Turn It Up
The show on April 14. 1990, was at my old stomping grounds – Massey Hall. Only this time I got to walk through the front doors and see the show from the start. Well, I’d see as much of it as I could – our tickets said obstructed view. As it turned out, they were really only obstructed if you wanted to see the stage. The view of the rest of the theatre was panoramic, especially up there in the balcony, which was looking to be my geographic lot in life. But I found if I listed just slightly into the person to my left, I could see one quadrant of the stage, the quadrant that included Van. But first up was Mose Allison.
I didn’t know Mose from a hole in the ground. Other than that one song, “Your Mind Is on Vacation”…but your mouth is working overtime. A malady I fall prey to more times than I care to admit. He did a good set – interesting musician. You can hear in his voice that he’s from the south, but there’s a lot of jazz embedded in his blues. It was a sound Van was enamored of, and it became an integral part of his show later in the decade while Georgie Fame was at the helm of Van’s band.
And talking about Georgie Fame – there he was at the B-3 Hammond organ. Or at least he was once the intermission was over and, among other things, Dennis and I got to work the crunks out of our necks. Dennis recognized it was Georgie Fame on his opening song, “Yeh, Yeh,” which I thought was pretty clever, what with the obstructed view and all. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had a full view, I wouldn’t have known. Georgie was another musician, like Mose, who flew below my radar. That was going to be rectified over the next few years, but for now, it was all new to me.
With Georgie came a completely new direction in the music. It got louder and was played more intensely. Now there’s an understatement for you. Georgie played the organ like Hosanna was in the highest, and the horns, with Richie Buckley and Steve Gregory on sax and Haji Ahkba on trumpet, were huge. And Dave Early up there on drums kept the whole thing together. The organ set the pace, and once it got set, it never stopped. The speed dial reached breakneck and just kept on going hairpin turns and all. No rest for the wicked. Even when Van brought the proceedings down to a hear-a-pin-drop silence, you could feel the tension building behind him, the band biding its time until Van let them rip at it again. There was enough musical combustion up there on stage, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the whole thing go up in flames.
It was a shell-shocking experience. Van Halen maybe, but Van Morrison blowing the roof off? I’d never been here before. It felt like being caught in the waves of a storm crashing into the shore. Constantly being tossed, relentlessly being towed back out, never quite sure which way was up, allowed to come up for air briefly, only to be pulled back under again. This was some night. Not quite the relaxing evening away from the kids I might have imagined.
He let us towel off about two-thirds of the way through, lulling us into thinking we’d docked at a port in the storm, first with the lilting “Raglan Road,” bringing it right down to a whisper, and then the forlorn “Carrickfergus,” which neatly wrapped up the Irish segment and our short visit to quiet waters. Those were followed by a 100-yard dash through “Full Force Gale” into the mightiest one-two punch Van ever got going in his storied live career – “Summertime in England” and “Caravan.”
Van is a master of the one-two punch. Imagine the inside of a box with a pong flying off the six walls going every which way. That’s what the first punch is like – a song of dynamics that pushes and pulls and makes my mind leap and get tossed around like a rag doll. At the end of it, there’s a physical sense that you’ve just been put through the ringer. Just go ahead and scream. Reeling back from that punch, and with your head down looking for your footing, you never see it coming – the second punch – this one a left uppercut. You’re done for. He’s going to take you for another ride, and if you thought that first song flung you around, wait ’til you hear this one. Turn it up. Hold on tight. TURN IT UP. Cry uncle. They have to scrape you off the floor.
I wonder, if Van can do that to me, what’s he doing to himself during all this? Does he have to wring out his shorts too? In terms of entertainment dollars well spent, this rates five stars. The “Summertime/Caravan” combination was a staple during the early part of 1990 and although both songs have had long spells on the setlist independent of each other over the years,* put together as they were under the direction of Georgie Fame was sheer brilliance.
During the time that Georgie was with Van from late spring 1989 until early January 1998, there never seemed to be a dull musical moment up on stage. Everything just barreled along – it seemed the instruments themselves were on bennies. Here in the early days of that musical union, we have what arguably is the best jazz band assembled behind Van in support. Neil Drinkwater, Bernie Holland, and Brian Odgers round out the eight-member band. This is the band that was behind Van at the Montreux ’90 Jazz Festival, where Van not only gave them the “Summertime/Caravan” one-two punch to deal with, he sang a “Sweet Thing” that still has fans referencing as the definitive version. And it may very well be, although who am I to judge? There are so many good candidates to choose from. If you’ve heard “Sweet Thing” live, you’ve had yourself an undeniable Van moment, one that would trade in high figures, if there were a market in trading concert moments. I can see it now – a virtual reality traders den: “I’ll give you this ‘Sweet Thing’ for your ‘Help Me’ in Rotterdam ’91…what?…OK, ‘Sweet Thing’ AND I don’t know, I’ll add in the ‘Northern Muse’ from Toronto 1990, but you’re going to have to give me ‘Rave On’ from Glastonbury if you want this deal to happen.”
And there we had it. In the nineteen years since that February night I’d stood outside the Capital Theatre in Montreal, I had seen Van five times. One thing was for sure – so far, seeing Van wasn’t putting much of a dent in my entertainment budget. I wasn’t exactly complaining at the dearth, though. Canadians are nothing if they are not stoics; I think it comes from being buried under all that snow for six months of every year. Staring at all that white for so long numbs the brain. There is a sense of acceptance and inevitability to all things – a nation of Doris Days in mukluks singing a round of que sera sera, whatever will be will be. Complaining seemed much more like an American thing – they had so much more to complain about. Canadians are much more content to accept their lot in life. As long as there was a hockey game on Saturday night, there really wasn’t much more that anyone needed other than a strong arm and a sturdy shovel.
It would be another fourteen years before I was to see Van in Toronto again. We had decided to pack our bags and go play for the other team, those whiners to the south. We were moving to America. The land of opportunity, of lost dreams and found dreams. I swear, on a stack of Bibles, that I did not move to the United States just so I could see Van more often, but I won’t lie either. It might not have been the reason, but it didn’t escape my attention that my pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness was about to get a whole lot easier, at least as far as live music, especially the Van variety, was concerned.
*Who can forget Van during the Last Waltz? Looking tentative and deferential during his non-singing moments on stage, the moment he opened his mouth and began singing, he went into the song and just took it where it was going to go; and ultimately, that left him kicking at unseen ghosts of the caravan with a gusto reserved for George Best.