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                 A Baby Boomer

 

                           Muses on The Music

The Day of the Expanding Van, Part I

April 17, 2019

        Three years ago last week, I blogged about adding to my collection of my favorite solo artist, Van Morrison.

        At that time, I noted that I hadn’t added much to my Van the Man trove in the past couple decades. But I didn’t add much more in the spring of 2016, downloading two new-but-old LPs. But only one was really new to me, A Period of Transition, from 1977; the other was a replacement of a vinyl disc that was one of The Albums that Were Lost, 1972’s St. Dominic’s Preview.

        My more-recent additions are the result of my older brother’s incessant prowling of the used book and music stores of Madison and elsewhere in southern Wisconsin. Jimbo will call me on his cell and ask if I have certain albums, tell me what’s on the shelves, and tell me what they cost; a few weeks or months later, we’ll meet and I’ll pick them up.

        When we last met, he handed me a whole box of CDs, including a bunch that he’d burned and some store-bought stuff, among the latter four of Morrison’s works: Avalon Sunset from 1989, 1997’s The Healing Game, Back on Top from 1999, and 2005’s Magic Time. Together, they represent the breadth of Van’s art, including his jazz, rhythm and blues and soul influences, ballads and more experimental pieces.

        I’ve spent a lot of time the past three weeks listening to those albums. Of the four, The Healing Game is probably going to be my favorite, edging Magic Time — although I doubt that either is going to beat out Astral Weeks and Moondance, my Top Two in the Morrison canon.

        The Healing Game opens with “Rough God Goes Riding,” a nearly six and a half-minute masterpiece inspired by — unsurprisingly for Morrison — an Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. “This Weight” is somewhat akin to “Snow in San Anselmo” and “The Eternal Kansas City,” structurally experimental, but less unconventional and more grounded lyrically.

        “Fire in the Belly” and “Burning Ground” showcase, as do most of the other cuts on the album, one of the backing vocalists Morrison brought in for this album. Brian Kennedy, who is featured prominently on Van’s A Night in San Francisco live album (which I own, but for some reason had never put in my iTunes library), and who again earns Morrison’s appellation, from the concert CD, of “leather lungs.”

        “Fire in the Belly” has a loping bass line, upbeat tempo and memorable chorus, not to mention nice soprano sax lines from former James Brown bandleader Pee Wee Ellis. “Burning Ground” is another Morrison piece influenced by his youth in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

        “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” has nothing whatsoever to do with the Pink Floyd album of the same name, other than both being inspired byKenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Wind in the Willows. But it’s a wonderful piece, truer to the spirit of the book than Floyd’s album, the sparse instrumentation featuring acoustic guitar and piano, and uilleann pipes and whistle by Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains.

        “The Waiting Game” in its chorus makes an oblique reference — “I am the brother of the snake” — to Jim Morrison of the Doors, who apparently was Van’s friend. (For sure, they did perform together once, at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood, Calif., when the Doors opened for Them, Van Morrison’s 1960s British Invasion band.) 

        “It Once Was My Life” is a very cool oddity for Morrison, funk with a doo-wop chorus. But lyrically, it’s also a strong statement about how the artist’s life has changed.

        “Sometimes We Cry” opens with an artful double bass intro by Alec Dankworth, after a while joined by tasteful piano from Robin Aspland and Ralph Salmins’s congas; another of Ellis’s soprano sax bits shines later. Morrison and Kennedy at times do more of a duet one the vocal, which works well.

        The lyric lacks some of the depth of the other songs, but it has an interesting, oblique reference, as so many of Van’s songs do. In this case, it’s to a Johnnie Ray, probably the American singer considered by some to be the “father of rock and roll,” who faded in the U.S. but remained popular in the U.K.

        “If You Love Me” is perhaps the weakest cut on the album. It is one of the reasons that The Healing Game doesn’t get the “all hits, no misses” rating from me that Moondance earns, and Astral Weeks come close to getting.

        The final cut of the album is its title tune, which again features Kennedy’s strong vocals (as often is the case on the album) in a call-and-response form with Morrison. It is a song about street musicians in Van’s native Belfast, which has influenced much of his music, both from his early-life experiences and the music he heard there.

        To be continued next week …

 

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