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Saturday 23 March 2019

Music: Arise Sir Van Morrison - in praise of past glories

Blazing a trail: Van Morrison produced some landmark albums in the early stages of his musical career.
Blazing a trail: Van Morrison produced some landmark albums in the early stages of his musical career.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Let's get one thing straight about Van Morrison: he's been treading water for a very long time. Every other year he releases a new album to widespread indifference and faintly enthusiastic reviews.

The Belfast veteran hasn't had a late renaissance like those other totemic figures who first came to prominence half a century or so ago. He hasn't generated the sort of renewed critical clamour and mass adulation enjoyed by the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and the late Johnny Cash.

Even Morrison devotees might be surprised that he's just released another album. Duets, his 35th studio offering, is a largely serviceable effort that finds him collaborating with the likes of Tony Bennett and Michael Bublé, but it's not going to feature in any of those end-of-year album polls.

You have to go a long way back into the Morrison catalogue to find a truly great album. I'm going to stick my neck on the line and say 1986's synth and sax-inflected No Guru, No Method, No Teacher as his last indispensable LP.

Van, of course, is in the news again thanks to his receipt of a knighthood. Sir George Ivan Morrison has an appropriately aristocratic ring to it, although his decision to accept the honour has irked some. One of the remarkable aspects of his life is how carefully he has sidestepped the north's political minefield up to now. (Of course, rejecting QEII's gift would have been far more contentious.)

It was striking to see just how much of the conversation surrounding the knighthood centred not on Morrison's artistic achievements, but rather on his inherent grouchiness, especially with music journalists. Famously, he has refused media interviews for years. And while I've little interest in making the case for Nice Guy Van - I've never met the man, although an interview with him is on my journalistic bucket list - it's a shame that arguably the finest musician ever produced by this island should be regarded in such a cartoonish way.

One need only consider Morrison's most creatively thrilling period - 1964 to 1974 - to see what a mammoth contribution he made to music and culture. From the garage rock exuberance of early single 'Gloria' (released by his band Them when he was just 18) to the mystical eccentricities of the Veedon Fleece album, Van blazed a trail the likes of which has rarely been seen in any creative discipline.

So much has been written about Astral Weeks, his second solo album proper, and with good reason: 47 years after its release, it remains a landmark - a fantastically ambitious free-form experiment in songcraft. Is it possible to listen to its centrepiece, 'Cyprus Avenue', and not be struck by its bitter-sweet tale of youthful lovelorn yearning?

Astral Weeks confounded many at the time - especially the record-buying public (it reached a pitiful 140 in the UK album chart) but Morrison's brilliance had been signalled in capital letters the previous year (1967) with the epic, nine-minute 'TB Sheets', the astonishing stand-out on his patchy solo debut album Blowin' Your Mind! It remains one of the most vivid songs ever written about death, as Morrison imagines the horrific last days of a young girl dying from tuberculosis. Few Irish families were untouched by consumption in the first half of the 20th century and its legacy would have resonated powerfully with the sensitive young songwriter.

Morrison averaged an album a year between '67 and '74 and if Astral Weeks is now hailed among the best albums of all time, follow-up Moondance wasn't too shabby either. It illustrated his populist touch, but one that wasn't at the expense of esoteric songcraft. While songs like 'And it Stoned Me' and 'Into the Mystic' are redolent of the hippy era, the album doesn't feel dated - possibly because so many of today's acoustic guitar-toting troubadours aspire to a similar fusion of folk and romantic mysticism.

While subsequent albums Tupelo Honey, St Dominic's Preview and Hardnose the Highway all boast plenty of reasons for the uninitiated to make their acquaintance, it's Veedon Fleece that I find myself returning to time and again. Often seen as a companion to Astral Weeks, the album was written on a three-week period that Morrison spent in Ireland, south of the border. Having lived in the US since the late '60s, Morrison rarely ventured home and this trip seems to have stoked a passion for all things Celtic. It's certainly his most 'Irish' album up to that point and glories in the stream of conscious lyricism that made Astral Weeks so beguiling. From the jazz-tinged opener 'Fair Play' to the gorgeously arranged closer 'Country Fair', Veedon Fleece is a free-wheeling tour-de-force that deserves to be reappraised. It hasn't quite been given its due in the Van Morrison canon and that may be partly down to the singer himself: Morrison was decidedly lukewarm about the album's charms when he spoke about it later, but what he would give now to release an album as special today.

* George Byrne was the passionate and forthright music critic with this newspaper for several years, having also been on the books of Hot Press and, latterly, The Herald, where he was its film reviewer. He died in April, aged just 57, leaving behind a formidable body of arts criticisms and witty rejoinders (my favourite of which concerned U2, and I paraphrase: "I wouldn't cross the road to see them, but I would cross the Atlantic.")

A memorial gig will take place in one of George's favourite venues, Whelan's, Dublin, on Friday where some of the Irish bands he loved best - and championed in print - will play in his honour. The night is headlined by Something Happens and features The Blades' cultured frontman Paul Cleary, jangle pop maestros Pugwash and Blink mainman Dermot Lambert among others. Tickets are €20 and proceeds go to a charity in George's native and much-loved Liberties.

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