with its energising, uplifting effect whenever you hear it. To say it is life affirming is actually a bit of an understatement. Lovely piano underpinning it, as indeed on a lot of the album. I am running out of superlatives for this album and just seem to be repeating myself. 

Everyone has some melodic, almost Elizabethan-style swirling keyboards to introduce what is an energetic and exhilarating song. 

Glad Tidings ends things hopefully and  soulfully and, once again, in an upbeat manner. What a bass line to begin with. Another of my favourites. This has been a very positive, refreshing album. Even the more soulful songs are certainly not mournful. There is a lot of joie de vivre on the album. It never fails to lift the spirits.

** Non-album music from the sessions of the time are the rarity I Shall Sing - an upbeat, enthusiastic slightly Caribbean-sounding number that was impressively covered by reggae artists Toots & The Maytals on their 1976 album Reggae Got Soul and an outtake cover of Jimmy Cox's 1923 blues Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out. It is a good outtake, however, with a fine vocal from Morrison and a jazz/blues piano backing.




His Band And The Street Choir (1970)


Domino/Crazy Face/Give Me A Kiss/I've Been Working/Call Me Up In Dreamland/I'll Be Your Lover Too/Blue Money/Virgo Clowns/Gypsy Queen/Sweet Jannie/If I Ever Needed Someone/Street Choir  

"People think you're a hippie because of the long hair and beard. ... I'd bought the kaftan in Woodstock, and that's what people were wearing"   - Van Morrison       
After the sweet Celtic soul of the marvellous and entrancing Moondance album, Van Morrison continued the Celtic Soul Swing even more on this follow-up album. It is a good album, but certainly not the equal of the peerless Moondance. It sounds more raw, more obviously horn-dominated, without quite the clarity of sound, versatility of musicianship or diversification into soul and jazz of its predecessor. Furthermore, even on this 2013 remaster, the sound is definitely not as crystal clear as on Moondance. It never has been, unfortunately. This is by far the best remaster of it so far but it still has a slightly muffled sound in comparison. However, it is far superior to previous, frustrating remasters of it.

                                      
Domino is a vibrant, kicking horn-driven and punchy slice of Celtic soul to start off, with some catchy hooks, while Crazy Face is a wonderful piece of soul, with a great saxophone solo and an ambience that would not have been out of place on Moondance. A similar soul feel to Crazy Love. There is a spontaneous, almost live feel to Van’s vocal delivery on this track. 

This album is more bluesy than the previous one - the jazzy, vigorous blues of Give Me A Kiss is a good example. Rock ’n’ roll doo-wop backing vocals and a rocking saxophone are in there as well. A high-spirited pleasure to listen to. 

The blues feeling is much, much deeper on one of my favourites, the rocking, gritty I've Been Working. This is a grinding, growling industrial blues rocker. The bass on here is big and powerful and the bit where Van sings “woman, woman, woman, woman…” and the horns come blasting in is marvellous. This is one of the best tracks on the album. Almost funky in places too.

Call Me Up In Dreamland has more than a hint of Sam Cooke’s Havin’ A Party in its lively chorus. 

I'll Be Your Lover Now does have a bit of recording hiss on it but it has a slow soul stateliness and something of a ”live” feel. The acoustic guitars are so sharp they almost gave my ears a paper cut. 

Blue Money is a sixties sounding bluesy rocking groove. It sounds a bit like something Georgie Fame would have done a few years earlier. It never really gets there, however. Something just a little half-baked about it. Like a studio demo that should have been left there. 

Virgo Clowns is better, “let your laughter fill the room” sings Van, again sounding very ad hoc. A sharp, acoustic backing and a bit of an Astral Weeks feel pervades the track.

Gypsy Queen is just sumptuous. The “you know it’s alright” refrain reminds me of something else, although I can’t put my finger on it. Something by Bruce Springsteen, I think. Superb, powerful horns and an excellent Morrison vocal where he just owns the band. 

Sweet Jannie has Van revisiting the blues again for a standard upbeat blues rocker. 

If I Ever Needed Someone is a soulful, slow-paced, brassy search for spiritual satisfaction, something Van would indulge in many times over the years. 

Street Choir has a gospelly feel with some strident backing vocals and more potent horns. Overall, it is not quite up to Moondance but it is a highly enjoyable upbeat, brassy soul album.

As regards the title of the album, it certainly is a clunker. Wordy and clumsy. However, when I was first properly getting into Van in the early 1980s, - checking out his back catalogue - it was the album's name which caught my eye - something seemingly credible about the name "street choir" I guess. Sounded sort of Springsteen-ish, I thought at the time.


Tupelo Honey (1971)


Wild Night/Straight To Your Heart (Like A Cannonball)/Old, Old Woodstock/Starting A New Life/You're My Woman/Tupelo Honey/I Wanna Roo You/When The Evening Sun Goes Down/Moonshine Whiskey 

"When I went to the West Coast these people weren't that available so I had to virtually put a completely new band together overnight to do 'Tupelo Honey'. So it was a very tough period. I didn't want to change my band but if I wanted to get into the studio I had to ring up and get somebody. That was the predicament I was in" - Van Morrison           
                         
After two comparatively vibrant, soulful, brassy albums, Van Morrison caught the zeitgeist post-Woodstock and, like Bob Dylan, relocated to a farm to live a tranquil life far from the madding crowd. This is very much reflected in the material on this album, from 1971, although, ironically, the actual recording of it took place in California after Morrison's wife, Janet Planet, had convinced him to move there. He then had to get a new band set up, and this led to a bit of tension in the recording process. This was according to Morrison, but if there was fraughtness, you would never have known from the album's smooth, bucolic and relaxed vibe.

Wild Night sounds like it is straight off 1970’s Street Choir - a Celtic soul, upbeat, bass intro and some strident horn riffs just like Domino which opened that previous album. However, this would prove to be one of the only pure pieces of Celtic soul on this album. It was an album in which Morrison was to go bluesy bucolic, like Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait. That whole laid-back country feel was the thing of the day. 

However, Straight To Your Heart (Like A Cannonball), despite its county rock twangy guitar riffs and double-time waltzy beat still has some Celtic flute, lively “la-la-la” backing vocals and a catchy hook. After which, though, it gets decidedly different in tone.

Old, Old Woodstock is laid-back, tender and quite beautiful. Lovely gentle bass line on it. It is an appealing slice of slow-paced soul/bluesy rock. Far more reflective and low-key than anything on the previous album. Van ruminates on his peaceful, rustic life with his woman and child on the farm. He sounds a man very much at one with himself. Bob Dylan would do similar on the following year's New Morning. He also lived in the same part of the USA.

 

It has a lovely piano bit in the middle too. Even on a comparatively understated track like this, however, Morrison still owns the track, his vocals rising confidently above the impeccable backing.

Starting A New Life is a cornerstone for the themes on the album. All country harmonica and acoustic guitar it celebrates exactly what the title says. It is nice and peaceful but it doesn’t hit you between the eyes, but then that was presumably not the intention of this album.

You're My Woman is a solid, potent bluesy rock ballad in praise of Van’s woman - the enigmatic Janet Planet. There is some excellent saxophone at the track’s climax. Some critics have had a problem with Morrison’s supposedly macho approach to “his woman”. Personally, I don’t. It was a song of its time. It was a blues song. Nothing to get too irked about. Because there are no copper-bottomed Morrison classics on this album (apart from the title track), it is easy to overlook it in comparison with Moondance or St. Dominic’s Preview, which does it a bit of a disservice. There is some good material on here.

Now, let’s get to Tupelo Honey. Simply in my top five Van Morrison songs of all time. Big, dramatic, romantic, soulful. It has the lot. “She’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey, she’s an angel of the first degree…”. Does it get much better? Maybe - try “men with insight, men in granite….”. This magnificent, moving, inspirational track is packed full of classic moments. Jack Schroer’s saxophone against the ring guitar chords for one. The twin acoustic solos in the middle part. Just blooming beautiful. Then Van returns - “you can’t stop us on the road to freedom…” Oh my, you grumpy old deity. You lift my soul at times.

Country pleasures return with the Dylanesque (Self Portrait era) and acoustic I Wanna Roo You

When The Evening Sun Goes Down is even more country rock-ish, sounding just like ThBandLeon Russell and early Elton John. It has echoes of the country material Morrison would record years later on Pay The Devil. In the past I have tended to dismiss these last few tracks, being so blown away by the title track, but listening to them again reveals hidden joys.

Moonshine Whiskey's pedal steel guitar and catchy refrain continues the straw-bale hoedown feel, although Van gets all soulful in the middle when he serenades his “Texas sweetheart, all the way from Arkansas…”. Even in this jaunty country number he gets some classic Celtic soul Morrison-isms into it.

This is an often underrated Van Morrison album. Yes, it is no Astral Weeks or Moondance but it is worthy of more than just the occasional listen. I am glad I dug it out again.

** PS - the alternative version of Wild Night included on the remaster is excellent. You also get Van's lively take on the gospel of Down By The Riverside.




Saint Dominic's Preview (1972)


Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)/Gypsy/I Will Be There/Listen To The Lion/Saint Dominic's Preview/Redwood Tree/Almost Independence Day

"The album was kind of rushed because of studio time and things like that. But I thought it was a good shot, that album. There were a lot of good songs on it. 'St. Dominic's Preview' was more into where I'm at, more into what I was doing"   - Van Morrison     

This, Van Morrison’s sixth studio album (or the fifth if you don’t count Blowin’ Your Mind) is a mixture of the swinging, jaunty, horn-driven and folky Celtic soul of Moondance and Street Choir and of the lengthy, extended, spiritual material that would characterise much of his later work. Two of the tracks are very long and employ the almost ad hoc “stream of consciousness” lyrics that Morrison would use on later albums like Common One. The other tracks are lively and almost poppy at times, so it is an intriguing mix of an album.
                         
It starts with the soul/pop of Jackie Wilson Said with its infectious and catchy “da-da-da-da-dah” opening refrain. It almost sounds too light and airy for most of the rest of the album. 

Gypsy is a song that returns to common Morrison ground of celebrating nature’s beauty, over a jazzy upbeat rock /folk backing, with the trademark horns as well. 

I Will Be There is a piano-led, jazzy, Ray Charles-inspired upbeat blues. It also contains an excellent Jack Schroer saxophone solo.

 

Listen To The Lion is a beautifully bass-led, slow-paced reflective eleven minute workout that has Morrison almost ad-libbing his vocals - sometimes singing, sometimes growling, shouting, using the old blues repetition technique, then some jazz scat,  and finally roaring like a lion at times. In many ways, it is a bit of a difficult listen, but in other ways it is a remarkable track. From about half way through, there are not really too many words, apart from “listen to the lion, inside of me”, and some bits about "sailing to Denmark". I love the first seven or eight minutes, but to be honest, it has never been one of my favourites of his, finding it far too long and at times a little irritating in Van’s delivery. However, I am not blind to its good points. The bass lines are superb as is the general atmosphere. It is played immaculately and just keeps up the never-ending intensity. Actually, you know, listening to it again, I am feeling far more inclined to it. Maybe therein lies its strength. I have found my own inner lion.

On to my favourite track, though. Saint Dominic's Preview is a mix of all sorts of things. It is lengthy, but soulful, varied and never one-dimensional. There are lyrical references to Van’s Belfast childhood, Edith PiafSan FranciscoHank Williams, his teenage days, his time cleaning windows, even the “Safeway Supermarket”. There are mentions of his new-found fame - “the record company has paid out for the wine”. All over a lively, addictive Celtic soul-style beat. It has a wonderful instrumental backing build up, just like Listen To The Lion, but far more lyrical inspiration. The best track on the album, for me. Also, one of Van Morrison's best ever. Incidentally, the lyric "flags and emblems" was used as an album title by Northern Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers

Redwood Tree is my next choice. It is a captivating and upbeat song celebrating Morrison’s new life in California, being at one with nature and just enjoying life in general. Melodic, uplifting and soulful, it is one of Morrison’s most hopeful, positive and carefree songs. One of his great Celtic Soul numbers.


Almost Independence Day is the other stream of consciousness long number. It is said to be, by some, a sequel to 1968’s monumental Madame George. Not for me it isn’t. It doesn’t come remotely close. It has the sound of an extended studio jam, experimenting with Moog synthesiser foghorn sounds and the like. It just doesn’t quite work as far as I’m concerned. The crystal clear acoustic guitar is impressive, the bass is once again superb and Morrison lends "live" vocal feeling to it, but after about six or seven of its ten minutes, I begin to tire of it., just a little. I read somewhere of a critic saying that the contemporarily-recorded Wonderful Remark should have taken its place. I have to say I agree. One Listen To The Lion is enough. I much prefer Lion of the two extended tracks. The album, therefore, as a whole, is a bit of an odd one, as four of the tracks are quite short and two are so rambling and long so it doesn't have either the soulful punchiness of His Band And The Street Choir or the deliberately long, spiritual feeling of Common One. All that said, these are just personal, somewhat superficial opinions. The album is still up there in Morrison's top ten.




Hard Nose The Highway (1973)


Snow In San Anselmo/Warm Love/Hard Nose The Highway/Wild Children/The Great Deception/Bein' Green/Autumn Song/Purple Heather 

"As a concept for the album, I was just trying to establish how hard it was to do what I do. Plus there were some lighter things on the other side of it. One side has a kind of hard feeling while the other is soft"   - Van Morrison        

1973’s Hard Nose The Highway was very much an album of transition for Van Morrison. It was the one where the Celtic soul started to give way to diversified, spiritually-motivated material that would result in low-key, ethereal, quietly atmospheric albums like 1974’s Veedon Fleece. This album was the stepping point to that one.
                   
The opener, Snow In San Anselmo, begins with some choral vocals before Morrison’s voice arrives - considerably high-pitched now in comparison to the bluesy growl or upbeat soulful tone of the previous few albums. The pace of the music has slowed down too. It is still impeccably played as always - lovely bass, keyboards and guitar. This is now the kind of laid back soul/rock that Morrison would record for many more years. There is a strange, rather incongruous upbeat jazzy part in the middle, however, before the gentle, relaxing groove returns. The choral backing is somewhat superfluous too, the song would be better without it, in my opinion. 

Nevertheless, the sound quality, by the way, is truly superb.

 

Warm Love is an entrancing romantic number with some lovely flute backing and a tender vocal from Morrison. 

Hard Nose The Highway is one of those typical brassy soulful tracks but not as upbeat as on previous albums. Morrison’s soul is now much slower in pace, still brass-dominated, but nowhere near as flighty. When Van goes into the “further on up the road” voice part, it sounds almost like a live recording, the type of which would appear on the It’s Too Late To Stop Now album. 

Wild Children is a lovely, sensitive piano-led ballad about the generation of his, born in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. Van gets all emotional about Tennessee Williams, Rod Steiger, James Dean, Marlon Brando, rivers and streams. Bucolic and nostalgic for “the days before rock ’n’ roll” -  a theme he would return to many times over the years. This was one of his first of that type of song. Beautiful it is too. A warm, comforting bass sound and jazzy guitar on it. Van Morrison is capable of some of the most observant, sensitive lyrics you will hear put to music. 

The Great Deception ploughs a similar furrow, musically and lyrically it expresses some of the cynicism towards the duplicitous things “they” do to him that he would express many more times over the years.


Bein' Green is a song from the children’s TV programme Sesame Street and was sung by future muppet, Kermit The Frog. Morrison turns it into a Ray Charles-style soul ballad, most convincingly. 

Autumn Song is a beautiful, extended, ten minute slice of Morrison laid-back jazz rock. Some critics are dissatisfied with this song. I disagree. It has an affecting ambience and its musicianship is excellent. It just sort of washes over you like a warm bath. Ideal for an early autumn evening. Maybe it should have ended two minutes before it did, but I can live with that. It is worth thinking upon that, amongst the seriously great and diverse albums released in 1973, this is one of those rarely mentioned, yet it is one of the most ahead of its time, both musically and lyrically.

The closer is a most winsome cover of the traditional Caledonian air, Purple Heathergiven the orchestrated Morrison treatment. Some great violin on this track and some ad hoc style scat vocals.

This proved to be a little-mentioned but important album in the musical and thematic development of Van Morrison as an artist. Many future albums would follow its lead.




Veedon Fleece (1974)


Fair Play/Linden Arden Stole The Highlights/Who Was That Masked Man/Streets Of Arklow/You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River/Bulbs/Cul De Sac/Comfort You/Come Here My Love/Country Fair

"And as we walked through the streets of Arklow, oh the colours of the day warm, and our heads were filled with poetry, in the morning coming onto dawn" 
            
This was Van Morrison's most Irish roots-influenced album thus far in his recording career. By now living in San Francisco, and seemingly feeling wistful about Ireland, he re-discovers his Celtic soul and blends it with the stream of consciousness lyrical style that so dominated his late 60s/early 70s output.
                                                         
This sense of homesickness is particularly apparent on tracks like the mysterious, evocative Streets Of Arklow and the extended, inscrutable You Don’t Pull No Punches, But you Don't Push The River. This is a track that was a forerunner to the existential material found on 1980's Common One. Morrison sings of "William Blake and the Sisters of Mercy looking for the Veedon Fleece..." over a shuffling, flute-enhanced jazzy improvised backing.

Morrison is often sentimental about his homeland and also ruminates upon emigration on several occasions. He had been away, in effect, since 1967, remember. These are very Irish songs. Mysterious, mystical and beguiling. The short Who Was That Masked Man? is in a similar mode, its meaning unclear and somewhat perplexing.


Personal favourites are the enigmatic Linden Arden Stole The Highlights - a track beloved of Elvis Costello - and the totally delightful, upbeat Bulbs

Also the somewhat ponderous but very appealing Fair Play, with its very Irish turn of phrase. Apparently Morrison got the lyric from an Irish friend who was always saying “fair play to you”. Check out that lovely deep bass line and its interplay with the acoustic guitar and tinkling "waterfall" piano notes.

Cul-De-Sac is a slow, soulful but dramatic Morrison classic too, rarely mentioned in any “best of” lists. David Bowie was seen as a great innovator when he recorded white soul like this a year later on Young Americans. Morrison was leading the way here, unnoticed by many. 

Comfort You is lovely, a bit of a throwback to the romantic, bucolic feeling of 1972's Tupelo Honey album. It features some sumptuous bass/cymbals and strings. It is another little-mentioned gem of a song. 

Come Here My Love is a slow, contemplative acoustic melancholic lament that also has a feeling of hope as Morrison want his love to help him fly higher, "enraptured by the sights and sounds...". It is only a couple of minutes long, but it confirms Morrison to be very much at one with nature, which is always a reassuring thing.


County Fair is a haunting, meditative and ethereal folky closer to the album that features some excellent flute. Morrison often used flute in his backing, to great effect, as he did earlier on the album on You Don't Pull No Punches.

In comparison to the more soulful albums in MooondanceHis Band and St. Dominic’s Preview this album is rather more like Hard Nose The Highway in its being far closer to Astral Weeks than any of the upbeat, vibrant, Celtic soul albums that came after that stunning debut. It is a reflective album, that is for sure, and thoroughly beautiful in so many ways.

Morrison himself has pretty much disowned the material on here, which is a shame as it is an album that has a definite “feel” to it - mid evening and thoughtful. as I mentioned earlier, tracks from here rarely appear on “best of” compilations. I find it always worth dipping into every now and again. The sound is a bit hissy at times, but it doesn’t seem to matter, really. It is probably quite a credible thing if asked to name your favourite Van Morrison album to say Veedon Fleece.




It's Too Late To Stop Now (1974)


This is the original live double album release that has captivated fans for years. It is actually a compilation of tracks from three shows - from The Troubadour in Los Angeles, from Santa Monica and from London's Rainbow Theatre. You would never have known, as it plays like one full concert, which gives it undoubted plus points. It is up there with the true contenders for the "greatest live album of all time".

Van is in total control of his large, brass-dominated band, instinctively and intuitively so, from beginning to end. The opener is an old blues cover given the full horn-driven Celtic Soul treatment and Warm Love gets the full brass enhancement. The sound on the remastered CD is just so damn good, it takes your breath away. Into The Mystic is one of those seemingly effortless pieces that Van just owns. When he sings "I wanna rock your gypsy soul" and the band kick in, it is just one of those moments. Morrison utilises two violinists and a viola player on these track and their contribution is wonderful, as is that on the bass of Bill Attwood and Jack Schroer on saxophone. It is during this period that Morrison really developed his on stage Celtic soul improvisation, his "backstreet jelly roll" that would so positively characterise his stagecraft from now on. He was also, by his own admittance, really discovering a love of playing live. Just listen to the jaunty These Dreams Of You for conclusive proof of that. The saxophones are superb on this track also. I Believe To My Soul is a bluesy Ray Charles number given a suitably bluesy, but sumptuously brassy overhaul.

I've Been Working is a lively, almost funky at times, workout, with that great "woman, woman, woman..." vocal riff. The upbeat blues of Help Me rocks along. Morrison can trot out these numbers in his sleep. Wild Children sees him all Celtically nostalgic and reflective. It is a beautifully laid-back, soulful number with a delicious piano break in the middle. As Domino kicks in with is uplifting horn riff and Van's great vocal I realise just what a consistently superb album this is and that there is little point dissecting track after track. No need. They are all great. My goodness, just put I Just Want To Make Love To You on, right now.

Special mention has to go out to the conclusion, however - Caravan is one of the best live cuts I have heard by anyone, let alone Van Morrison. The violin solo in it is just magnificent and life-affirming. Live music simply doesn't get much better than this. Unbelievably highly recommended.

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