Saturday, May 15, 2010

deep into the mystic

Last week, in the midst of final exams, I went to see Van Morrison perform at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, part of one of those strange drinking/shopping/gambling enclaves one encounters here & there in South Florida. Odd place – sorta Disneyland for grownups, a few blocks of ersatz urbanism in the middle of the endless suburb.

I followed Morrison's music intensely for a few years; too young to be aware of his grand achievements of the mid-70s, I started backtracking thru the catalog & buying the new releases as they came out with 1980's Common One. I stuck with it, thru increasing forays into synthesized new agey gunk and hazy mysticism, thru 1986's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. The next record, Poetic Champions Compose, with its ├╝ber-pretentious title & the shocking combover hairdo of the cover photo, was too much for me. So it's been over a decade since I've truly kept up with Van's records, tho various works of his have been absolute touchstones for me: of course the classic Astral Weeks and Moondance, but also Veedon Fleece and the sublime Into the Music, which has the happy quality of lifting my spirits no matter how depressed I might be.

Morrison's music has always struck me as densely paradoxical: he has one of the great R&B voices of all time, a truly wonderful set of pipes that has only grown deeper & more flexible over the years; he has an immaculate sense of musical timing, and a wonderful way of continually recasting the same 3- or 4-chord progressions into entirely new & surprising song structures. His "spirituality," however, strikes me as at best dodgy, sometimes downright embarassing. When he growls (in "Summertime in England"), in best bluesy voice, "Didja ever hear about, didja ever hear about, didja ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge, baby?... They were rockin' by the lakeside," I just want to know who threw this guy a copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (& why couldn't they have thrown him The New American Poets?).

Morrison in concert is always a chancy affair. One never knows whether one's going to get a truly sublime experience of a master musician submerging himself in his music, or a guy who's punching the clock. His show in Hollywood, thank heavens, was more the former than the latter. Okay, he started right at 8.03, no opening act; he didn't banter with the crowd, or seem to interact with them at all; and after his hour & 40 minute set, he was gone – no encore. All of these things seemed to piss off the audience – tho if they'd done a bit of research, they'd have known that this has been more or less Morrison's performing MO for the past 3 decades.

Florida audiences are irritating; if the show is scheduled for 8.00, don't show up at 8.25 & then complain you've missed 20 minutes of music (including "Brown Eyed Girl," probably the only song you'd securely recognize) – especially if you've dropped a couple hundred bucks on a pair of the really good seats. When the music gets really quiet, & the interplay between the bassist and the reeds player is particularly complex and fascinating, please don't take that opportunity to start a conversation, or to loudly hoot for the band to "start up" again. And for heaven's sake, don't expect Van Morrison, who's released something like 30 albums since Moondance, to honor you with an "oldies" set.

His set was for me at least fairly surprising, starting with an amazing version of "Northern Muse (Solid Ground)," disinterring such little-heard songs as "Fair Play" (Veedon Fleece), "Foreign Window" (No Guru), and "Help Me." Most moving for me were astonishing versions of "The Mystery" (a song which I hadn't heard before – his live version blows the pants off of the recorded cut) and "In the Garden." There was a strange, extended, even painful version of "Slim Slow Slider," which seemed to veer into "TB Sheets" territory in its divagations. And a beautiful, uplifting "When the Healing Has Begun." At 64, Morrison is a better singer than ever (tho his enunciation isn't what it once was – he doesn't do consonants much anymore); so what if the white suit & fedora made him look like a cross between the Stay Pufft Marshmallow Man and the Godfather?

The lack of interaction with the audience was interesting. Some musicians feed off of audience response, draw their energy from the enthusiasm with which they are received. Morrison seemed to draw his from within – from whatever muse – and from his interaction with his astonishingly tight and precise band. I felt as tho I were witnessing a musician in an almost autistic trance, spiraling deeper and deeper into the layers of his own songs. And while I would have loved to hear "Into the Mystic" or "Bright Side of the Road," that was plenty for me.

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