Saturday, February 28, 2015

Belfast is the angel

Novelist Glenn Patterson recently penned this piece for the Belfast Telegraph. In it, he offers a cultural road map for East Belfast, "a suggested itinerary," Patterson writes, "guided not so much by the street map as by the works—the 'wonders'—and the workers themselves."

As expected, a certain Van Morrison album is mentioned: "In terms of music and the east, it is hard to look past Astral Weeks, an appreciation of which is greatly enhanced by a walk from Hyndford Street, Morrison's birthplace, along the Beersbridge Road and up Cyprus Avenue." Patterson later classifies Astral Weeks as an "extraordinary example of environment acted on by imagination."

One of Patterson's most well-known novels is 1999's The International, which is set in Belfast on the eve of the Troubles. My version of the book contains an essay by Anne Enright and her words left me contemplating the parallels between Patterson's novel and Astral Weeks:
The International insists that Belfast existed before the Troubles and that it was owned by the people who walked its streets before those streets were taken from them ... "History is an angel being blown, backwards, into the future," said Walter Benjamin. We cannot see what is ahead of us. The International works strangely on our ideas of casualty and guilt. Belfast is the angel, and the bomb is what blasts her away from us, her face full of longing for what might have been. By returning to the moment before the blast, this novel insists that things might have been otherwise. It gives the city its humanity back.

Personal dispatch #16

This is a dispatch from Cyrus Hutchinson. He recorded a cover of "Beside You." It's spirited and expressive, moody and fitful, feisty and bold, devoid of any vocals, teeming with piano and electric guitar. Here is what Cyrus had to say about his background as well as what went into recording his cover.
I'm from Oakland, California. I started playing piano at 16; I'm 22 now. I think I was about 18 or 19 when we recorded that tune. It was recorded at Ex'pression College in Emeryville, California. I had no plan to go there or record it, but I slept over at my friend Roland's house who played guitar on it. He got involved with the college somehow; he would play/record stuff for the sound engineer/recording producer or students and I ended up going along with him that day. I met the drummer and bassist that same day I think. I showed them the progression for the song and we improvised it in one take. I don't know how long the mixing, etc., took. I think a few students did it that same day with the help of their mentor.

As for why I picked the song ... It was just something I had fresh in my head that day. I love Van and that album. I saw him in San Fran a year or so ago. It was amazing. I have performed live, but it's not something I do often. I play a lot of New Orleans-style blues nowadays (kind of like Dr. John, who also produced and played piano on Van's album A Period of Transition) and would love to play that kind of stuff live. Though it's tough to find people my age who want to play that sort of music.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A sweet goodbye

They are not false endings, not in the strictest sense of the term, since there is no point during these songs where the final whistle is blown, silence takes hold, remains for a heartbeat or two, and then the music kicks off again. I suppose they are more like literary false endings, moments when you feel like the narrative is heading to a vivid, satisfying conclusion, only you discover there is a bit more to the story.

They are the false endings of Astral Weeks ... In the title track, right around the 6:20 mark, Van Morrison sings in a delicate whisper, "Way up in heaven," and the words create a sense of imminent closure. A final destination is stated and the Irishman will now deliver the listener there. Only the song continues for another 45 wondrous seconds.

But for all its dramatic effect, the false ending in "Astral Weeks" can't compare with the one heard in "Madame George." Around the seven-minute mark, as Morrison repeatedly sings the phrase "dry your eye," the violinist—who nearly outshines Morrison and Richard Davis on this track; for a solid six minutes his playing is simply otherworldly; if you were to compile a list of the most "dominating" instrumental performances on Astral Weeks, he probably makes the top three—slowly slips into the ether and we are left with strummed chords on acoustic guitar, soft touches of upright bass, snippets of xylophone and flute. It's quiet, a quiet both satisfying and unnerving. And as Morrison mourns, the doleful "ooo's" and "hmm's" pouring out, the listener believes that this is the end, that a slow fade out is nigh.

But not yet. The sweetest goodbye one could ever hear is on the way.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The champion of 1968

There is an Astral Weeks T-shirt on CafePress. You can order one here. This isn't what I imagined an Astral Weeks T-shirt would look like. Then again, I haven't dedicated much thought to what an Astral Weeks T-shirt would look like. It's interesting that the year of the album's release was included. Doing so gives it the feel of a sports championship T-shirt. You know, that gray, short sleeve jersey you buy in bulk the week after your favorite team wins a title. So does that mean Astral Weeks won 1968?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The granddaddy of all Van gigs

When it comes to staging landmark concerts, Van Morrison continues to top himself. In the fall of 2013, after being presented the Freedom of Belfast Award, the Irishman held a free concert at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Last summer, he did three shows at his former secondary school, Orangefield High School (including one for ex-staff and students). Now comes the granddaddy of all Van gigs: a birthday performance on Cyprus Avenue, the East Belfast thoroughfare he immortalized on Astral Weeks.

The concert will take place Aug. 31, the day Morrison turns 70, and will be part of the annual EastSide Arts Festival. A stage will be erected at the bottom end of Cyprus Avenue, near the street's junction with Beersbridge Road. The crowd will gather in a space between the stage and Sunbury Avenue. Attendance has been capped at 1,500.

I reached out to Maurice Kinkead, chief executive of the East Belfast Partnership, the organization that oversees EastSide Arts. He promised to answer my questions and provide more information on an event that is quite possibly Morrison's most anticipated Belfast gig since his 1979 Whitla Hall shows, which ended his self-imposed, 12-year exile from the city. Stay tuned for more details ...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Personal dispatch #15

This is a dispatch from SarahJane Gembara. As you will see below, SarahJane was without the use of her D and A guitar strings when she performed this cover. Impressive! Equally arresting is how much fun she has with the vocals: She occasionally modifies Van Morrison's lyrics, inserts little theatrical pauses, gleefully stretches out particular words while repeating others machine gun-like. Here is what SarahJane had to say about her background as well as what went into recording her cover.
So my name is SarahJane Gembara (or SJ) and I'm from Brookfield, Illinois. I'm 20 years old and have been messing around with a guitar since seventh grade. When I went away to college, I left my brother my old guitar and got myself a little used children's guitar which did me well for a while. The D and A strings eventually broke and I didn't touch it for a while. One day I was dancing around my dorm to the song "Astral Weeks" (a common occurrence) and I suddenly had a strong desire to play it myself. So I made the most of the limited strings and the cover you happened upon is the product. There were a handful of songs I would play at the time using only the bottom three strings of my guitar. I used to play it on piano occasionally, but I rarely had a piano available so the guitar version ended up being stronger.

To record, I used a really nifty handheld audio recorder that I had checked out for a film class I was in at the time (I couldn't tell you exactly what it was.) I recorded it sitting at the desk in my dorm about a year and a half ago and just uploaded it to the Soundcloud account my friend convinced me to make awhile back.

I've done a little singing for friends who make music but I've never performed by myself. I truly love making music and have written a little, but I definitely do it for myself more than anything. I don't really know what drove me to record my version of "Astral Weeks." I hadn't recorded anything before and haven't since. I'm honestly shocked that it got any attention at all. I'm flattered!

I'm a huge Van Morrison fan! I was raised on Moondance and discovered the magic and wonder of Astral Weeks myself in high school. I absolutely love how visual his lyrics are. "Between the viaducts of your dreams." I don't even know how to explain how beautiful that line is to me. His soulful self is strong, yet the album is still light, wispy, and magical. Any mix I make for anyone, something off Astral Weeks will always make the cut.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Personal dispatch #14

This is a dispatch from Kate Riley. In her cover of "Sweet Thing," Kate sings and whistles, plays ukulele and tambourine. It's simple yet imaginative, like cutting intricate paper dolls from plain white paper. The original "Sweet Thing" is an old-time ode; Kate's cover is a newfangled, sprightly anthem, a throw-your-hands-in-the-air celebration of love's pomp and grandeur. Here is what Kate had to say about her background as well as what went into recording her cover.
I live in Columbus, Ohio, born in Cleveland, Ohio. I'm 29. I've been a musician since a young age. I'm classically trained on the trumpet, but just picked up the ukulele and started singing only two years ago.

I'm very goofy, I play for my family and friends, but I do not perform live or "play out," as almost everyone asks me. I make music mostly for myself, as a hobby, a creative outlet. I'm not looking to be a rock star. I guess you could categorize me as a song writer, if anything, but definitely not a performer.

It's sad to say, the first time I heard "Sweet Thing" was only a few years ago. To put things in perspective, my first memory of music was singing to Huey Lewis and the News on my Playskool cassette recorder. (Funny, I've never attempted a cover of Huey's.) I grew up listening to the ever-expanding genres of pop, rock, alternative, and hip hop. But music from the 60's and 70's really fascinates me; it's something I've had to take the time to discover on my own. I didn't grow up with it. I'd never heard a Van Morrison song other than "Brown Eyed Girl."

When I heard "Sweet Thing", I thought, this is powerful. The emotions of the song are very clear to me, and I like music that has the ability to do that. I listened to the whole Astral Weeks album and was just astounded. The whole album speaks to me in flowing emotions, uncanny simplicity, and amazing musicality. It is very expressive. I wanted other people my age, even just a few, to discover Van Morrison, so I knew I had to do a cover.

I always start creating covers by trying to replicate the original. And since I'm super creative, replicating frustrates me beyond belief. I build on that frustration and I think that's when something beautiful comes out: my own version, what the original means to me, how it naturally flows through me. Everyone hears and interprets music differently. I think a cover should be an expression or interpretation of how you feel about the original. I've had a lot of people tell me how much they enjoyed my covers, but never necessarily liked the originals. I think it helps to hear a different voice or interpretation. It helps the original live on and be understood especially in a new day and age.

I record all of my music on my phone. "Sweet Thing" I used an app called GarageBand for help with some light percussion. I recorded it last spring, around a time when "the gardens were all wet with rain". (Lol.) I sat on the song for months and just "thought" about it. But creating the cover probably only took me a couple of hours. I changed quite a bit in the song, but I think the feeling and emotion speak to the original. I'm very rhythmic. I tend to enhance that in anything I play. I think Van Morrison is a genius because he doesn't have to do that. His music flows and you feel the rhythm without it necessarily being in your face. A true Asrtal Weeks fan and musician may notice I even changed the time signature! (I actually imagined someone being quite displeased about that when I did it.)

I love the song because it's very magical. It simplifies the feeling of love and in reality, that is what falling in love is all about. It's easy, simple, innocent, and child-like. Your senses change. You notice things you hadn't before, all because your feelings for this one person unlocked your mind to new possibilities.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Like holding water in your hand

Astral Weeks has been praised for how it gleefully spits in the eye of conventional song structure. Only one track, "The Way Young Lovers Do," has something even resembling a chorus. It's only sung by Van Morrison twice, but if anything, this decision to keep it minimal allows the lyrics to remain potent and pure. It's not a chorus of the sing-along variety; the words never get stuck in your head. However, the imagery lingers—Morrison's two lovers stay with you long after the music stops. So it’s a catchy in that way.

"Then we sat on our own star and dreamed of the way that we were," the Irishman begins. "And the way that we wanted to be / Then we sat on our own star and dreamed of the way that I was for you / And you were for me."

It sounds like simple nostalgia. Lots of was's and were's. A clear desire to return to the beginning, the beginning of them, back to when the world wasn't just itself, but was a grand stage for all of their acts and words. Or perhaps it's more complicated. Maybe it's the realization that when it comes to our memories of things, the memories are often better than the things themselves. Or maybe it's about shaping and forming a memory into one that's more meaningful, more indelible, that way you have a memory strong enough to give you something to forever hold on to.

Or maybe it's more like this particular passage from Ulysses:
I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I? Can't bring back time. Like holding water in your hand. Would you go back to then? Just beginning then. Would you?