Saturday, November 28, 2015

Put the Boot In: Van Morrison - November 1, 1978 The Bottom Line 'Sugar Was Tough'



Playing in the ‘rock room’ today is a warm and ambient WNEW- FM broadcast of Van Morrison and his 1978 band. Featured in a small classic NYC venue in support of his then current musical offering for the marketplace. Van, along with guitarists Bobby Tench, Herbie Armstrong, bassist Micky Heat, drummer Peter Van Hooke, keyboardist Peter Barding and backing vocalists Anna Peacock and Katie Kissoon appeared at the ‘Bottom Line’ club in the Fall of 1978 for a two show bill broadcast live for a listening audience. 

New instrumental sounds, supported by an original palette of soul, rock, and R and B originals found Morrison again at an artist moment of renewal and of experimentation. Armed with the aforementioned edgy rock band backing, Van used these intimate concerts at the Bottom Line in New York City to present new material from his recently released Wavelength album in addition to some battle tested road warriors. I am enjoying the preserved version of the late show FM broadcast. The early show does circulate as well, but the late show seems to have a slight edge performance wise. 

The set lists are similar between the performances with Van and band opening both shows with a heavy stepping “Moondance’, allowing the crowd to hear Morrison’s most popular number right off of the bat and enabling them to be openly receptive to the new songs to come. Morrison trades verses with a female backing vocalist and Pee Wee Ellis takes a brisk horn break. The immediacy of the band line up and Morrison’s directive is obvious from the opening track.

‘Wavelength’ follows next, the title song from his current album and begins with a weightless introduction punctuated with Morrison’s well timed groans while paired with tasteful and spacey keyboard interjections. The song soon gallops breathlessly into a signature Van Morrison musical sprint by rolling green hills and through cloudy morning mists. The tempo is unwavering and pulsating as Morrison, as will become a theme for the evening grooves over the top with his collaborative vocal excursions. Van enters into a rung by rung duet with the synthesizer before entering a melodic wash that ‘Into the Mystic’ escapes from seamlessly.

‘Into the Mystic’ returns the crowd to familiar territory and is a fine gentle version. Smoothly sung by Van the timeless melody settles into a contemplative drift only woken by big guitar and backing vocals. A song of many versions and this is one of the good ones. The 'Wavelength/Mystic ' duo is a highlight of the show.


Replying in contrast, ‘Checkin It Out’ from the Wavelength album, is an inconspicuous number but is worth a double glance as this version cranes the neck with awesome playing. Carnival keys and jazzy changes are the hallmarks of a deeper Van Morrison cut.

‘Hungry For Your Love’ and its yearning descending melody set a smoky mood for the next  moment of note.  Slightly buzzing late 70’s synth’s echo Morrison’s moody vocal lilt but remain perfectly contemporary shadowing his shaded singing. Morrison gets off with the backing vocalists for a vocal outro jam that again highlights a top performance of the evening.

A high speed, calypso keyboard ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ pays the audience off for their new song patience. As pleasing as ever, Van and band pull of a flawless Summer day performance that becomes a celebratory sing-along complete with percussive synthesizer breakdown. Another big song two-fer is completed with the following number. ‘Crazy Love’ comes next and cools things down with Katie Klasoon taking over lead vocals offering a  unique prospective twist on Van’s original composition.
‘Kingdom Hall’, the opening track from  now hangs its head out of the window on its way to Sunday mass.  With lyrics as free and hopeful as the revival rhythm, Morrison and his backing vocalists get it together with Van’s eye winking commentary. Stand up for this one....its ok, none is looking.

‘Tupelo Honey’ continues the deft set list mix of hits and introductions and follows true to its description. This version is a sticky sweet soul review with whipped keyboards and dynamic vocals by Van the man. Extended for horn, guitar and keyboard solo spots, ‘Tupelo Honey’ acts as a decorative centerpiece of the performance. 

‘Natalia’ follows delicately balanced on the edge of disco but with enough dirt on its shoes to remain truly Van Morrison. A danceable remembrance of love past and possibly recaptured Morrison sings it true and the crowd is right there with him. By songs end he turns the lamps down and sings the song to smouldering embers and evening silence.

Stage favorite ‘Help Me’ comes next entering with a pleading shuffle. Van opens on harp and then digs in for some classic R and B crooning. Perfectly extended, Van’s old band mate from ‘Them’ Peter Barding empties a huge swirling solo onto the track that brings the song to a roaring swell. The responding guitar solo has the same effect. Used as a showcase for the band,‘Help Me’ sizzles for its duration.  Van gets raspy and gritty when asking for his ‘night shirt’ as the song returns to reprise the verses; his vocal grooving is effective in getting the crowd properly worked into a tizzy by the songs conclusion.  

Breathlessly, ‘Wild Night’s strident open guitar picks up from ‘Help Me’s’ concluding notes. ‘Wild Night’ hauls ass and means it. Morrison is in full blow and the band is unable to be stopped. Once again keyboards color the landscape while remaining true to the songs original intentions.  Van mentions allusions to the ‘Slim Slow Slider’ as the band breaks down and he free forms over a slight reggae groove. Morrison intro’s the band while they lay back, before exploding from the island into the closing reprise of the song. 
Again, there is no respite as the band chugs into ‘Joyous Sound’ as ‘Wild Night’ ends, the song perfectly placed as a goodbye to the crowd, exclaiming ‘Whenever we meet again’. The song twirls and whirls the show to a crazy conclusion as the crowd captured on the recording can attest. The version of 'Joyus Sound' acts as a fitting 'Radio I Ching' moment representation for the evening. Van leaves the stage and lets the crowd roar and stir leading him to a encore presentation. The description by the radio broadcaster as they await Van’s return to the stage at this point in the recording is quite humorous.

For the encore Morrison and the band over a slow roll of ‘Caravan’, watery in its presentation and laid back in its dissemination. Morrison in conversational manor slinks his way through the song building to a hand-clapped break down where he brings the assembled crowd to the edge of the precipice increasing the tension with his playful dynamics. Approaching a percussive silence, Morrison finally reveals the ‘Turn it up!’ signal and the band detonates in kind on time to an appreciative crowd!

Morrison returns for a second encore by giving a ‘thumbs up’, before beginning on acoustic guitar a reflective and well timed ‘Cyprus Avenue’. This is what it’s all about; Morrison directs the sympathetic band through a slowly building version of the Astral Weeks classic. The song rises and falls between verses while Morrison offers a restrained but powerful rendition of the song. Spectral keyboards play hide and seek while the drums offer steady punctuation to lyrical moments of note. Vocals are perfect, adorned with unique exclamations and asides. Similar to previous songs of the evening Van brings it way down, playing with the crowd, before popping the cork and entering into a roaring finish. The band winds their way around Morrison and the backing vocalist soulful back and forth on a ‘revelation’ mantra. The guitars build, Morrison screams heartily and the band suddenly frees itself into a fully off the rails acceleration that builds to such a furious rate there is nothing else for it to do but implode onto itself. Revving up for another round, Morrison ends the second conclusion, with screams of ‘Baby’ and ‘It’s too late to stop now!’ as the band plows through another nitrous powered rocket ship finish.

Hailing from an era where musicians like Van Morrison were sometimes viewed as passe’ by certain media channels and mainstream musicians this concert reveals more proof of the superior concerts and stellar songwriting coming from a somewhat clandestine period. Morrison, an artist of constant reinvention is revealed here as an musician willing to restructure, reorganize and retool previous glory’s while constantly creating new and exciting work. This 1978 live performance is a perfect representation of Morrison in another era of change and is worthy of official release and constant inspection.


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