Van Morrison carries the troubadour torch to the Taj
For over 40 years, Van Morrison has allowed his music to do the talking for him. Successfully dodging the spotlight that often hovers over celebrity musicians of Morrison's grand stature, the Irish soul legend has instead communicated through his deep and unmatched catalogue of hundreds of timeless songs, dozens of albums, and oftentimes mystical live performances. Never one to succumb to the pressures of current trends, Morrison, 59, has pushed on through the decades, charting his own course, keeping his work a priority and focus, and his personal life private.
Through his songs, you get the feeling that Morrison's a deeply spiritual man, someone less concerned with album sales and more interested in the creative journey itself. He didn't bother with an MTV Unplugged special when they were the rage and didn't need a big comeback Grammy win to keep his muse satisfied. And you certainly won't see Van the Man as a guest judge on American Idol next season. But with each new album release - including last month's wonderful Magic Time (Geffen) - it's evident that Morrison's restless gypsy spirit has no intention of abandoning the winding road that has stretched throughout his prolific career. A road that has taken him from the otherworldly beauty of 1968's Astral Weeks to his current schedule of U.S. dates, which brings him to the Trump Taj Mahal on Saturday night.
Morrison's limitless career of song has encompassed various strains of music. Since breaking through with his mid-'60s band Them, Morrison's muse has taken him all over the musical map. Through the back alleys of American folk and jazz, the rustic hillside peace of country rock, up and down the valleys of traditional Celtic music, on the doo-wop street corners, aboard the R&B night trains and adrift in the starry skies of pop standards. Constant throughout, though, has been an endlessly unique approach to, and a serious appreciation for, the blues.
Although Morrison himself has supplied some of the most magical moments in modern music, i.e., "Gloria," "Brown Eyed Girl," "Into the Mystic," "Domino," "Moondance," "Have I Told You Lately," "Tupelo Honey" and "Crazy Love" - all of which have become FM radio standards in their own right - he has continued to reach back into the burning fires of music's rich history, conjuring the ghosts that once haunted him as a young man growing up in Belfast where his father's eclectic record collection introduced him to John Lee Hooker, Hank Williams, Leadbelly and Ray Charles.
Perfectly placed among Magic Time's 10 original tunes are three thoughtfully interpreted standards. With them Morrison recalls Louis Armstrong ("I'm Confessin'"), Frank Sinatra ("This Love of Mine") and Fats Waller ("Lonely and Blue") and illustrates the undying connection between his music and that of the past. As with recent brilliant outings such as 1997's The Healing Game, 1999's Back on Top and 2002's Down the Road, all of which were produced by Morrison himself for his Exile Productions, Magic Time deals with the past, the present and the future; offering lyrically-rich snapshots of an artist who's "stranded at the edge of the world," as he sings on "Stranded," the album's wistful leadoff track featuring Morrison on alto sax.
The nine other original tunes on Magic Time add colorful brushstrokes to the picture that Morrison has been painting of himself in recent years. Over the course of his recent string of original albums, some of them tragically overlooked, the image of an artist who's constantly striving for perfection and who seeks no part of the frivolous nature of modern times often shines through. Sometimes, as in the poignant, acoustic-guitar backed "Just Like Greta," off the new album, he's expressing his need for solitude. As Morrison sings on the song's memorable chorus:
Well I guess I'm going A.W.O.L.
Disconnect my telephone
Just like Greta Garbo
I just want to be alone
Likewise, in this song, Morrison expresses his love-hate relationship with the music business, another constant theme in his recent work (also apparent in the new "They Sold Me Out") and one that has seemed to follow him ever since his first solo studio album was released without his consent four decades ago. Following a tear-stained string section break and a thick Hammond organ solo midway through "Just Like Greta," the singer tells of his desire to get the mandatory "business" part of his music career out of the way so he can get back to what really matters, feeding his restless creative spirit:
Well, I'm going out to L.A.
I wanna get my business done
Then I'm going on to Vegas
Then I'm going on the run
On the album's forward-looking closing track, "Carry on Regardless," Morrison, again, announces his frustration with today's music industry and his intention to keep making art that matters to him regardless of whether or not anyone listens. However, as album sales of Magic Time have shown since its release last month, and the SOLD OUT status of most of his shows these days indicate, people are still listening. And with new songs as great as "The Lion This Time," "Evening Train" and "Magic Time," people will surely keep tuning in as long as Morrison attempts to "Keep Mediocrity at Bay."
It's evident that Van Morrrison has to make music, it's what he does and it's what he'll continue to do. Just like Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker never lost a step as their respective careers progressed, Morrison's wailing voice sounds better than ever, his poetic gifts as a songwriter continue to amaze, and his gritty harmonica playing can still send shivers down your spine. Although it's been reported that Morrison is currently working on an autobiography to - as he says - "dispel the myths" about him, it's always seemed like if you just listen to his lyrics, you get a sufficient update to his story. And if people still want to hear "Brown-Eyed Girl" and "Moondance," he still includes them and other classics in his wide-ranging live sets. But keep your ears open for the newer tunes; they're bound to move you, too.
Van Morrison performs at the Trump Taj Mahal, Saturday June 11. This show is SOLD OUT.
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