Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Van Morrison: A Night In San Francisco

Isn't it a-bout time, as Steve Stills once sang when with his band, Manassas, surely a-bout time to feature a live album? They're a hit-and-miss affair, live albums, and probably worthy of a separate category. Playing and being recorded live is, musically speaking, the final frontier. When a live album's not up to scratch, you question whether the band is worth your admiration or allegiance. But when a live album fires on all cylinders, it's quite another matter.

There are some legendary live albums that stand out of the pack, some of which are happily in my collection and may feature in subsequent slots: B.B. King's Live at the Regal, James Brown's Live at the Apollo, King Curtis's Live at the Fillmore West, Donny Hathaway Live, the Fania All-Stars live either at the Yankee Stadium or the Cheetah Club, Pharoah Sanders' incendiary quartet of 1981, und so weiter. There are, too, some surprisingly lacklustre affairs by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century: Bobby 'Blue' Bland's and Marvin Gaye's live offerings, for example, might leave you wondering what all the fuss was about.

As a teenager, I learnt to play on my tennis racquet the guitar parts of both John Cippolina and Gary Duncan, as featured extensively on Quicksilver Messenger Service's mainly live Happy Trails album. These days, as I approach codger-dom, there's one live album that consistently lifts me out of my chair and gets me contorting my face and barking unnecessarily. That said, I'm possibly the only person who would lobby for A Night in San Francisco as the most exciting live album of all time.

It came out in 1994 as a double CD, ironically not long after I saw the little man at Sheffield City Hall. It was one of those notorious occasions when the Irishman couldn't really be bothered. He was off at around the hour mark, using the old clichéd encore trick to generate a bit of enthusiasm and value-for-money, and though it was good to say that you'd seen him live, it left a slightly sour taste and a feeling that you'd been short-changed.

Of course, Sir Van has always blown hot and cold, presumably depending on his mood (which is customarily curmudgeonly). At least his reputation is such that he can assemble a great band, which always helps. I bought the double album, It's Too Late To Stop Now, back in 1975, the year after it came out. Now there's one that does garner many a critical vote for one of the best albums of all time. It was recorded with Van's trusty Caledonian Soul Orchestra: a most consistent and dependable of outfits.

I can't remember much about the band that night in Sheffield. Teena Lyle was there on keyboards and vibes, but there was certainly no Georgie Fame (or Fay-emm, as the man from Belfast calls him) on organ, and it's Georgie to my mind who seems to be the real powerhouse behind some of Van's greatest performances. I submit as evidence a film recording of a blistering concert by Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames in New York supported by the Belfast man at his committed best.

For the night at The Masonic Auditorium in 'Frisco, special guest stars pop up of the calibre of the Dutch saxophonist, Candy Dulfer, and of R&B legends John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and the mighty Jimmy Witherspoon. It probably only lacked Mose Allison and Ray Charles for Van's dream team. And you can hear how he just revels in their company. 'The blues, the whole blues and nothing but the blues,' he exuberates at one point. Apart from 'Spoon and John Lee and Georgie himself, there are supplementary vocals from Van's seeming protégé, Brian Kennedy (whose voice is admittedly too wet for such raw rhythm & blues), a friend's chum, James Hunter, and the proud dad's daughter, Shana (on 'Beautiful Vision'). I suspect that they were recruited to give the Man's pipes a bit of a rest, but it doesn't matter: the ensemble work in largely perfect harmony.

The great thing about a live album is that it allows an artist to stretch out and improvise outside the more regimented confines of a studio recording. Most of the numbers, particularly on the second disc, are amalgams either of his own numbers or of R&B standards or of both, as in for example the two epics on the first disc, the first when Van's 'See Me Through' segues into his 'Soldier of Fortune' and then into a snippet of Sly Stone's 'Thank You Faletttinme Be Mice Elf Again'; and the second a glorious segue from the ever-dependable 'Moondance' into Rogers and Hart's immortal 'My Funny Valentine'.

'It's too late to stop now!' Van hollers towards the end of the longest work-out of the night on the second disc, and there just so happen to be a couple of throwbacks to the earlier album on Disc 1: his own 'I've Been Working', in itself as authentic a piece of R&B as you'd wish from the composer of 'Gloria', and Sonny Boy Williamson's funkiest of all funky blues numbers, 'Help Me'. (To avoid disappointment, seek out an extraordinary ballistic version by Sugar Blue, the harmonica player used by the Rolling Stones on 'Miss You'.)

Everything simmers beautifully on the first disc before coming to the boil on the second. 'It Fills You Up' indeed. All 70-plus minutes of it, from Georgie Fame's opening bit of vocalese on 'Jumpin' With Symphony Sid' to the almost predictable 'Gloria' that brings everything to a standing, stomping conclusion. But it's not just 'Gloria'. In conjunction, less predictably, with Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' 'Shakin' All Over', it's probably the finest version of Van's youthful smash in the world. 'Some decorum, please!' the Man reiterates during the proceedings and it's clear just how much he's enjoying himself on one hand, and how funny the old curmudgeon can be in moods like this.

Sandwiched between beginning and end, in among a bevy of transcendent performances, are 31 minutes that beat almost anything I've ever heard on a live album. 'I first heard this song by Bobby Bland in '64' (probably while he was still cleaning windows), Sir Van announces in a typically matter-of-fact manner before launching into a monumental 16-minute version of 'I'll Take Care Of You', intertwined with James Brown's 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World', that knocks the socks off the timeless original. 'It's hustle time!' for sure. There's a deliciously unexpected vibes solo from Tina Lyle, a honking sax solo by Candy Dulfer and some terrific secondary vocals from James Hunter.

It couldn't possibly get any better than this. But it does, by jingo it does! Doc Pomus' 'Lonely Avenue' has always been one of my favourite Ray Charles numbers. But no one out there does it better than Mr. Morrison. Over almost 15 minutes – and incorporating wonderful trumpet, sax and organ solos – the cast roils a simmering stew, just keeping you in a delicious state of tension as you anticipate boiling point. It's a rollercoaster ride from 'Lonely Avenue' through 'Be Bop a Lula', then Van's lazy '4 O'Clock In The Morning' and a brief snippet of Sly's 'Family Affair' before Van's 'You Give Me Nothing But The Blues' is followed by Jimmy Witherspoon's' entrance for 'When Will I Become A Man?' and 'Sooner Or Later'. Then it's back to 'Nothing But The Blues' followed by a dash of Roy Orbison's 'Down The Line' before we're led hollering and screaming back to 'Lonely Avenue' for a suitable rousing finale.

'Did you feel the spirit in the house tonight!?' the MC demands at a suitable point in the proceedings. Van and his band did over those two nights, and the audience certainly did. I defy anyone who loves soul and R&B not to feel that same spirit as they listen to this livest of live albums. No wonder Van was knighted for services rendered. No wonder he's consistently named among the finest soul singers of the age – and stage.

No comments:

Post a Comment