Celtic Guru :: Van Morrison In The 80s | Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast
The Belfast Cowboy rides again. Four years into Van Morrison’s spiritual awakening at the dawn of the 1980s – and nearly a decade from his last official live offering – the general public had a chance to hear how the ever-changing Celtic soul singer had outfitted his live act to fit the needs of his latest psychic and musical bounds. Over the course of a now two-decade long career, Morrison had gone from the blues holler of Them to mystic-gone-rabid poetry to idyllic surveyor of the Catskills and sunny California. With Common One, Beautiful Vision, and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart now under his belt, Van had the bona fide credentials to claim title to a nearly unclassifiable subsect of Rock & Roll that aligned more closely with a stray strand of Soul music released into the green hills of the Irish countryside. Embracing both technological and philosophical innovation, Van Morrison was prepared to showcase his newfound sounds on the road. As typical with the nostalgic streaks that tend to guide his developments, on Van’s compass, all roads lead to Belfast.
Released in 1984, Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast was recorded a year prior on the heels of Inarticulate Speech’s release. With the familiar cast of musicians that he had been using on tours and in the studio over the last few years, Van could construct a comfortable atmosphere that, while surely demanding, cultivated the appropriate balance of studio re-creation and spontaneous musical ideation. The ensemble would be able to relay the sounds that constituted Van’s new direction, while still possessing the prowess to branch out into new spaces in a live setting.
Things get going on a familiar note. The opening to “Into the Mystic” is carried for a few bars before a sudden shift to the title cut of Van’s latest release. After the refrain is chanted by the backing singers about ten times, a seamless segue introduces a Morrison in top-notch howler form. On this night, “Dweller on the Threshold” manages to surpass the already exceptional version on Beautiful Vision. Something in the conviction with which Van carries his ode to almost-enlightenment bolsters the tune. And with the accompanying horn section and backing singers rounding out the arrangements, Van’s delivery of just the first few verses makes clear that the audience is in the presence of an artist at his most confident.
After ginning up the crowd, the group settles in for some prime transcendent R&B. “It’s All In the Game” offers a flawless impression of Motown’s finest moments. By the time Van weaves “You Know What They’re Writing About” into the conclusion of the number, one could almost think they were in the presence of the Funk Brothers. “She Gives Me Religion” remains in this vein, but with the addition of some classic Van pastoralism. How the fusion of such seemingly disparate themes manages to work is still unknown, but such is the capacity of Van at this moment in his career.
As the group moves into minimalism on Common One’s “Haunts of Ancient Peace,” the aptitude of the band justly moves into focus. Meandering, amorphous tunes can get out of hand easily in front of an audience. Thanks to the always-careful David Hayes on bass, however, the group trudges through the number at a marvelous glacial pace. Everyone shines over the course of its seven-minute runtime and if the vocal prowess wasn’t enough, Van delivers the best alto sax performance recorded by him yet, before finishing off the piece. “Full Force Gale” picks up the crowd after the solemn affair, and a phenomenal “Beautiful Vision” keeps them aloft.
After further ascension on the heights of the “Vanlose Stairway,” the affair is once more grounded into the silence. With blissed-out lounge act guitar fully setting the mood, Pee Wee Ellis and John Allair trade licks on flute and organ. Our poet enters. So begins the homage to the legendary John Donne. Van waxes on theosophy, industrialization, nuclearization, bacchanalia, writers of all strands, and the vision of idealism. The version offered on Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, while sincere, remained cold; almost lifeless under the weight of 1980s studio compression. Here in the Victorian halls of the Belfast Opera House, the tune is given room to breathe. As the spoken word portion of the number wraps up, the magic arrives. Entering full Guru-mode, hereto held back, Van is brought to life. The mystic has learned to restrain his powers, keeping a Zen-like cool until the moment strikes. And as the band revs up halfway through “Rave On,” the audience is lucky enough to witness this alignment in the flesh.
Over the course of the previous four years, Morrison had admittedly reined in the sporadic and impulsive tendencies of his music. In lieu of a shamanic, maniacal transcendence was New Age tranquility. Mood music for sure, but retaining the soul, passion, and longing for clarity that embodies Morrison’s best work. In the contemplations of this era, Van had lost a bit of the mystery showcased in his earlier recordings. The yearning for answers had been fulfilled. The art of losing himself in his own improvisatory ramblings had fallen away. Partly because who needs to ramble when you’ve finally figured out exactly what you need to say? As the guru becomes more attached to his findings, the original boundaries of that vast unknown begin to close in. And for the most part, this is apparent at the Opera House. Van is here to spit wisdom. Ready to deliver a sonic report on the state of his consciousness after endless reflection, the singer is eager to share his findings in communion with his audience. But as Van picks up the saxophone and the guitar licks are drawn out in the changeup following Van’s eulogy to the Laureate, the calm and cool at last dissipate. Unable to maintain the literary stoicism that propelled him to the gates of enlightenment, Van finally opens up and frees himself into the mystic once more.
Over an almost-disco four-on-the-floor, Van brings his 16th century muse into modernity. Pee Wee Ellis goes wild underneath, matching the delivery of the seemingly improvised lyrics that Van throws out that night. And finally, the stuttering, chanting, incanting Van Morrison is fully realized. A mantra of “the wonders” (or possibly, “the oneness”) unites band, audience, and singer. Almost arguing with himself, Van asks “is it really real? What you sing about in your songs?” After an initial repeated ‘no,’ our guide finally admits, ‘tonight, you will understand the wonders (oneness).” The band churns as Van channels that rare energy once seen at The Last Waltz, and repeatedly during the tenure leading his Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Paired with the newfound knowledge of constant contemplation, Van seems to reach another plane entirely over a mere 9 minutes. And just as this realization is made, Van the Man snaps back to reality, lists off his assembly of musicians, and calls an end to the proceedings.
Morrison throws the crowd a bone with the performance of “Northern Muse” and its copious references to Belfast’s County Down, before shutting things down with the Guru-era favorite and possibly Van’s most underappreciated-yet-best pop song, “Cleaning Windows.” Overall, we are offered a livelier version of Van’s studio work in the first half of the eighties at the Belfast Opera House. While some of the New Age minimalism and coolness may be lost, this is music that is best realized in a live setting—no matter how groundbreaking the original conception in the studio may be. However, this is Van living up to the potential that every critic and fan had seemed to bestow upon him from the moment Astral Weeks was released. If the only recording we had of the Celtic Guru era was the “Rave On” presented here, there is still a resounding confirmation of Van finally passing the threshold and fully stepping into the light, if only for a moment. | j rooney
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