I was just looking through Steve Turner's biography of Van Morrison called It's Too Late To Stop Now published in 1993 and on page 24 there is an interesting photograph. It shows young Van dressed in a cowboy outfit that his dad brought back from America for him ( See picture). That must have fired Van's imagination and affected his sub-concious because the lyrics of his songs are littered with references to Cowboys and Indians. One of Van's earliest groups was called The Sputniks and they used to entertain the other kids in the intermission at Saturday morning pictures at a local cinema that I think was called The Strand. No doubt Van got a good education in Westerns and Zorro flicks there. Also some of his early music influences such as Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams must have fired his western imagination and interest in Country music.I think the first time last Van was called ' The Belfast Cowboy' was when he appeared on an album called Cahoots by The Band on a track called 4% Pantomime which Van co-wrote with Robbie Robertson. In the lyrics it says,
"Oh Belfast Cowboy,lay your cards on the grade,
Oh, Belfast Cowboy can you call a spade a spade?.
Oh, Belfast Cowboy lay your cards on the table,
Oh Belfast Cowboy do you think You're able?"
The first time I ever heard Van called 'Van the man' was when Robbie called him that at the Last Waltz concert so maybe Van can thank The Band for two of his nick-names. So what are all these Cowboy lyrics that I am on about?. I can't be bothered to wade through all of Vans lyrics now looking for examples but just off the top of my head: In the song Beautiful Obsession on the Wavelength album Van repeats, "Let the cowboy ride", and on the same album in Hungry For Your Love he sings, " I love you in buckskin,yeah yeah". On the Veedon Fleece album there are two songs where someone is 'living with a gun'. One song is Linden Arden Stole The Highlights and the other is, 'Who Was That Masked Man?', the title of which comes from the Lone Ranger TV show. The Lone Ranger's horse Silver even gets a mention.'High Ho Silver'. Geronimo pops up in that song as well. Meanwhile back at the ranch Broken Arrow crops up on Astral Weeks.On the Street Choir album in Crazy Face Van sings,"As he stood outside the church yard gates,and polished up his .38 and said, I got it from Jesse James".The Tupelo Honey album has always seemed very Western to me with Moonshine Whiskey and Texas sweethearts etc and the gate-fold picture of Van and Janet and the horse and the Western garb.
On the cover of Pay The Devil as well Van looks like an old gunslinger playing cards in a saloon. Come to think of it the photo of Van on the back of A Sense Of Wonder wearing the cape and hat is very Zorro-esque although I'm getting off the point a bit because Zorro wasn't a cowboy, he was more of a rapier man. I can't think of any more examples.He does quite a few cover versions of Western type songs though such as Western Plain which you can see live below, Dead Or Alive, Muleskinner Blues, Jesse James etc ( Can you think of any more examples?) Maybe when Van returned to England after a sojourn of nearly 20 years in America and started writing more pastoral lyrics he lost interest in that sort of imagery.
Playing live though, the fascination with cowboys goes right up to the present day. When Van sings Rough God Goes Riding live he often mentions Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy The Kid and even does an impersonation of Clint Eastwood. Anyway, I'll keep following the adventures of the Belfast Cowboy all the way along the trail until he rides off into the sunset.
This was the fifth time I have seen the 'Barnsley Nightingale' better known as Kate Rusby. The previous times were at Frome, Glastonbury, Village Pump Festival and earlier this year at the Cambridge Folk Festival but I think her Christmas show last night at the Forum in Bath was the best. This is what happened.
I met Jacquie at the Ludlow after she finished work and we got a taxi to Westbury station and caught the 4.38 train to Bath. Jacquie had brought a bottle of wine and we drank the blooming lot in the 30 minutes that it took to get to Bath. It was a dark and rainy night when we emerged from Bath Spa station and scurried to Nando's for a bite to eat. I had never been in Nando's before but I must say it is a great restaurant with a nice ambiance, nice music and delicious food. We nibbled some olives while we waited for the food and opted for chicken with coleslaw, spicy rice,garlic bread and something else that I can't remember now and washed down with a nice bottle of rose'. The price was very reasonable and the staff were very friendly. I'll definitely go back to Nando's again. " This is the way to live", I said to Jacquie.. An hour later we were back on the rainy streets of Bath. It was still quite early so we dashed across the road to the Giraffe. They have a lot of neck (geddit?) charging nine quid for two glasses of wine that wasn't very nice so I don't recommend the Giraffe. Then it was time to make our way to the Forum.
I love this venue. It doesn't look much from the outside but it has the most beautiful Art-Deco interior. I have seen some great people here over the past few years such as Patti Smith, Richard Thompson, Van Morrison and tonight the Dame Nelly Melba of folk music, Kate Rusby herself. When we took our seats in the very front row I was really pleased to spot my friends Sarah & Dave in the audience. They used to live two doors away from me and Kim. Then Kate and her five piece band took the stage. She looked really nice in a black and white striped dress. I had heard her earlier in the day being interviewed on Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4 and she had said that she got the dress 'dirt cheap' on the sales rack of a well known retail store. Most of the concert was Christmas Carols sung Yorkshire style plus a few songs from her new album 'Ghost'. The first song was 'Here We Come A Wassailing' and then Kate introduced a five piece brass band who really added to the Yorkshire Christmas vibe of the evening. She said they were Gary, Gary, Mike, Sam & Rich. Kate sang 'Joy To The World' with a Mexican flavour which was really nice. Kate is really proud of her Yorkshire roots and even sipped from a Yorkshire tea mug throughout the concert. The next song was 'To Drive The Cold Winter Away' followed by 'Seven Good Joys Of Mary'. Including Kate and the brass band there were eleven people on stage. Her regular band are Aran Jones,Nick Cook,Duncan Lyle,Stevie Iveson and Damien O'Kane. Two of the band are Irish from Coleraine and they are all brilliant. 'The Night Vist' was next which I think is from her new album.The next two songs were called 'Diadem', (I think it was called that) and 'Walking In A Winter Wonderland', which was wonderful. At the end of that song I took a quick photo but the trouble with sitting in the front row is that you are in full view of the security and this man who I called 'Hawkeye' came over and told me to put my camera away. I was to have another run in with Hawkeye later on.
During the interval I went outside for a cigarette and when I came back in Sarah bought me a drink which was nice of her and I bought one to take back to Jacquie who had remained in her seat. Hawkeye was on to me in a second. "Is that alcohol?," he demanded. "Do that again and you are out".Alcohol wasn't allowed in the auditorium. Anyway, the first song of the second half was called 'Ghost' I think. The eponymous title song from the album. During the introduction Kate mentioned Nic Jones and I shouted out "Penguin Eggs" because Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones is one of my favourite albums. It is Kate's favourite album as well and she said "That's right", and seemed pleased that somebody knew what she was talking about. One thing I have noticed about Kate is that she seems to enjoy the concert just as much as the audience. When the band are playing their solo's you can tell by the expression on her face that she is really digging it. I think the next song was called 'Kris Kringle' . Then another version of 'While Shepard's Watched Their Flocks By Night' sung to the tune of the Yorkshire national anthem 'On Ilkley Moor Ba T'at'. Kate left the stage after that to let the band play various instrumental tunes that I don't know the names of. Then Kate returned to sing 'Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem' which was quite exquisitely beautiful.This was followed by a song from Cornwall but I don't know what it was called. My favourite song of the whole evening followed called 'Sweet Bells'. It was absolutely magical. I'll see if I can find a video of this, if I can then see video below. The evening ended with 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' Yorkshire style of course.I didn't care about Hawkeye any more so I took a couple of pictures as Kate and her brilliant band took a bow.
We hurried to the station and caught the 10.20 train with four minutes to spare and got to the Ludlow in Westbury in time for one last drink. Thank you very much Kate Rusby and her great band and Jacquie for a brilliant Christmassy night out in the beautiful city of Bath.
2014 has turned out to be a vintage Van Morrison year for me. I usually only get to see him two or three times a year but this was the seventh time this year that I got on the train to go and see Van. I didn't have any nice company like Jacquie on this occasion so as the train sped towards London I gazed out of the window alone with my thoughts. What did the night have in store?. I knew that this concert would be different, I didn't really know what to expect. Little did I realise that it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable and memorable concerts I have ever attended.
The train arrived on time at Paddington for a change and then a quick little journey on the Bakerloo line and I was at Piccadilly Circus in the West End. I was pleased to find that the theatre, the hotel and the pub where we were to meet later were all within 200 yards of each other. At the hotel I tried to have a nap before the evening but I couldn't sleep,I was too excited so I gave up and went for a walk, had a drink and got some food from McDonald's which wasn't very nice. Finally I made my way to the Queen's Head pub to meet the other Van fans.
Mike (Nosey) was already there and introduced me to the people who I hadn't met before.What a great bunch of people they are. It was really nice to meet Janice who comes from Belgium I think via New Zealand, Carol from Massachusetts, David and Al who had both flown in from Belfast. Harald from Germany who was working for a German radio station, ( More about Harald later). It is always nice to see Simon and Sandra because it was through Simon's Wavelength magazine that I first started meeting other Van fans. Art Siegel is a Van expert who I last met at the Larmer Tree Festival so I was really pleased he had flown in from California for the show. It was great to finally have a chat with Ian Wright from North Wales and his son Chris. Also Hugh from Somerset who I hadn't seen since Blenheim Palace about ten years ago. There was also an Irish radio presenter there called Ralph McLean who is a huge Van fan and had popped in to say hello to his friends before the show. Miquel had flown in from sunny Spain and he had made me some Keith Jarrett cd's which was really thoughtful of him. Later on it was nice to have a chat with my friends Peter and Katherine from Wiltshire and Amanda and Paul and great to catch up with Brendan from Dublin again. I hope I haven't forgotten anyone.
Finally it was time to make our way round the corner to the theatre. On the doors they had put up posters of the show announcing that it was sold out. Those posters disappeared within minutes and I managed to get one of them which will soon be framed and put on my wall. I had a ticket for the balcony but a few days ago a good friend of mine who couldn't attend asked me if I would like their ticket which was right near the front which was really kind of them. I collected that ticket from the ticket desk and went outside to sell my original ticket. The person who I sold it to turned out to be none other than Andre Menard who organises the Montreal Jazz Festival. We had a little chat and he told me that he had flown all the way from Canada hoping to see the show so I was really pleased that my ticket went to a deserving person. Before the show I thought I better go to the men's room and coming out of there I held the door for a distinguished looking bearded chap who I thought I recognised. Later I realised that it was the famous Irish poet Michael Longley. When I finally took my seat I got talking to this nice American couple and they took my photo and I took their's. Then it was showtime.
The evening was introduced by Eamonn Hughes which was appropriate because the whole evening was to celebrate the publication of Van's book of lyrics 'Lit Up Inside' which Eamonn had edited. Also on the stage was novelist Ian Rankin. Firstly they showed a short film of Van and Bob Dylan singing on a hill above Athens. Then Eamonn introduced Van and on he came to sit down and have a discussion with Ian. I feared that Van might be out of his comfort zone doing this sort of thing but I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was very relaxed, witty,open and chatty. Ian asked him what it was like making that film with Bob and Van wittily replied, "Well, it was a long walk up there".Van mentioned William Blake quite a few times during the discussion which I was pleased about because in my review of the book a few weeks ago I described Van as a visionary in the same way as Blake. Van also talked about listening to AFN and a show called Stars Of Jazz and hearing Ray Charles, Sidney Bechet and Mahalia Jackson and being pleased that Lenny Bruce also listened to Stars Of Jazz. He also mentioned that one of the first poems he ever wrote was about the Belfast shipyards. Van also listened to Radio Luxembourg and he recalled watching the Tonight programme introduced by Cliff Michelmore which I also used to watch which featured Robin Hall & Jimmy McGregor and Van particularly mentioned Rory McEwan who was one of the first people to bring the music of Leadbelly to Britain and must have been a big influence on the young Van. When asked about how he wrote songs Van explained that Moondance started as an instrumental and Mick Fleetwood played on the original sessions for it and it was only years later that he added words. Asked about Coney Island Van said that he used to deliver bread for Stewart's Bakery and Coney Island was on the route. He also spoke about a teacher at his school called David Hammond who described Belfast's river Lagan as their River Jordan and Van obviously took him at his word, seeing the spiritual in the most ordinary things. Ian asked him about Samuel Beckett and Van said he liked Beckett's quote,"I can't go on, so I'll go on". The audience had been asked to submit questions for Van and I was pleased that Ian chose a question from our friend Brendan. I can't remember the wording of the question now but I think it was about Van's influences and he replied at length about all manner of people from Lightning Hopkins to Steve Benbow. There was also a question from Rob McKenzie asking who Justin was and Van said he had no idea because Paul Durkin wrote those words but he had heard that Justin was Seamus Heaney's middle name. Van talked about Mystic Eyes and how it was influenced by Sonny Terry and the words about the graveyard were inspired by Dicken's Great Expectations. Somebody in the audience shouted out asking who was the brown eyed girl and Van patiently explained that his songs were mainly what you could call 'Faction' and were not about any specific person but were made up of various elements. That brought the discussion with Van to a close and he left the stage.
Then a short film was shown of Van talking to poet Michael Longley which was part of a TV documentary made about twenty years called 'A Coney Island Of The Mind'. Then Michael was introduced on stage and he spoke warmly about Solly Lipsitz who had promoted Jazz and Blues in Belfast and had sold the young Van some of his first records in his record shop called Atlantic Records. Michael then read the words of two of Vans songs, Coney Island and Into The Mystic which proved to me what I have been trying to explain to people till I am blue in the face which is that the best of Van's lyrics given the right reader can be enjoyed on their own as poetry. Then it was time for the wonderful Edna O'Brien to take the stage. In my view Edna is the greatest female Irish writer of the last hundred years. She is an Irish national treasure and I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be seated just a few feet away from her listening to her beautiful voice. She admitted to having a crush on Van for a long time and she wasn't at all surprised that he was influenced by Rimbaud. She then read Tore Down A La Rimbaud and her own unique reading of Madame George which was magical. It was a privilege to see and listen to her. I hope her presence at the concert might encourage a few Van fans who aren't familiar with her work to read some of her books. That brought the first half of the evening to a close. Little did I realise that the best was yet to come.
Fifteen minutes later we were back in our seats for the second half. Van sat on a stool for the entire performance apart from a couple of times when he stood up to blow his saxophone. Because the focus this evening was on the words it was a stripped back band with no brass section and no backing singer just Bobby Ruggerio, drums, Paul Moore,bass, Paul Moran keyboards, Dave Keary guitar and Van guitars and sax. There were only nine songs but it was the best set of nine songs I have ever heard. Van chatted between every song as well which was most unusual, explaining how the songs came about. The first song he said was influenced by a book called 'Cloud Hidden,Whereabouts Unknown' and was about Zen Buddhism and called Alan Watts Blues. It is a fabulous song which you don't get to hear very often. The next song was Foreign Window which Van informed us was influenced by Jean Cocteau and Lord Byron. Tore Down A La Rimbaud was also performed brilliantly. Van said that he had shown the words of the next song to Allen Ginsberg who replied, "Message, purpose, writing". Van said that it was recorded at the same time as the Moondance album but not released until it featured in the film 'The King Of Comedy' and it showed that not all was well during the Moondance era.It was Wonderful Remark,another great song. Coney Island was next with Van telling us that jam-jar was cockney rhyming slang for car and also humorously changing the lyrics at the end which the audience found hilarious. I have never seen Van in such a jokey mood before. Van then played electric guitar on Why Must I Always Explain which was very ironic because I'd never heard Van do so much explaining. Van then played his sax as the introduction to a fabulous extended version of Into The Mystic with Van scatting and improvising about church bells chiming in the space and distance and feeling the presence of the holy ghost and at the end exclaiming, "Peace". It was quite wonderful as was the next song. Van informed us that it was set in Belfast, London and Dublin. It was of course Madame George. I have seen Van perform this song before but tonight's performance was magnificent. The evening came to a close with the pure poetry of On Hyndford Street. Van referenced Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre in this one and he left the stage repeating, " I won't stop till we get the healing done, do you understand?". The audience all stood up at the end in a standing ovation for a performance that will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to be there.
When we got outside I was absolutely buzzing with elation after the show. I met Harald the radio reporter from Germany and he pointed a microphone at me and asked what I thought of the show. I blurted out some excitable gibberish into the mike. I can't remember what I said but I bet it was nonsense. Then the whole gang returned to the pub. Harald had given me an idea so I got out my camera and asked a few of the fans what they thought. (You can see the film below). Carol had made some buttons saying Van 2014 which she gave to everyone which was nice of her. Finally it was midnight and the pub people asked us to drink up. I'm pleased they did because I had far too much Guinness and wine by then. I was at the stage of hugging people and telling them I loved them which is always embarrassing looking back on it. Never mind.
Next morning I woke up all bleary eyed and goopy with a bad head. Crawled out of bed, checked out of the hotel and wandered the rainy lonely streets of Soho. I went into Garfunkel's and after a delicious breakfast of Eggs Benedict, orange juice,coffee and two paracetamol I was as good as new. Then I headed for Paddington and caught the 12.18. On the way home I mulled over the events of the night before and things Van had said. It reminded me of a quote of Samuel Beckett that I have on a poster of Irish writers at home. " Perhaps my best years are gone.....but I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire that's in me now". That's because on the previous night Van was on fire. He is back where he belongs, in the healing game, reborn as poet and troubadour. The Van caravan is on it's way to Downpatrick in Northern Ireland this weekend and I'm quite envious of all my friends who are going. Still, you can't go to everything. Next year is Van's 70th birthday so I hope the fans in Belfast organise a party to celebrate that event and I will definitely try and go. Anyway, there's no need to say another word.