Category Archives: Music

Ireland once again – or how I spent my summer vacation

Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you hoped they would. Ah, such is life, and such is my life. My grand plan to move to Ireland for a year or two – to write this book that’s been in my head for so long – came to naught. The fellow at the Irish Embassy who had assured me I would have no trouble getting permission to remain was, like many an Irishman, only half right. It was the other half that gave me grief, and the short of it is, my dream of two years in this country that feels like home turned into a different reality: three months, like any other tourist.

Talk about putting a crimp in my game plan. But if Plan A wasn’t going to work, I’d have to come up with Plan B. In order to work, it was going to require a serious work ethic on my part … if three months is all I was going to get, then I had better apply myself and get every stitch of research I could get done in that allotted time. So that’s how I spent my summer vacation – at the library, with my nose in one book or another. With a few days off to explore various settings in my book.

I must have taken about eleventy hundred photos, but unfortunately, the bulk of them were taken inside libraries, so not a lot of the green, green grass of home type pictures that capture the beauty of Ireland. But let me show you a bit of where I was …

… and how it all fits in.

Remember ’48

1848. County Clare, in western Ireland. It was the third year of what history now calls The Great Famine, and the story of Clare during that time is one of misery – poverty, starvation, destitution, sickness and death. But that is not really the story I am about to write. But it is the story of that time, so there is no glossing over. The plantation system, instituted by Cromwell during the 1600s, was in effect, with the English or Anglo-Irish aristocracy owning most of the land in the country. They were the landed gentry, and those who chose to live on their estates, lived in the Big House and rented out most of their land to farmers, who in turn worked for the landlord. And this is where my story begins – in the Big House.

So naturally, visits to the Big House (three of them, actually) were the order of the day. It was my great fortune to meet a local historian, Dr. Joseph Power, who graciously showed me around and got us into those three homes. Two of them are currently under renovation, and the third is a veritable castle that today is a five-star hotel complete with its own golf course. Dromoland it’s called.

The fellow on the plaque in the center photo (who just happened to be born at Dromoland) played a pivotal role in Ireland’s historic uprising during 1848. The group he belonged to, Young Ireland,  have become somewhat of a footnote in Ireland’s long battle for independence from British rule, and its their cry for freedom that has inspired me to write their story …

… from the point of view of a young servant girl who is also searching for her own freedom from within the confines of the Big House she serves somewhere out in eastern County Clare. It’s dicey writing historical fiction – the blending of fact and fiction. But here’s one fact: there is a little village that sits on the Fergus Estuary, which in turn flows into the Shannon River, whose location and history have sparked my imagination. Much of that spark is thanks to Joe Power’s “A History of Clare Castle and Its Environs,” which leaves no stone unturned about this tiny dot on the map. It’s become my dot, for better or worse. It wasn’t called Clare Castle in 1848, but you’ll just have to wait for the book to find that out.

Here are a few pictures of what it looks like today, with a little history thrown in …

But as I mentioned, most of my time was spent at the library – either at the Clare County Library or the Local Studies Centre – in Ennis. Research is a lot like weeding a garden – just when you think you’ve got ’em all, there’s another … and another … and another that needs tackling. Peter Beirne and Brian Doyle at the Local Studies Centre went far beyond the call of duty and were forever finding me another and still another every time they headed up the stairs to find me yet one more book I simply had to read. I was in good hands. And if you hang out at the Local Studies Centre long enough, other history buffs are bound to show up. Lucky for me, Ciarán O Murchadha, a local historian with a wealth of knowledge and plenty of books to his credit, shared his time with me and pointed me in the right direction more than once or twice.

I was very sorry to leave – but my time was up, and I had to get to Dublin for a round of research at the National Library, with the prospect of weeks of sitting at the microfilm reader, scouring the newspapers of the time. But first, a stop in Ballingarry, another little village, this one in the heart of Tipperary, where the fellow in the plaque up above led an uprising on the last Saturday of July 1848. For the past ten years, the Ballingarry 1848 Society has led a walk that retraces the steps that our Young Ireland rebels took that fateful day. I couldn’t miss that, right? Talk about history.

From Tipp it was off to Dublin. And while my time there was mostly work, there was a bit of play. An afternoon spent in Parnell Square, poking my head in at the Irish Writers Centre and the Irish Writers Museum, and a visit to the Hugh Lane Gallery, with much to cheer about the country’s artists, including Seán Keating and Jack B Yeats, both of whom painted in a romantic-realist style during the Irish Independence period and capture it all with great beauty and style. There’s also a room devoted to the Impressionists, and any day I see a new Pissaro is a good day. It was a very good day, indeed.

But undoubtedly the highlight of my play time was the night John Collins and I caught Richie Buckley playing sax with the Ronnie Greer trio in the upstairs room at JJ Smyth’s. Richie lent such credence to Van’s band during the ’90s and was there for Van’sRichie B and SDV blog Astral Weeks Live tour in 2008/2009. His call and response on “Summertime in England” is forever etched in our minds, one of those musical pinnacles. That’s me asking Richie about the call and response during the “Common One” segment at those two Hollywood Bowl shows in ’08. He said Van just threw it at him at the last minute – no advance warning. Sounds like Van – you just never know. Fantastic to catch Richie here in Dublin. As John said, “Just one of those great nights.”

Let me leave you with just a taste of the good stuff …

Van Morrison in Boston, April 26 & 27, 2016

Van Boston 2016 marqueeWang dang doodle – Van’s four-concert April mini-tour, which began with a set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and then went up to Alpharetta, Georgia, for a show that reeled them in,  came to a crackerjack end with two nights at the Wang Theatre in Boston. And I got to go to both. I wouldn’t say that he pulled out all the stops for us,  but he pulled us through on a number of them.

So there I was in my seat on Tuesday night, knowing that Shana was going to open at 7:30; that she was going to have a 20-minute set; and Van was coming on at 8. I was in my seat in plenty of time, having spent the better part of the past three hours at a Boston preshow, so you know that was good. Since moving to the States in 1990, this has been my group – the East Coast fans, and they are the best, the best fans ever. You got to figure I’m in the best of caledonia moods as I sit there waiting for Shana to come out. So I start talking to the two women seated beside me. Van chit-chat. Lovely ladies, who it turns out are at their first Van Morrison concert, crossing something off their bucket list. I have a vision: What if I’d never been to a Van show before: what would I have done with a life that didn’t have his music in it? It’s a scary thought. But I recuperate quickly, and with just the slightest bit of envy, I tell them, “This guy’s amazing; you just wait and see.” What I wouldn’t give to be at my first Van concert again.

Shana does a nice job both nights in her opening set. She’s got her East Coast band, the Flying Manatees, on stage with her; and on the first night, Jason Crosby plays keyboards and violin. I give a nod to the first night for the fuller sound with Jason there, but also, it was just the better set in terms of setlist (Van’s “Angeliou”) and getting the crowd pumped for Van. I am reminded as I listen to Shana sing a lovely version of “Angeliou that one of the wonderful aspects of Van’s performance is the dynamics, both within a song and in the concert overall. In any event, a gentle version of the song ends with her singing, “I’ve got a story too … it goes like this … a story that goes something like this … I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain …purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, etc., etc.” and the Boston crowd loves it.

photo by Brian Heffler

photo by Brian Heffler

They are ecstatic by the time Van comes on stage. He walks on with his sax and the crowd erupts to its feet; but it’s business as usual as Van does his solo on “Celtic Swing.” And we’re into the standard opening numbers. “Close Enough For Jazz” and “Magic Time” give us a chance to listen to how good the band is and appreciate Van’s sax playing, which sounds great tonight. But more on that later.

There’s nothing like hearing a song for the first time live, and so it is with “By His Grace,” with a “keep on keeping on” ending. We get it both nights. On the second night, we also get a very nice rendition of “Symphony Sid,” and by this time in the set, along with songs like “Born To Sing,” “Carrying A Torch,” “Wild Night,” and the list goes on, that Van is very comfortable as the band leader of this very tightly kept band. It sounds great, it sounds rehearsed. You can’t have it all.

Here are the setlists from both nights:

April 26

Celtic Swing; Close Enough For Jazz; Magic Time; By His Grace; In The Midnight; Born To Sing (w/Chris Farlowe); That Old Black Magic (w/Shana Morrison); Rock Me Baby; Someone Like You; Wavelength; Sometimes We Cry (w/Dana Masters); Enlightenment (w/SM); Baby, Please Don’t Go>Parchman Farm>Don’t Start Crying Now; In The Afternoon>Ancient Highway>Joe Turner medley>Burn, Baby, Burn>Raincheck; Wild Night; Whenever God Shines His Light (w/DM); It’s All In The Game>You Know What They’re Writing About>No Plan B/This Is It>Burning Ground; Brown Eyed Girl; Celtic Excavation>Into The Mystic; Stand By Me (w/CF)

April 27

Celtic Swing; Close Enough For Jazz; Symphony Sid (w/DM); Magic Time; By His Grace; Carrying A Torch; Rough God Goes Riding (w/SM); Stormy Monday Blues>Take Your Hands Out of My Pocket>Red Rooster>Goin’ Down Slow; Thanks For The Information; Kingdom Hall; Wavelength; Someone Like You (w/DM); Wild Night; In The Afternoon>Ancient Highway>Joe Turner medley>Burn, Baby, Burn>Raincheck; Whenever God Shines His Light (w/DM); Help Me; It’s All In The Game>You Know What They’re Writing About>No Plan B>September Song>Burning Ground; Stand By Me (w/CF)

Anorak alert: I am told that Van played a few bars of “Celtic Excavation” as the intro to “Into The Mystic.” But don’t go by me; I totally missed it.

“As we sailed into the mystic …” and we were into, you know, the mystic. The Boston crowd loved this one too. I had a random thought that maybe after the Cyprus Avenue shows when a number of fans noted with chagrin that Van hadn’t played “Cyprus Avenue” for them, as a marketing plan, he decides from here on out that he will play a “local” song – “Jambayala” in New Orleans, “Georgia On My Mind” in Alpharetta, and “Into The Mystic” for Boston. Should I be looking for a West Virginia show so I can hear “Shenandoah”?

The other thought I had was that the “standards” (pretty much all the songs that don’t have any of those >>> things in them), besides having a really polished feel to them, sounded upbeat, some of them pop, some of them jazz, and all sounding a lot like the studio cuts. I like the sound, and I recognize the change from the recent past, where the interpretations of his classics were slow and and dirge-like to my ears. If the set is going to be, like it was the first night, three-quarters full of standards, starring band leader Van with his orchestra, then let there be light and joy.

If you only got to go to one of the shows, Wednesday night was the one to go to. But if you had only gone to that one, you’d have missed the first night: the better “Game” with a Van sax solo, a bit of lingering on the “make it real” bridge, and THIS IS IT! which has been my IT since I first heard him do it in Belfast in 2012. I lead a charmed life. And the theatrics of “Parchman Farm.” I like Van’s version of this, and because I don’t go to all that many shows, I don’t get to hear it often enough not to appreciate the nuances of the night’s performance. Tonight he introduces it with “I wonder why I didn’t write this song; it’s by Mose Allison,” and he has the best time with it. And Shana’s duet with Van on “That Old Black Magic” got her vamping a bit, which was good all around, and I daresay she made some new fans in Boston.

But in a way, the highlight for me on night one was “Enlightenment.” In recent times, this is one of those songs that has sounded the same at every concert, performed in that dirge-like kind of boring way. If there are throwaways, this is one of them – for me, at least. But tonight, first of all, it’s faster paced, like all the standards. That’s better. It feels like a new old song. But even better, I listen to the words he’s singing, and I swear to god, serious, it feels like I’m hearing the words for the first time. Is this one of those songs that finally speak to you, even though you’ve heard the song a zillion times? [Later, back at home, we put on a couple of versions “Enlightenment,” and I realized that the only reason I thought I was hearing the lyrics for the first time is because I was. Just a little change in the words in one spot gives the song a new spin, at least for me.

Tonight, there’s none of the non-attachment  wording, and where in the original, it goes:

Enlightenment says the world is nothing
Nothing but a dream, everything’s an illusion
And nothing is real

in tonight’s version, he sings:

Enlightenment says the world is nothing but a dream,            Everything’s an illusion, but at the same time it’s all real

It’s a small thing, but it’s like a whole new take on the subject, or at least it seems that way to me.

The second show might have been the better of the two because of the song extensions. “Rough God Goes Riding” first. The ending bit that invokes the heroes reduced to zero, Jesse James, Billy the Kidd, Robert de Niro and Clint Eastwood, he has some added theatrics for the crowd. He says something like,

This one is really going to be very difficult … America, what do they know? Just like … OK, this one is up (he gives a thumbs up), and that one is down (giving a thumbs down). Just like Donald Trump … [yeas from the audience on the up sign, bigger boos on the down sign]. If you keep going like that, it’s going to be a Clinton, if you keep going like that. Just like Bill Clinton; it doesn’t matter. Bill goes, AAAAAAAA-MEN!

Well, that was fun! It’s not the first time he’s given us his thoughts on Bill, but it’s been awhile.

“Stormy Monday Blues” is a killer. Chris Farlowe joins Van on stage and Van just takes it to town, through Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Take Your Hands Out Of My Pocket” and Howlin Wolf’s “Red Rooster” and “Goin’ Down Slow.” Dave Keary’s solo is superb, unfortunately all too short, but it’s all Van scatting, improvising and singing the dirty blues.

The band deserves a big hand. I think Van’s got them where he wants them, and I hope he keeps taking it up a notch with them. The band: Dave Keary – guitar; Paul Moran – keyboards and trumpet; Paul Moore – bass; Dana Masters – backup vocals; Bobby Ruggiero – drums.

Van is sounding just as superb as ever, his voice in such good form, such control. He gave us a couple of tasty treats over the two nights.

It was great to see everyone. What can I say … one more time again. See y’all on the road!

april in new orleans

fireworks-211Hands down, New Orleans has to be the best city ever. The last (and first) time I came to visit, it was for two weeks, with Bridget, and we couldn’t have had a better time. A week of Mardi Gras followed by a week of Lent, and we were drawn by her charms, taking the bait hook, line and sinker. We knew we were coming back the first chance we got. Continue reading

van in nyc, november 25 and 26, 2013

I think Van surprised a lot of people this trip to the United States. To be fair, the setlists from overseas during the past year haven’t been real loin-stirrers, so it was a guessing game as to what the four shows in the States would bring. I bet there were a lot of New York-bound folks anxious to see that first setlist out of San Francisco, where it turned out, by all accounts, Van was in excellent form – best show ever type of thing. Continue reading

san francisco – hardly strictly bluegrass festival

day 1 – sunday, october 7

Bridget and I are driving south out of Sonoma wine country, out on Hwy 101. As we get closer to San Francisco, we see a sign for the San Anselmo exit. I’ve got Van’s Hard Nose The Highway in Dexy’s CD player and on comes “Snow In San Anselmo.” I look longingly to the west, past San Anselmo, thinking another time I’d like to do that Hwy 1 drive north out of San Francisco, through Sausalito and Marin City and up along the Coast Highway, as far north as that little town of Westport – which we’d passed through three days ago – that looked like a picture postcard from Ireland. Ah, but that’s for another day. Today is all about San Francisco and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Continue reading

portland, oregon

We’ve got a four-night stay in Portland – again at another airbnb – this time a fully equipped basement apartment up in the northeast area of town. It’s an “in” night, one for watching of few episodes of “Mad Men,” and while I caught up on some work, Bridget figured out our plan of attack on Portland in the upcoming days. All I need to do is check out Powell’s Bookstore sometime and go see Willy Porter on Friday night; other than that, my schedule is free. Continue reading

new orleans music

Even without the music, New Orleans is a fascinating city, one that is easy to be in – restaurants, shops, a riverwalk along the Mississippi, art galleries, parks – all within walking distance, all filled with friendly folks who are genuinely pleased with life and glad to be spending a part of their day with you. Its narrow one-way streets demand you get out on foot to explore. It’s the only way to see New Orleans, and while you’re out there gawking at all there is on offer, your senses come alive … especially your auditory sense. New Orleans is many things, but paramount is the music. Live music. I daresay there isn’t a city anywhere else that keeps on giving music the way NOLA does. Continue reading