Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
All great artists have at least one period in their career where almost everything they touch turns to gold, and if it occurs when they’re young it usually allows them to pursue a singular path through the rest of their lives. I’ve heard this referred to as a “purple patch,” although I’m not sure where that phrase originated. Van Morrison’s purple patch was the early 70s. The albums released during this time, Moondance (1970), His Band And The Street Choir (1970), Tupelo Honey (1971) and Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972) show an artist with seemingly no limits. I will also include Astral Weeks (1969) in this list, as it’s like no other album in his or any other artist’s catalog, although I will be re-assessing that album at a later date. I’ve spent a lot of time this past week with the first four albums indicated above, and I made some nice discoveries in the process.
Moondance is the album I knew well before starting this project, but after listening to it again for the first time in years I realized there were some things I had missed in the past. Mostly, it was how the bass playing gave the album a certain bounce that I don’t hear on his other albums. The whole album has a feeling of bliss, whether it was artistic or domestic, or possibly both. I can almost hear him smiling throughout the recording sessions, although you wouldn’t know it from any of the photos of him at the time. The bass player was John Klingberg. I had never heard of him before, and it appears that his few appearances on Van’s records were the highest-profile gigs of his career. Apparently he died in 1985 at the age of 39, according to an online post I found, allegedly written by his daughter.
I love the album opener, “And It Stoned Me,” where he’s obviously influenced by The Band. I enjoyed the different tone in his voice during “Crazy Love,” possibly a nod to Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” The clavinet on “Everyone,” sounding like a harpsichord, gives the tune an upbeat, light-as-air feel, and the closer “Glad Tidings” is like a parting gift from Van, welcoming us to return to the album soon. I stand by my initial assessment that this album is a masterpiece, and the perfect place for anyone to start their Van Morrison collection.
By His Band And The Street Choir, he was really wearing his soul, r&b and early rock ‘n roll influences on his sleeve, whether it’s the combination of Fats Domino with hints of Buddy Holly vocal harmonies in “Give Me A Kiss (Just One Sweet Kiss),” the Otis Redding sound-alike “If I Ever Needed Someone,” or “Call Me Up In Dreamland,” which clearly owes a debt to Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party.” Overall the album is a little more subdued and not as consistently thrilling as Moondance, but that’s a tough act to follow. Any album that starts with the upbeat hit single “Domino” is going to grab the listener, and the remaining songs don’t disappoint. If not as consistently thrilling as its predecessor, it’s still a fantastic album that puts a smile on my face.
I’ve always loved the rustic sound of Tupelo Honey, even if I couldn’t always recall all of the songs. Van was obviously listening to The Band’s first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, but he wasn’t the only artist drawing such influence at the time. After starting this album with yet another hit, the bouncy near-hoedown of “Wild Night,” he settles into a more laid-back groove on Band-influenced songs like “Old Old Woodstock” and the Neil Young-ish “Starting A New Life.” The great finger-picking and slide guitar of “I Wanna Roo You” contribute to one my favorite Van songs.
The only other song I’ll shine a light on here is “Moonshine Whiskey,” which has been playing in my cranial jukebox for the last few days. I love how the song is split into a mournful-sounding waltz-tempo ballad and an up-tempo country vamp. Somehow, like Stevie Wonder’s classic “If You Really Love Me,” he takes two almost completely opposite songs and fuses them together into a satisfying whole. It’s a great way to close out the album.
An interesting tidbit I discovered when scouring the credits is that this album (as well as its successor) was co-produced by Ted Templeman, who also plays organ here, and features Ronnie Montrose on lead guitar. Templeman also produced the first album by Ronnie’s band Montrose, which featured a young singer named Sammy Hagar, who of course went on to replace David Lee Roth in Van Halen many years later. And bringing all of this together, Ted Templeman produced the first 6 Van Halen albums, which makes him probably the only person who helped shape the sound of music’s two great Vans (with all due respect to the great songwriter & creator of “The Hustle,” Van McCoy).
I finish this post with an album that I really came to love in the last week, Saint Dominic’s Preview. It begins with another peppy hit, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile),” which is not indicative of the music that follows. Much quieter & more spiritual, it’s nonetheless fascinating, and allows Van to explore things he hadn’t done before. For me the centerpiece of the album is the 11-minute epic “Listen To The Lion,” which includes lots of slow builds, crescendos, and repeated lines where each time he utters a word or phrase he brings a new feeling or meaning to the lyric. Even the guttural sounds & scat singing, which occasionally mimic what would otherwise be a saxophone line, add nuance and depth to a song whose meaning I admittedly don’t quite understand. This is more about feel, texture and intensity.
The title song seems to be about trying to make connections with people in a disconnected world, “I Will Be There” is a nice slow blues shuffle with a slight New Orleans feel, and “Almost Independence Day” is a beautifully quiet way to close out the album. The acoustic guitar pattern in the latter song bears an uncanny resemblance to a personal favorite, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” (which wouldn’t be released for another 3 years). Am I imagining this?
A brief search on the internet pointed out that Dominic was the patron saint of astronomers. Was Van Morrison looking skyward as he wrote & recorded this album? It seems likely, as this is a very different record (both musically & lyrically) than the three albums that preceded it, and pointed the way forward for him in the near & distant future.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed revisiting these albums from Van’s purple patch, and would love to know your thoughts on them. Now I move on to several of the albums that followed: Hard Nose The Highway, Veedon Fleece, A Period Of Transition and Wavelength, as well as the 2-record live set from 1973, It’s Too Late To Stop Now. Thanks for reading. Until my next post…..
“Listen to the Lion” is one of my favorite Van Morrison songs.
He’s said that it is one of the few songs about him. It was written during the Moondance period, and actually recorded during the Tupelo Honey sessions, but it didn’t make the album, and added to “St. Dominic’s Preview” which I never thought was appropriate, it doesn’t fit there in my opinion. Lot’s of good stuff here:
Hi Grant. Thanks for your comment. Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, but I just got back from an overseas trip. That’s an interesting point regarding “Listen To The Lion” being one of the only songs Van wrote about himself. The song is one of my favorite re-discoveries after listening to his whole catalog this past month. Once I get settled back in, I’ll check out the Wikipedia link you included in your comment. I’ll also be posting about Astral Weeks and my final thoughts on Van in the next couple of days before moving on to another artist. Thanks so much for reading.
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The bass on listen to the Lions…Man! What makes Astral weeks for me is the joyous upright bass,
it’s almost a lead instrument long before that became a thing. It does the same here snaking in and out with the vocals and guitar.
Someone more knowledgeable than me, once pointed out to me that Rickie Lee Jones’ Chuck E’s in Love is just Domino slowed down..mind blown.
Love that bass on “Listen To The Lions,” one of the unsung highlights of his vast catalog.
Interesting point about “Chuck E’s In Love.” I’ll have to do an A/B comparison next time I’m listening to RLJ’s debut album.
A purple patch! I like it and hadn’t heard the expression before. I also didn’t know there was a patron saint of astronomers. Last but not least, I thought I had managed to replace some Van Morrison but a quick check reveals that I’m Van-less! Sigh.
Thanks for another great post, Rich!
I’m glad my blog can be so educational, Danica. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn about this patron saint. I hope your eyes continue to be opened to some of Van’s amazing music. They’re not all classics, but it’s worth sifting through the lesser material to find all the gems.
Thanks for the feedback.
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Great stuff as per usual Rich. Love exploring this blog. I too love And It Stoned Me. One of my favourite VM tracks ever.
Wow, you ventured deep into my archives with the first artist I ever wrote about here, nearly 10 years ago. I learned a lot about Van’s catalog as I revisited it and I think I might need to go back to some of those albums again. Glad you agree about “And It Stoned Me.” I got the expanded version of Moondance when it was released in 2013. The surround sound mix is fantastic and much of the bonus material is as well. It has multiple versions of a song called “I Can Sing” that blew me away. Art Garfunkel recorded it but Van’s versions are so much stronger.
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