Monday, August 31, 2015

The countdown continues

Last Friday, Ralph McLean wrapped up his countdown of the top 70 Van Morrison tunes. The tracks were selected by BBC Radio Ulster listeners.

Here's what made the top ten:
10. "Angelou" (Into the Music)
9. "Have I Told You Lately" (Avalon Sunset)
8. "Crazy Love" (Moondance)
7. "Listen to the Lion" (Saint Dominic's Preview)
6. "Saint Dominic's Preview” (Saint Dominic's Preview)
5. "Madame George" (Astral Weeks)
4. "Bright Side of the Road" (Into the Music)
3. "In the Garden" (No Guru, No Method, No Teacher)
2. "Tupelo Honey" (Tupelo Honey)
1. "Into the Mystic" (Moondance)
Overall, seven of Astral Weeks' eight tracks made the list (sorry, "Slim Slow Slider"). Of Morrison's 41 studio and live albums, Astral Weeks was the most well represented. In the runner-up spot was Moondance with six selections. (Though that album managed to place more tracks in the top 20; four to Astral Weeks' three. "Ballerina" and "Sweet Thing" ranked 11th and 13th respectively.) Three albums tied for third place with four tracks each: Saint Dominic's Preview, Avalon Sunset, and the U.S. edition of Them's The Angry Young Them.

All three episodes of McLean's countdown can be listened to here.

"It had just blown them away"

When I spoke with John Payne last August, here is what he had to say regarding the legendary extended ending of "Slim Slow Slider"—and ending we will now apparently get to hear thanks to Astral Weeks finally, finally, finally! getting the reissue treatment.
He's thumping and I'm playing weird outside jazz stuff. He fades it out. What actually happened—I don't know how long it was; I'd say three or five minutes—of instrumental improvisation went on with Richard and me, and Van was improvising single string on his guitar, which he never does. But he can apparently, because he did. Now we even got baroque for a little while. It was wild.

What happened with that tune ... We were all playing with the drums and this and that and the other thing. Then the producer said, "Okay, I want everyone in the control room except for Richard and John and Van." He just got the idea it should be sparse. It was a brilliant idea because everything else was dense with lots of stuff. And they put all this echo on the soprano sax so it doesn't even almost sound like a saxophone. It sounds like sort of a flute—or who in the hell knows. It sounds like it's coming over the mountains. I don't know whose idea that was. And at the end, we just keep playing, instrumentally playing. We go into this whole thing—it's about three or five minutes long. Just something at the end where we started going crazy.

And then I can remember we walked back into the session, to the control room, the three of us, and there was dead silence, like no one said a word. Because it just had blown them away ... The ones who knew Van, probably because they didn't know Van could do that. He listened to jazz his whole life. But it was just this moment—just something happened.

The countdown begins

On August 26, BBC Radio Ulster began its countdown of the top 70 songs in Van Morrison's catalog. (The station also kicked off its week-long celebration of the singer-songwriter's birthday; check out my post here.) The 70 tracks were selected by the station's listeners.

So far, only one track from Astral Weeks has made an appearance: "Beside You." However, host Ralph McLean did tease listeners with the promise that more would be coming in the following days.

A good chunk of the 20-something tracks played consisted of Morrison's most popular downtempo numbers: "A Sense of Wonder," "Brand New Day," "Warm Love," and "Hymns to the Silence." Also, a trio of Them ditties made an appearance: "Don't Look Back," "One Two Brown Eyes," and "Here Comes the Night."

In between, McLean shared touching tweets and emails and missives from Morrison's fans. There was a widow who remembered his first dance with his new bride and how the song they spun and stepped to was "These Are the Days." There was a grieving parent who lost a teenage daughter and found solace in "Reminds Me of You." But perhaps my favorite share was from Maurice Kinkead, chief executive of the East Belfast Partnership, who said that the opening line to "Orangefield"—and I'm paraphrasing here—always makes him feel good about Belfast.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Happy Birthday, Van the Man

On Aug. 26, BBC Radio Ulster will kick off its week-long celebration of Van Morrison's 70th birthday. The numerous programs, features, and events are certain to leave the average Van enthusiast properly satiated. A full schedule can be found right here.

A few of the events yours truly is eagerly anticipating:

Ralph's Top 70 Van Tracks Countdown
Over the course of three days (Aug. 26-28, from 8 to 10 p.m.), Ralph McLean will count down the top songs from Morrison's five-decade-long career. The tracks were chosen by BBC Radio Ulster listeners.

Into the Music
On Aug. 29 at 6 p.m., McLean will host a special concert just one mile from where Morrison grew up. "Into the Music" will take place at the Park Avenue Hotel in East Belfast and will feature a number of local artists, including The 4 Of Us, The Clameens, Anthony Toner, Wookalilly, and Ronnie Greer.

The Story of Them
On Aug. 30 at 2 p.m., Dan Gordon presents "The Story of Them," a documentary tells the story of Morrison and his rhythm & blues band. The program will feature interviews with members and the group's most well-known songs.

Van Morrison: Live on Cyprus Avenue
And finally, on Aug. 31 at 2:45 p.m. (Morrison's birthday), BBC Radio Ulster will exclusively broadcast the artist's 70th birthday concert. The show will take place on Cyprus Avenue, the East Belfast thoroughfare he immortalized on Astral Weeks.

Two thumbs up

For sale right now on Amazon (price: $11.49; format: VHS cassette): Slipstream, a 1973 Canadian drama that not only takes its title from "Astral Weeks," but also includes the song in its soundtrack. Starring Luke Askew (of Cool Hand Luke and Easy Rider fame; not too shabby), the movie won the Canadian Film Award for Best Feature Film in 1973.

Unsurprisingly, Van Morrison gave it two thumbs up—way up. From Ritchie Yorke's biography Van Morrison: Into the Music: "I think it's a great film. And I think that 'Astral Weeks' is in context with the film." Morrison also travelled to Toronto to be on hand for its official premiere.

The movie's plot, courtesy of IMDB: "A reclusive Albertan DJ runs his popular pirate radio station in a remote farmhouse, but begins to feel pressure from his romantic relationship with a fan and his producer, who wants more mainstream content.” In Yorke's biography, Morrison goes on to say that the flick was "banned in a lot of places" on account of it exposing "a lot of the corruption in the music business." Hmmm ... Sounds a little dubious.

At any rate, I believe this is the first instance of a song from Astral Weeks being featured in a movie. And other than the inclusion of "Sweet Thing" in a few motion pictures, I struggle to think of subsequent instances. I suppose that's the reason not a single track from Astral Weeks was included on this compilation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Place/Person/Album (thank you, Tim Robinson)

The opening words to something grand, something bold ...

Van Morrison's Astral Weeks

It begins: like a sudden gust from the sea, a melodious rush of upright bass and acoustic guitar, an opening lyric—"If I ventured in the slipstream"—touched with echo and distance, as if the artist's words are drifting through the narrow backstreets of his native Belfast, drifting down from the soft, heathery hills that horse-shoe this lonely, obstinate city. And it ends: a chaotic din not unlike the throb and stammer of Belfast's once great shipyards, a din that casually evokes Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney's assertion that "our island is full of comfortless noises"— shrieks of soprano saxophone, the heavy hammer of that upright bass, the dull thwack of human flesh pounding a hard surface.

Between these two moments the pop music medium is crushed and expanded. A new future is brought about through the past. The statement made by this groundbreaking collaboration of form and sound and feeling is immediate and irrevocable. Never before has a popular music artist examined with such power and grace all that being alive can mean.

The album is a space where contrasting elements—the old and the new, the conscious and the unconscious, reflection and action, individuality and collectivity, adolescence and maturity—land on common ground. The album, released in the fall of 1968, is the greatest ever recorded. It's a singular voice going out into the world, a voice that close to five decades later remains unanswered, unchallenged—unequalled. The album speaks its own language.

This self-sufficiency demands reverence and to present additional information on the album's subject matter and on its creator is not an attempt to buttress it, but to assemble a base on which to display its paramountcy.