The enigmatic artist has included Montreal as one of the few select cities for a live performance of his critically acclaimed work – Astral Weeks

“I first saw Van Morrison in the late 60’s at the Capitol Theatre on Ste-Catherine Street. He performed two shows that evening – and he was in full flight by the time the second show was underway.” I’m in conversation with Rubin Fogel, a lifelong fan of Van Morrison’s music, and the promoter for Morrison’s October 1st performance at Salle Wilfred Pelletier in Place des Arts.

I also attended that performance, and 40 plus years later I still have vivid memories of the music from that show, even though the music he played was but a fraction of the body of work Van Morrison has produced and recorded in the ensuing decades.

Rubin continues; “The second time I saw him was in 1400 seat auditorium in The Plateau. Donald K Donald was producing the show, and it was so hot and humid in there that I thought it was going to rain inside the building – but what a show. Not in the traditional sense of an entertainer that works the crowd – Van Morrison barely speaks to the audience. He’s completely focused on performing his music; an artist in the true sense of the word.”

Van Morrison is in The Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame (he was presented his award by the late Ray Charles), the Irish Music Hall of Fame, and has won six Grammy Awards. He is a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his contribution to music, had his likeness on an Irish postage stamp in 2002, and the French government made him an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He’s come a long way from the Belfast working class neighbourhood where George Ivan Morrison grew up.

Morrison showed musical aptitude as a boy, growing up with music in the household. His father had worked in Detroit before returning to work in the shipyard in Belfast. He brought back a large collection of records that included artists such as Ray Charles, Lead Belly, and Solomon Burke, with whom he would later become friends. The music had profound effect on Morrison. “If it weren’t for guys like Ray and Solomon, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Those guys were the inspiration that got me going. If it wasn’t for that kind of music, I wouldn’t do what I’m doing now.” His father’s record collection also included the blues of Muddy Waters, the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie’s folk music, Charlie Parker’s jazz, and even country music by Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers. With these composers in mind, it’s easy to hear their influences in Van Morrison’s body of work. And yet – his music and singing is distinctive. Van Morrison sounds like Van Morrison, whether he’s belting out Brown Eyed Girl or almost crooning the beautiful, Have I Told Lately.

While he had an aptitude for music, he did not have the same interest or ability for school. Without graduating, music would also become a way for Van Morrison to make some money as a teenager, and then earn a living as a young man without any traditional job skills.

Back to Belfast; where Van coaxed his father to buy him a guitar when he was just eleven. He taught himself how to play chords form a song book, and was performing in a local group (what we would now call a garage band) by the time he was twelve. At fourteen he formed another group called Midnight Special. He then was inspired to learn the saxophone, and returned to his original financier; The Bank of Dad. Van applied himself to his new instrument, taking lessons and learning to read music.

Now able to play several instruments, he was more employable, and while still a teenager, obtained work with touring show bands with great names like The Javelins, The Monarchs, The Manhattan Show Band, and The Golden Eagles. The calendar then turned to the 1960’s and band names were changing. Four guys from Liverpool called The Beatles had gained notoriety as the house band in a club called The Cavern; and in Ireland, a group named Them and a song called Gloria were just around the corner in Van Morrison’s life.

In April 1964, Van Morrison answered an advertisement for a new R & B club opening in a Belfast hotel frequented by sailors. He was playing in a group called The Gamblers, and they had a strong R & B influence in their material, often improvising on stage. Morrison played saxophone and harmonica, and shared vocals with another band member. They changed their name to Them (taken from the title of a 50s horror movie) and attracted attention and audiences to the club in the Maritime. The band was signed to Decca Records where they recorded two albums and released ten singles; including a song that was originally released as the b-side to Baby Please Don’t Go. Although intended as a b-side, Gloria would go on to become world-wide hit record and rock ‘n’ roll standard. Morison had introduced the song to the band during their engagement at the Maritime.

Them came to North America in the spring of 1966, and the tour was a success. However, the band became embroiled in a dispute with their manager over finances, and after they returned to Ireland, they split up. Some of the members reformed the band in 1967 and relocated to the US. Van Morrison concentrated on his song writing, including songs that would eventually be recorded on Astral Weeks.

Van Morrison also moved to the United States in 1967, at the request of Bert Berns, Them’s producer and the composer of one of their singles, Here Comes the Night. Morrison recorded eight songs with Berns in two days, including Brown Eyed Girl, which became a huge hit for Bang Records in 1967. Forty years later it is the 4th most requested song in the US. Berns passed away later in 1967, and Warner Bros. purchased Morrison’s contract from Berns’ widow.

Morrison’s first recording in 1968 for his new label was Astral Weeks, regarded by many critics as the best albums ever made. The instrumentation was more like a jazz-folk fusion; with an acoustic stand-up base, drums played with brushes, vibes, acoustic guitar, flute and even a string quartet. Rolling Stone Magazine places Astral Weeks at #19 of their Top 500 Greatest Albums. That same list includes a subsequent Van Morrison recording Moondance at #65. While it was a critical success, Astral Weeks didn’t sell particularly well at the beginning, and Morrison was nearly broke. He made more money from performing than record sales.

In 1970 he released Moondance, an much more upbeat recording that became Van Morrison’s first million selling album, and solving any remaining money problems. A series of albums followed, some more successful than others, but none had the cachet or mystique of Astral Weeks.

In November 2009, Morrison performed Astral Weeks on two consecutive evenings at The Hollywood Bowl. Jay Berliner played guitar and Roger Kellaway piano; significant in that both musicians played on the original recording 40 years earlier. The concerts were a huge success, and he has subsequently performed Astral Weeks in New York and London; and has performed some of the songs during a variety of television appearances.

Van Morrison is bringing his Astral Weeks show to Place des Arts on October 1st. Although Rubin Fogel is a veteran impresario of performers from Leonard Cohen to The Funk Brothers, he is personally excited about this show. “This isn’t just a concert – it’s the major musical event of the year!” Continuing, Rubin notes; “Montreal audiences have an excellent reputation for being informed and respectful of artists, and that’s one of the reasons Van Morrison has selected Montreal as a place to perform. The concert is in two parts; one featuring Astral Weeks, and a second part that is essentially a greatest hits show.”

Tickets are on sale at Place des Arts Box Office 514-842-2112 or online at: www.laPlacedesArts.ca

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