Sunday, 4 October 2020

Van Morrison - Take Me Way Back (1989-1999)

Avalon Sunset (1989)

Whenever God Shines His Light/Contacting My Angel/I'd Love To Write Another Song/Have I Told You Lately/Coney Island/I'm Tired Joey Boy/When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God/Orangefield/Daring Night/These Are The Days

"Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings in case we get famished before dinner"

Just as Bob Dylan's Damascus moment in 1978-79 had shocked the music world and resulted in the release of three devotional Christian-themed albums, so Van Morrison's supposed conversion to evangelical "born again" Christianity similarly shocked people. Granted, he had been "spiritual" on his albums now for many, many years. Had he converted to Buddhism, Scientology, or indulged in transcendental meditation, it would have been no surprise, but to declare himself "born again" was a left field move, even for one as wilfully perverse as Morrison. His brief flirtation with this form of Christianity came after meeting Cliff Richard, but although Cliff was impressed with Morrison's initial zeal, he eventually came to doubt that Van was serious enough about his faith. Either way, Richard duetted with Van on the blatantly religious Whenever God Shines His Light, to great effect, actually. Many people have derided the song, and the collaboration. Not me. I have always loved it. Richard's voice is crystal clear and a perfect foil for Morrison's gruff growl. The song has rhythm, soul and some great hooks. Lay off it - it's good.
The album also sold well, and saw Morrison grabbing a little bit of the mainstream. I knew people back then who certainly were not Morrison fans, yet they had Avalon Sunset in their CD collection, alongside their Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA. I always found that rather strange - why this but not Poetic Champions' Compose or Hymns To The Silence?

Have I Told You Lately? has become well known due to Rod Stewart's more than acceptable cover of it. Morrison's original shows that, like Someone Like You on the previous album, he can write a straight-up love song. The keyboard-replicated wave sounds at the beginning are most atmospheric. It is simply a beautiful song. Funnily enough, in his Christian theme, the song could easily be addressed to God. Maybe it was.

Contacting My Angel is a meditative piece that sounds as if it should have been on Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. Morrison growls some of his vocals and fetchingly whispers some of the rest of it, talking of a "little village", a theme he would revisit later in his career. It is all a bit stream of consciousness. 

I'd Love To Write Another Song features Georgie Fame, who was beginning a long recording relationship with Morrison here. It is jazzy and jaunty - saxophone, brass and rhythmic shuffling drums. Morrison would do a lot more songs like this over the next twenty-five years.

Coney Island (pictured) is a wonderful little oddity. A short melody that has Morrison reciting memories of earlier days on the Northern Irish coast. He speaks the words and it is all intensely personal. It gets you thinking "he's not such a bad bloke after all, he'd be ok on a trip to Coney Island" as he ruminates on "autumn sunshine magnificent..and all shining through..".

I'm Tired Joey Boy is a moving and mournful Irish lament that is most endearing. Short but very sweet and uplifting. 

When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God? is the album's other big, essentially spiritual song, which sees Morrison questioning his own ability to meet the demands of his faith. It is slow, tuneful and dignified, appropriately. 

Orangefield is another beautifully orchestrated piece of Van nostalgia, Cyprus Avenue-style for the sleepy Belfast neighbourhoods of his innocent youth.

Now, then comes Daring Night - a true Morrison classic as he evokes "the Lord of the Dance" and "the Goddess of the Eternal Wisdom" in a most "new age" way for a born again Christian. The backing slowly rises to meet Morrison's challenge, organ swirling, drums pounding, keyboards clanking. Morrison whispers "don't let go. don't let go" and then goes all spontaneous. Marvellous stuff. I remember driving through County Cork on holiday with this playing full volume.

These Are The Days is one of those almost hymnal songs he often uses to close an album. It is a song with a sanctified, holy feel about it, just sublime and achingly beautiful. The soulful, gospelly "na-na-na" fade out vocal seem so right, as well, as the great man leaves another album, his listeners well satisfied.

** The bonus track on the remastered CD is an uplifting, entrancing slowed down version of When The Saints Go Marching In, which I love dearly. I love the bit where Morrison growls "St Francis of Asissi comes marching in...". Gets me all tearful.

Enlightenment (1990)

Real Real Gone/Enlightenment/So Quiet In Here/Avalon Of The Heart/See Me Through/Youth Of 1000 Summers/In The Days Before Rock 'n' Roll/Start All Over Again/She's My Baby/Memories

"I'm in the here and now and I'm meditating. And still I'm suffering but that's my problem. Enlightenment, don't know what it is"                                               
Some have said that this album does not match the heights of Avalon Sunset. I disagree, actually preferring this one. Somehow I feel it is a more rounded, fulfilled album, although I am finding it difficult to explain exactly why. As appealing as Coney Island and I'm Tired Joey Boy undoubtedly were, they are much shorter than the material on here. The songs here are just more realised, for me. I feel also, that this is a very soulful album.

The album starts with a true Morrison Celtic Soul classic - the thumping, energetically horn-driven Real Real Gone. It is as if it is 1970 again and the days of His Band And The Street Choir. "Sam Cooke is on the radio" sings Van, sounding as if he is really enjoying himself. 

The next track is a corker too, the mystical, spiritual Enlightenment. Van is searching again, not sure what enlightenment is. One gets the feeling his spiritual quest will never end. No matter if it sounds as soulful and musically intoxicating as this does. It features uplifting harmonica, percussion, piano and a great rumbling bass sound. 

So Quiet In Here is sublime - an atmospheric exhortation to peace, silence and sea breezes which sees Van ruminating upon whether he has indeed found paradise. The percussion and bass is truly addictive. It is a great track.

Avalon Of The Heart sees Van revisiting Common One territory again, journeying down to Avalon again, searching for that holy grail once more, exercising his Arthurian fantasies. It goes choral and orchestral at the end, almost turning hymnal. 

See Me Through has Van feeling he has been too long in the storm. He is feeling quite romantic and reflective on these songs and religious too, singing of the rugged cross and the suffering of his saviour. Because he puts out albums with such regularity throughout his career, it is easy to dismiss some of them as "just another Van Morrison album". Personally, I don't think this applies to any of his albums. Hell, it's Van Morrison. There is always something to be gained from all of them.

Youth Of 1000 Summers has a shuffling, rock'n'roll rhythm and it sort of serves as a lively, upbeat companion to the bizarre but beguiling In The Days Before Rock 'n' Roll, with is probably Morrison's most odd track every recorded. An Irish poet, Paul Durcan, recites the names of fifties radio stations in a decidedly odd voice, adding a few other lines here and there about someone called "Justin" and bleeping keyboard noises initiating radio waves.  I remember those radio stations from my Father's bulky old radio set - those atmospheric names  - HilversumAthloneHelvetiaLuxembourg. It is a complete oddity but I find it strangely compelling. Van does take part too, singing about betting on "Lester Piggott at ten to one...". I also love the bit where Van tells us in his gruff Belfast growl how "the killer came along... the killer....Jerry Lee Lewis..."Great Balls Of Fire"....". He loves a name check or two, does Van.

Start All Over Again is a groovy little jazz number, with some similarities to 1999's Back On Top. It has nice horns and keyboard vibes throughout. 

She's My Baby is a horn-backed slow romantic number, with Van telling us all about "his lady". He says seems to carry off these cheesy songs, though, somehow. So did the great soul singers, so he is in good company. It features a gorgeous organ solo from Georgie Fame

Memories is a beautiful, melodic closer. A tender, nostalgic vocal and some crystal clear acoustic guitar and mandolin, plus some Elizabethan-sounding keyboards underpinned by a sumptuous bass line. Lovely stuff.

Hymns To The Silence (1991)

Professional Jealousy/I'm Not Feeling It Anymore/Ordinary Life/Some Peace Of Mind/So Complicated/I Can't Stop Loving You/Why Must I Always Explain?/Village Idiot/See Me Through Part II/Just A Closer Walk With Thee/Take Me Back/By His Grace/All Saints Day/Hymns To The Silence/On Hyndford Street/Be Thou My Vision/Carrying A Torch/Green Mansions/Pagan Streams/Quality Street/It Must Be You/I Need Your Kind Of Loving

"Take me back, take me back, take me back, take me way, way back"

I read recent a critic saying something along the lines of "what possessed Van Morrison to put a couple of 19th century Christian hymns on a rock'n'roll album?". Well, I have to say this - it is not a rock'n'roll album". It is a Van Morrison album.

For better or worse, it is a double album and suffers the fate of all double albums in that most agree that it could have been condensed into one album. Yes, the hymns are on there, but they add to the appeal of an album that is largely taken up with feelings of nostalgia for days gone by, and they fit the bill perfectly, as they provided a musical soundtrack for the young George Ivan Morrison. There are other blatantly nostalgic pieces on the album too and also examples of the world-weary, cynical, moaning Morrison, as he bellyaches about those within the music industry he perceives as having done him wrong.

The lively, slightly funky Professional Jealousy is one of these "Morrison moaners" and, despite the negative, bilious lyrics, is a catchy tune, as indeed is the lyrically morose I'm Not Feeling It Anymore, which, perversely, has a likeable, jaunty melody. 

Ordinary Life is a pumping, harmonica-drenched blues and Van moans about a "nagging wife" amongst other things. Van hadn't been this bluesy for quite a while. It is good to hear and provided a pointer towards the direction he would take for many more years after this. 

Some Peace Of Mind is a lovely, saxophone-introduced jazzy number, with Georgie Fame's Hammond organ to the foe and Van's vocal quite mellow and laid-back. "I'm just a man, doing the best I can, don't you understand, I just want some peace of mind", he sings, so again, however, on a chilled-out melody he injects those familiar old moans. Musically, though, the jazz influences are creeping more and more into his work. They certainly continue with So Complicated, which sounds like something from swinging fifties London.

I Can't Stop Loving You is a bluesy cover of the Ray Charles classic, but with some added Celtic-style violin and flute. 

Why Must I Always Explain? has a lovely, swirling Celtic intro and a fantastically soulful Morrison vocal. Unfortunately, he is griping again. This really is his most self-pitying, complaining album yet. The thing is, he gives even his rancorous complaints such a soulful delivery that it just doesn't matter. Rave on, Van, rave on. 

Village Idiot, conversely, is one of Morrison's most sensitive songs. It sounds callous and cruel, with its chorus of "village idiot"  but is so tender in places - "don't you know he's on to something, you can see it in his eye, sometimes he looks so happy, as he goes strolling by...". The music is beautiful to the song too. I really find it an incredibly moving song. The lad could pick a horse, too. 

See Me Though Part II (Just A Closer Walk With Thee) is the first of the two afore-mentioned hymns. It features gospel backing singers on the hymn with Van narrating a most evocative, youth in Belfast passage - "Hyndford Street and Hank Williams, Sydney Bechet on Sunday afternoons in winter...". Marvellously atmospheric stuff. This was one of Morrison's favourite hymns. Good for him for recording it. Music is about memories, Van Morrison knows that better than anyone, particularly on this album, which from now on, becomes full of it.

Take Me Back is eight minutes of Van recalling carefree golden summer days, cold dark winter Sunday evenings, in the "days before rock'n'roll..." in an almost spoken vocal. He recalls "when life made more sense..". The complaining has stopped now, a few drinks would seem to have got him all misty-eyed and nostalgic and that is the theme of the rest of the album. Some classic harmonica is interjected in the middle and Van intones "take me back, take me back, take me way back...".

By His Grace starts what is, in effect "part two" of the album, the monumental Take Me Back having taken us to the interval. It is a lively, energetic and soulful spiritual but short track, with some nice gospelly backing vocals. If this is Van still being religious, I'll take it. 

All Saints Day is another of those fifties-style, organ-led jazzy numbers. Some are not to keen on them, but I feel they sit quite well in the whole "looking back to the days before rock'n'roll" theme. Georgie Fame takes the lead vocal with his trademark, smoky voice before Van joins in briefly, at the end. 

The next three tracks exemplify the very essence of this album - the nearly ten minute, mystical, peaceful Hymns To The Silence harks back to Common One in many ways; the wonderfully atmospheric On Hyndford Street (pictured) has Van growling his Belfast brogue over a haunting synthesiser-only backing in a recitation of the things that he recalls from his youth, which is then recalled again by an impassioned delivery of the hymn Be Thou My Vision. Along with See Me Through and Take Me Back, these are the cornerstones of this mighty, autobiographical album.

In many ways, the album should have ended there. It has certainly said what it needs to say. The remaining tracks, good as though some of them are (particularly Carrying A Torch), just seem like "bonus tracks" to me. As the strains of Be Thou My Vision come to an end, it feels as if the service is over, and we all file out. Sanctified.

Too Long In Exile (1993)

Too Long In Exile/Big Time Operators/Lonely Avenue/Ball And Chain/In The Forest/Till We Get The Healing Done/Gloria/Good Morning Little Schoolgirl/Wasted Years/The Lonesome Road/Moody's Mood For Love/Close Enough For Jazz/Before The World Was Made/I'll Take Care Of You/Instrumental/Tell Me What You Want

"Never has one man's regression therapy sounded this exhilarating" - Peter Paphides - Melody Maker

This is very much a blues album - not nearly as much whimsical, mystical stuff about poets, meditation, peaceful visions or folky Irish rootsy material. It is a Van Morrison steeped in his sixties blue past revisiting it. There are airs of Celtic Soul here and there, however. Overall, though, Van has changed his message a little. It is no longer so much of a full-on spiritual quest either for meditative, blissful self-awareness or the nostalgia of the world of his childhood, although there are patches here and there. There is a little bit of jazz thrown in too, particularly in the final third of the album, something that would feature on quite a few of his subsequent recordings.
Too Long In Exile is a shuffling, groovy, organ-driven and soulful number. It just slowly cooks, with some great saxophone at the end. It gets quite powerful at the end as Van improvises vocally and the band kick in. He muses on how he has been "too long in exile" and he wants to come home. It has taken him nearly twenty-five years to get there. Namechecked are Samuel BeckettOscar WildeGeorge Best and Alex Higgins (pictured at the bottom of the review).


Big Time Operators is a superb, grinding blues number, one of those tracks Morrison does so well. He finds time to fit in what is fast becoming his pet lyrical theme, however - the "big time operators" he sees as blighting the "music business scene" and presumably not paying him as much as he wants. 

Lonely Avenue is another rock solid blues number with a powerful, thumping beat. 

Ball And Chain has some lovely Celtic soul horns and a soulful vocal from Morrison, together with an upbeat, melodic blues harmonica. 

The old mystical beauty and spiritual awareness is back, though, for the beguiling, organ-driven In The Forest. "By the ancient roads I will take you home again...". Those certainly are familiar lyrics for anyone who had listened to Van Morrison's output over the previous fifteen years or so. 

Till We Get The Healing Done harks back to the classic track from 1978's Into The MusicAnd The Healing Has Begun. It is nowhere near as good however (that would be pretty much impossible), but is an acceptable track that sounds like something from 1982's Beautiful Vision or 1986's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. As the track progresses, though, it grows in potency and appeal, pushing on and on and Morrison's delivery its more urgent. A descending blues riff underpins it throughout.  It ends up about eight and a half minutes in length.

After that slightly spiritual interlude the blues truly returns with a storming version of Them's sixties track, Gloria, featuring the veteran blues talents of the legendary John Lee Hooker. Van and Hooker mesh gloriously (so to speak) together. It is a superb duet. Big, bluesy, exciting and full of balls. 

The blues continues with the old sixties British r'n'b favourite, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. Morrison delivers the risqué lyrics marvellously, he was made to cope with this sort of material. It is blues rock of the highest quality, again. Wasted Years is another excellent duet with Hooker.

For Lonesome Road the jazzy ambience arrives, complete with a jaunty melody and the use of vibes on the backing. It is full of appeal, actually. The fifties, jazzy thing continues on the slightly clumsy, semi-spoken  Moody's Mood For Love, this one doesn't quite work for me, I'm afraid. A bit too cheesy and "easy listening" for my liking. 

Close Enough For Jazz is a lively, jazzy instrumental that was reworked with a vocal on 2012's Born To Sing

Before The World Was Made is a lovely, gentle piece of jazzy soul. I'll Take Care Of You takes us back the blues with a slow burning cooker that goes back to the initial atmosphere of the album. 

There is one hell of a saxophone solo on the final extended instrumental, Tell Me What You Want, that has the vibes in use again as jazz, blues and Celtic soul all merge perfectly.

This album has never quite got the credit it deserved, for some reason. In my opinion, it is an adventurous and slightly different album to many of those that had gone before. Not necessarily better, but just slightly different in tone and mood.


Days Like This (1995)

Perfect Fit/Russian Roulette/Raincheck/You Don't Know Me/No Religion/Underlying Depression/Songwriter/Days Like This/I'll Never Be Free/Melancholia/Ancient Highway/In The Afternoon            
"Wouldn't it be great just to be born and nobody told you there was such a thing as religion? Say it didn't exist and you were just told that all you've got is this life and that's it...and there's no heaven, no hell" - Van Morrison

Of all the Van Morrison albums I own, that's all of them, this is one of those that I have always played the least. I know of no real reason for this. It has a superb sound quality and an appealing poppiness to a lot of the tracks. Certainly the two albums either side of this one - the bluesy Too Long in Exile and the soulful The Healing Game have always appealed to me more. That is the only real explanation I can offer.
Anyway, to the songs - Perfect Fit is a really jaunty, catchy piece of jazzy-ish pop. Perfect Radio Two fare. 

Russian Roulette is a typical slice of Van Morrison soul - brassy, harmonica-enhanced, mid-pace and a growling Van vocal. "I've got to go down to New Orleans, I've got to see Dr. John..." Van sings, dropping a name in amongst moaning about hustlers and the like. 

Raincheck has a delicious jazz guitar opening and an intoxicating shuffling staccato beat and Van singing about "moving on onto higher ground...and don't let the bastards grind me down...". We've been there before and there is a feel of the mid eighties material on this this one. The sumptuous guitar continues in the middle too. 

You Don't Know Me is a cover of an old fifties hit and it is delivered here in stylish laid-back jazzy fashion, as Van duets with his daughter, Shana. There is some delicious saxophone on this one. It is a pleasing thing - discovering this album once again.

No Religion has a great bass line, punchy horns and winning backing vocals with that "call and response" thing Van had going on with Brian Kennedy at the time. "I cleaned up my diction, I had nothing left to say..." sings Van. He continues on the next song to have plenty to say about Underlying Depression - he is never far from self-analysing. It has a crystal clear, almost perfect sound, but there is something in the faultless sound on this album that renders it just sightly less soulful than other albums, which is strange, because outwardly, the album is one of Morrison's most blatantly "soul" in its ambience.

Some jazzy vibes introduce the brassy Songwriter where Van tells us, with a somewhat cynical air, what he does for a living. 

Days Like This was a hit single with a delightful saxophone solo. I'll Never Be Free was another old crooner song cover, and another duet with Shana. 

Melancholia has Van ruminating on depression again and he des the vocal thing with Kennedy again. Once was ok, but twice and it starts to get a bit irritating as he literally repeats everything Morrison sings.

Ancient Highway sees Morrison going all mystical for the first time on this album, quoting Pagan Streams from Hymns To The Silence and various other Belfast things. He is "praying to his higher self" - this is No Guru, No Method, No Teacher stuff. It is good to hear him meet his true muse again as the flute whistles and he enters into a stream of consciousness about the mountains and the ancient highway. It probably lasts a bit too long, but they always do when he gets into a groove like this. 

In This Afternoon is a soulful, romantic number to finish off, with Kennedy doing his stuff again. Thankfully his presence on the next album was toned down, although he blights the A Night In San Francisco album somewhat.

How Long Has This Been Going On? (1995)

I Will Be There/The New Symphony Sid/Early In The Morning/Who Can I Turn To ?/Sack O' Woe/Moondance/Centerpiece/How Long Has This Been Going On?/Your Mind Is On Vacation/All Saints Day/Blues In The Night/Don't Worry About A Thing/That's Life/Heathrow Shuffle     

"The album took four or five hours to record and Ronnie Scott's was chosen for the vibe" - Van Morrison

This is a jazz album collaboration between Van Morrison and his longtime friend, smoky-voiced London scene jazz veteran pianist and singer, Georgie Fame. It was recorded in the legendary Ronnie Scott's club in London. It was recorded "live", as such, but with no audience present.

Without going to huge detail, song by song, it is an immaculately played album, by top quality musicians, crammed full of jazz piano, stand up bass, brass and jazz drums. There are bluesy aspects too, and, as expected, Morrison handles the bluesier numbers, like the jaunty opener I Will Be There and the slow burning Who Can I Turn To? while Fame takes the more blatantly upbeat jazz ones, like the swinging, and slightly irritating The New Symphony Sid

There are also duets, like the toe-tapping Sack O' Woe (which  also has several great instrumental solos). There are jazz covers of the Morrison classic Moondance (which was always very jazzy anyway) and All Saints Day, from Hymns To The SilenceMoondance is extended into a seven minute, brass and bass-driven lively slice of jazz groove. The instrumentation suits the song perfectly. They also cover Frank Sinatra's That's Life impressively.

Morrison's voice is on fine blues form throughout, and he and Fame play off each other effortlessly. They are two highly competent musicians enjoying themselves, doing what they do best. Van has always been able to adapt his instinctively blues voice to cope with jazz, more than adequately. 

Blues In The Night is a classic example of this. He has always been a big jazz fan, so you feel it is a labour of love for him. It has the feel of an evening in a smoky London club (Ronnie Scott's) in 1958 and is very enjoyable to listen to, particularly late at night. The sound quality is also absolutely superb. The cover is great too.

Tell Me Something (1996)

One Of These Days/You Can Count On Me (To Do My Part)/If You Live/Was/Look Here/City Home/No Trouble Living/Benediction/Back On The Corner/Tell Me Something/I Don't Want Much/News Nightclub/Perfect Moment   

"Heʼs exactly as he appears to be onstage. He never does anything the same way twice. Everything put down in the studio is done live, so whatever you play will likely end up on the finished record" - Ben Sidran

I have to admit outright that I know very little about Mose Allison (save Look Here from The Clash's Sandinista! album, Young Man Blues from The Who and Bonnie Raitt's Everybody's Crying Mercy) and have this album because of the Van Morrison input, so I am basically seeing it from a Morrison point of view. He is joined here by pianist Ben Sidran and sometime sidekick in veteran jazzer Georgie Fame. Mose Allison aficionados seem to be most affronted by this project, but, for me, listening to it from my position of comparative ignorance it sounds a fine, late night, jazzy album to me. As I said, though, I have no knowledge of the originals so take what I say with a reasonably large pinch of salt. (With that in mind, I have just listened to several Allison originals and they have a great sound, instrumentally, and he had a unique laid-back, smooth voice). I liked his tracks, for sure, and appreciate the authenticism of them but it certainly hasn't made me think any worse of this album. Georgie Fame is a highly credible jazz artist, for a start. A brief aside - I was surprised to see that Allison looked like a cross between George Orwell and Oswald Mosley (I had presumed him to be black). So, as from now, I am sampling the originals as well as the covers on this album.

One Of These Days is an authentic blues grinder with Morrison on growling vocals, while You Can Count On Me (To Do My Part) is an upbeat, brass-driven bassy number with some great saxophone from longtime Morrison collaborator, Pee Wee Ellis

Pianist Ben Sidran's If You Live features himself on suitably, deep, smoky vocals, where he sounds just like Georgie Fame. Fame is on vocal duties himself on Was, which is so "late night" as to be almost comatose. It is atmospheric in buckets though. Fame's voice sounds almost identical to Allison's.

Sidran's take on the afore-mentioned Look Here is soulfully jazzy, rhythmic and less frenetic than The Clash's version. Fame's City Home continues the laid-back, late night urban late 1950s groove.

No Trouble Living has Sidran finding his own inner Georgie Fame once again. All three of them seem to sing on Benediction, although Morrison is the dominant voice. I do like this one, but I prefer Allison's original, with its lighter tones and vocal delivery.

Back On The Corner is a lively, jaunty Georgie Fame, organ-driven number with some great bass and piano too. 

Tell Me Something sees Van return, and, in my opinion he does impressively - it is full of bluesy atmosphere and killer saxophone. I love it. Allison's version is superb but Morrison gives it something too, I feel. 

I Don't Want Much is tackled very well by Fame and Sidran. Actually, I prefer their interpretation to Allison's original. The virtuoso saxophone parts on Allison's originals, are, however, truly outstanding. 

Back to this album, however - News Nightclub is impossibly catchy and Perfect Moment is a tender slow piano backed number to end on. Taking this album on face value - did I enjoy listening to it or not? I did.

The Healing Game (1997)

Rough God Goes Riding/Fire In The Belly/This Weight/Waiting Game/Piper At The Gates Of Dawn/Burning Ground/It Once Was My Life/Sometimes We Cry/If You Love Me/The Healing Game  

"People find it incredible when I tell them that people used to sing and play music in the street. I think there's a whole oral tradition that's disappeared" - Van Morrison

Van Morrison is once more on a nostalgia trip here, on way is a mighty uplifting and impressive album. He looks back to the days of harmonious singing in the streets on the vibrant, soulful The Healing Game, to the Belfast of his childhood on the evocative, rhythmically insistent Burning Ground and gets all reflective on the gorgeous, Stand By Me-influenced It Once Was Me and the beautiful, sensitive Sometimes We Cry

On If You Love Me he uses fifties early rock'n'roll "doo-wop" harmony backing vocals to bring back memories of those days gone by and "those ancient streets" that he is always trying desperately and emotionally to recall. Indeed, these latter three tracks all contain a nostalgic them for the late fifties in their musical structure and delivery.

The album is packed full of strident horns, saxophones, harmonious facing vocals, organ breaks and sumptuous piano. It is Van Morrison's own brand of soul. While not of the upbeat Celtic Soul of the seventies, it is Morrison soul updated for the nineties and it is slightly slower-paced and stately in its execution. There is also some touching self-examination in This Weight and, of course, spiritual concerns are never far from the surface, raising their holy heads on the wonderful, horn-driven and exhilarating Rough God Goes Riding and Waiting Game, in which Morrison claims to be a "serpent filled with venom". He talks of "golden autumn days" and searching for a "higher flame". Traditional Morrison conceits if ever there were.

The mystical side to his nature is also never far away and it is here on the simply lovely Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, with its beautiful chorus refrain and the use of the Celtic Uilleann pipes.  It is my favourite song on the album. Van evokes the spirit of "the great God Pan" and speaks of "the wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn...". Great mystical stuff. 

Fire In The Belly has Van in familiar rustic mode, speaking of the seasons - "Got to get through January, got to get through February...". He loves nature and the changing of the seasons. Songs like this from him I find irresistible. Just listen to that saxophone and backing vocals on the oh-so-soulful The Healing Game as well, which closes the album. Magnificent. Van raises me higher, yet again.

The bold saxophone from Pee Wee Ellis drives this album in so many ways, so much so that I think of this as "the one with all the vibrant saxophone on it". It is here, also the the black outfit with black hat gets a second outing on the cover, after having done so on Days Like This. It has been his trademark look ever since. I would also say that this possibly the last album not to follow the "r'n'b by numbers" route that most subsequent albums have taken. Not that I dislike those albums, because I appreciate them all, but this could well have been the last truly original Van Morrison album.

2019 Deluxe Edition

Assuming the original album is well-known, I will deal with the bonus material. (I am unsure as to whether the original album has been remastered again - it sounds good, but then so did the 2007 remaster).

Look What The Good People Done is a slow, jazzy blues in the style of the material he did with Georgie Fame. It is a Morrison original but sounds like a cover of a blues/jazz standard. 

At The End Of The Day is a slow, soulful, evocative number included as a bonus track on the previous issue of the album. 

The Healing Game is included in its "single version". Personally, I don't have much time for single versions, seeing them as wilful butcherings of excellent tracks. Its inclusion here is pretty superfluous for me. 

Full Force Gale '96 is given a catchy, slowed-down jazzy soul makeover with the vaguely irritating Brian Kennedy's backing vocals making a few appearances. It is pleasant enough and it is always interesting to hear a new interpretation, but I prefer the original. 

Another intriguing new coat of paint is given to St. Dominic's Preview which here features an Astral Weeks-style strummed acoustic backing together with some fetching Celtic violin. It reminds me of his extended version of Wonderful Remark that appeared on The Philosopher's Stone.

The alternate version of The Healing Game is simply sumptuous - backed by a beautiful bass and piano. Van Morrison soul at its very best. Fire In The Belly has a slower, slightly sparser backing, again concentrating on an understated bass and melodic, tinkling piano. 

Didn't He Ramble reappeared a few years as The Philosopher's Stone, with slightly changed lyrics, on the Back On Top album. The jazz version of The Healing Game is once more backed by piano and bass and then some grainy jazzy saxophone and brush drums come in. It is all extremely stately. 

Sometimes We Cry is extended to a slow-burning, soul-drenched eight minutes featuring some great saxophone.  It doesn't improve incredibly on the original, you just get a few more minutes of Van and Brian Kennedy exchanging "cry - cry" vocals. Mule Skinner Blues is a harmonica-driven, shuffling blues and A Kiss To Build a Dream On is a laid-back, late-night jazzy cover of a Louis Armstrong track from 1962. It is the sort of thing Van did on his 2017 Versatile album.


Then we get several duets with John Lee HookerCarl Perkins and Lonnie Donegan, that are made all the more poignant by the fact that three of them were quite near the end of their lives when they recorded these tracks. The John Lee Hooker tracks particularly so. The Carl Perkins songs are just a delight. Paul McCartney would love these, I think. They are upbeat rock 'n' roll numbers and Van seems to be really enjoying himself. Matchbox is a particular favourite of mine - "if you don't want my peaches, don't shake my tree...", a line that just makes me smile. 

Sittin' On Top Of The World is great too. These tracks are the real gems in this collection, if you're fan who enjoys these sort of relative obscurities, that is. Just check out the deliciously bluesy My Angel.

The live concert material from Montreux has excellent sound quality - warm and bassy, as I like it. It includes seven tracks from The Healing Game album plus several others. Foreign Window, from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is excellent. It is good to hear tracks like this done live. Ditto the vibrant Tore Down A La Rimbaud and the Georgie Fame organ solo on Tupelo Honey.

Overall, this is an excellent set for hard-core fans, as things like this always are. I guess that is who will buy it, and quite rightly too, they won't be disappointed.

Pictured below is Pan, the piper at the gates of dawn.

Back On Top (1999)

Goin' Down Geneva/The Philosopher's Stone/In The Midnight/Back On Top/When The Leaves Come Falling Down/High Summer/Reminds Me Of You/New Biography/Precious Time/Golden Autumn Day  

"It doesn’t matter to which God you pray - precious time is slipping away" - Van Morrison

A pugnacious Van Morrison declared himself to be Back On Top here, in 1999, and he saw out the old millennium by beginning with a vibrant, pulsating piece of pounding blues rock in the catchy Goin' Down Geneva which sees him on top gruff vocal form. Some searing guitar kicks in near the end. This is a great start. It has a great line "Vince Taylor used to live here, nobody's even heard of him..." referencing a little-known "cult" late fifties rocker. Van sounds really "up" for this album. It is pretty much a blues and r'n'b album, with a few upbeat rock'n'roll-ish cuts and some typical slow-paced reflective and romantic Morrison soulful numbers. There is not the jazz-influenced material that would come in the next few years, nor country-tinged songs. The punchy songs are very much blues-influenced as opposed to say "Celtic Soul", something he had pretty much left behind nine years previously.

After such a breakneck start, it soon becomes time to slow things down and we get the beautiful, laid-back tones of The Philosopher's Stone. A melodic, stately piano and organ and some gentle percussion back Van as he "looks for the silver lining in the clouds", getting all mystical and searching - his "job is turning base metal into gold and he was born on the back street jelly roll...". The song is absolutely jam-packed with Van-isms, and some copper-bottomed blues harmonica too. 

In The Midnight is a gentle, soulful ballad, with Van again getting it dead right, vocally. 

Back On Top is a lively tuneful commercial blues number, featuring some classic harmonica and saxophone. Van moans of his feeling of "isolation at the top of the bill..." yet he states he is "back on top". It is what would comes to be a regular gripe of his - the price of fame and success. It is actually a somewhat arrogant song, but no matter, it sounds good.


Any arrogance is quickly diluted by the sensitive, tender and beautiful When The Leaves Come Falling Down. Van evokes the changing of the seasons as he does so well - " September when the leaves come falling down...". My goodness, this sometimes irascible man can write some killer romantic, sad and meaningful songs. What a paradox he is, a mass of contradictions.

High Summer is very much a song that would have fitted in well on 1982's Beautiful Vision. It has that soulful Morrison vibe. Listen to it, you will recognise instantly what I mean. The harmonica is delicious. 

Reminds Me Of You is an organ-driven slowie, with Van at his most yearning. Unfortunately, grumpy Morrison returns with the frankly ludicrous New Biography, which sees him moaning about a new book written about him, and the misery of "the fame game". Give it a rest eh, Van? Put up with the book, I am sure you can, really. It is a catchy tune though! It has one hell of a saxophone solo part too. 

In true unpredictable fashion, next up is the impossibly addictive, singalong Precious Time that has Van almost losing himself in pleasure. The song is joyful and exhilarating. I remember my wife and I managing to get ourselves right up to the front, near the stage, just as he played this at Battle AbbeySussex a few years back. I swear he smiled a couple of times while playing it. His saxophone is wonderful on it. (A brief aside about that live performance, just after Precious Time had finished, I saw and heard him bark Brown Eyed Girl at his band and he, incredibly, launched into the song he supposedly hates playing. Delivering it most enthusiastically. We certainly struck it lucky that night. The encores featured Chris Farlowe too, so doubly so).

Golden Autumn Day is a bizarre song to close the album. Musically, it is beautiful, with some killer saxophone and a sumptuous bass sound. Half the lyrics are about the beauty of a golden autumn day, the other half is about being mugged at knifepoint. It is strange, as most of Van's "golden autumn" songs are about the beauty of nature, here he transposes it with something disturbing, which is most unusual.

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