One of the most enigmatic songwriters of our time, Van Morrison first gained recognition as the lead singer of the Northern Irish band Them, writing their seminal 1964 hit "Gloria." When Morrison began pursuing his own career in the late 1960s, he began a long journey down one of the most idiosyncratic musical paths in history, becoming one of the most distinctive and influential vocalists in all of modern music. His synthesis of folk, blues, jazz, and Celtic influences is utterly unique. Although stylistically diverse, Morrison's greatest songs fall into two loosely defined categories. His popular hits, such as "Brown Eyed Girl," "Moondance," "Domino," and "Wild Night" are tightly structured around the stylistic conventions of American soul and R&B, but an equally compelling catalogue consists of spiritually inspired musical journeys that show the influence of Celtic tradition, jazz, and stream-of-consciousness narrative, such as his debut album Astral Weeks and lesser known later works such as Veedon Fleece. Hypnotic, meditative, and having a unique musical power, Morrison's music has always defied classifications. He is a true innovator whose fusion of R&B, jazz, blues, and Celtic folk has produced one of the most spiritually transcendent bodies of work of any musician of the rock era.
Many live recordings have been made over the course of Morrison's career, but none is more celebrated or captures Morrison in better form than the live recording presented here. Recorded before an intimate audience of 200 at Pacific High Recording Studios and broadcast on KSAN radio shortly before the release of the Tupelo Honey album, this performance captures Morrison at a pivotal turning point in his life. He had recently relocated from the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York to the Bay Area. (Right from the start of his solo career, San Francisco embraced Morrison and arguably was the epicenter of his North American following during the early years of his solo career.) In addition to the move, Morrison was now a father; his daughter Shana was born the previous year. On the career front, he had just completed negotiations on a new recording contract, and the saxophone-fueled single, "Wild Night," had just been released, with the soon-to-be-released Tupelo Honey album destined to become the most popular album of his career.
In addition to the public debut of some of Tupelo Honey material, this potent performance includes key tracks from his first four solo albums and several live performances not to be found anywhere else. Additionally, the informal nature of this concert finds Morrison in relaxed and even jovial form, which is a delight in itself. Everything comes together perfectly here--the band, the audience, and Morrison thoroughly enjoying himself while performing. Despite being so comfortable, this is certainly not a laid back performance. In fact, the ferocity, intensity, warmth, and empathy of these performances have rarely ever been equaled. Both Morrison and his superb band are on fire here, so much so that it's a wonder that such desirable recordings were never officially issued. Indeed, this recording provides listeners with a greater sense of Morrison's wide-ranging influences and his ability to control dynamics better than any official release.
Morrison sets the stage by beginning the performance with a slow burning buildup on "Into the Mystic," one of the standout tracks from his Moondance album. Propelled by a flawless rhythm section, Morrison and the band then tackle the Chicago-styled blues of "I've Been Working." Mark Jordan's jazzy piano and Ronnie Montrose's electric guitar work are superb here, and the horn section of Bill Atwood and Jack Schroer perfectly shadow Morrison's vocals. With its undeniable momentum and a soft conclusion that finds Morrison whispering "You Send Me," this smoldering performance far surpasses the Street Choir album recording from the previous year. An extreme rarity surfaces next as Morrison explores "Friday's Child," a plaintive number about leaving home, dating back to his tenure in Them. One of the most amusing sequences of the set follows as Morrison begins singing "Que Sera Sera," then best known in America as the theme to Doris Day's popular television show. This humorous intro leads into a tremendously enjoyable performance of Lieber and Stoller's "Hound Dog." Featuring elements of Big Mama Thornton's bluesy original crossed with the frenetic style of Jerry Lee Lewis, this is both hard rocking and hilarious.
Morrison next performs "Ballerina," a track from his Astral Weeks album. Lacking the urgency of the celebrated album version, this nine-minute exploration is nonetheless thoroughly engaging, albeit in a more relaxed manner. Two tracks from Tupelo Honey are next served up back-to-back, beginning with the title song. One of the most romantic songs ever written, this is a potent performance with Morrison singing as if in a trance. The new single, "Wild Night" follows in gloriously frenetic fashion.
What may be the most passionate performance of this show comes next, as Morrison delivers a truly riveting take on Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." This is drop-dead gorgeous with Morrison bringing a gut-wrenching intensity to the song. Morrison's spontaneous lyric alterations of "Your long time curse hurts, but what's worse is this queer in here, ain't it clear" and "Please don't let on that you knew me when I was weird and you were weird, too" bring the sexual ambiguity that Dylan only implied right to the surface. He sings this song with such tenderness that it is almost unbearable, and this stands as one of the most stunning performances of his career.
After such intensity, Morrison swings in the opposite direction with the more lighthearted joyousness of "Moonshine Whiskey," another new track from the Tupelo Honey album, followed by the swinging "Dead Or Alive." Another rarity, this latter number finds Morrison in Belfast Cowboy mode, cheerfully improvising lyrics as he goes along. This is another infectious performance that soon becomes a sing-a-long, engaging the audience to participate. Things again take a more serious turn with "You're My Woman," a penetrating ode to Morrison's then wife Janet. In what was likely its debut performance, this last of the Tupelo Honey album previews is another stellar performance.
The remainder of the set focuses on rhythm and blues and includes four of Morrison's own before concluding with two choice covers. Several of Morrison's most familiar songs are featured here, beginning with a bouncy romp through "These Dreams of You," followed by a celebratory "Domino." Morrison and his band deliver equally cheerful renditions of "Call Me Up in Dreamland" and "Blue Money," before closing the set with a lazy take on Sam Cooke's blues standard, "Bring It on Home to Me," followed by a utterly unique reading of the Italian farewell song, "Buena Sera, Senorita." This final number begins with the band humorously quoting the "1812 Overture" and takes what was an easy listening standard way over the top. It begins slowly, but approximately a minute and a half in starts rocking hard and concludes this performance on a downright ecstatic note.
This is Van Morrison at the top of his game, delivering a set fueled with unbridled passion. With no trace of the nervousness or anger that occasionally marred his concert performances during this era and with his sense of humor so prominent, it is no wonder that this recording has achieved such legendary status among Morrison's fans and collectors. This provocative performance is often brilliant and is an enthralling listen from beginning to end.
-Written by Alan Bershaw