The venue was an amphitheater at Lake Compounce – a theme park about twenty miles outside of Hartford, which claims to be the site of the oldest continuously running amusement park in North America. It was built in 1846 and has been in business to a greater or lesser extent ever since. During one of the lesser-extent years, they built the amphitheater to attract the crowds with acts like Neil Young, the Allman Brothers, and Bob Dylan. But its major claim to fame is that this is the stage in 1989 where Milli Vanilli got caught lip-synching – the record skips, the record skips.
The amphitheater itself holds 20,000 people. One of those places where it’s good if you get a seat under the roof, otherwise you are one of 15,000 or so out on the grass, looking on from one of various hills to the musical figurines down there on the stage. That summer’s eve, standing up on one of the knolls off to the side, I suddenly wished I had had the foresight to suggest we leave home a bit earlier – I don’t think we could have been farther from the stage without standing in the parking lot. We were able to nudge ourselves a bit closer to the front and a bit farther from the semis going by on the highway, but no amount of nudging was going to put us on the receiving end of a subtle and nuanced show. It might very well have been a show of subtle differences, but we sure weren’t going to hear any of that way over here. That was the night I vowed that my time up in the balcony and on grassy knolls was over. If I was going to get serious about the music, I was going to get serious up front.
Of course I didn’t realize until much later that the Ticketmaster factor was going to have a lot more to do with where I was sitting than any particular desire I personally might have to sit up front. If there is one place the power of positive thinking has never worked for me, it’s sitting there at 10:00:01 the day tickets go on sale with Ticketmaster at the end of the redial button or, later, opposite me on the computer. I’ve bought a lot of tickets through Ticketmaster over the years, but the length of our relationship hasn’t done much to improve it. I don’t suppose they’ve lost much sleep over it, at least not as much as I have.
But onto the show. My first American show. And my introduction to the festival show, a staple of the summer months. How was I to know? Put Van under a tent, give him an audience that is marginally attentive at best and the alchemy is right for a festival show. To the extent that Van has hits, a festival show is a hits show. A large handful taken from Domino, Jackie Wilson Said, Brown Eyed Girl, Bright Side of the Road, Gloria, and a few more as the years went on, then he’s out the door, or under the flap, to his waiting car and gone from the premises. There is a sense of playing to the common denominator, which on a night like this is the loud, summertime love happy, chemically altered fan out there singing ding a ling a ling, ding a ling a ling, I’m in heaven when you smile at the top of his or her lungs. Multiply that by however many thousands out there and the moment for subtlety never really comes up as an option. The one thing that sets the music of Van Morrison apart from so many others is the nuances, and the nuances within the nuances that create a tapestry; the joy is in following them and ultimately getting lost in them. Van is particularly nimble at the art of nuance, and it doesn’t hurt one little bit that he has a perfect voice for all that musical trickery. I don’t know if that’s a lot of hard work for him, but at a festival show where very little if any of that is going on, it seems he’s having an easy time of it, that it requires little effort to perform a hits show. But it gives him a good opportunity to give the chops a workout.
But having said that, any show that has All in the Game, Help Me, and Summertime in England, with Raglan Road, Northern Muse, and Just Like a Woman thrown in for good measure, is hard to quibble with. I do quibble, but not about the exquisite SIE, some of my favorite call and responses between sax and sax and sax and voice are with Ritchie Buckley, and this is the time period for that. I don’t suppose I appreciated it half enough at the time – ah, the vagaries of youth – but all said, tonight’s version is a bit on the truncated side; it’s a festival show. The band’s also got Georgie Fame, who was well-established in the band by this point, with Dave Early on drums, Steve Gregory and Ritchie on sax, Bernie Holland on guitar, Brian Odgers on bass, and Neil Drinkwater on keyboards. The year 1990 saw a powerhouse Van; by the time he got to Lake Compounce he had fifty shows under his belt for the year, arguably some of his best concerts performed earlier in March and April, and by midsummer, his voice had become hoarse. Fans wax poetic over that very same raspy voice singing Sweet Thing at Montreux in July. Hearing what he can do when his voice is compromised like that is awe-inspiring, and makes one mentally rub one’s hands together in glee, thinking once again, what else could he possibly do?
If you go to enough shows, you just may find out. I’m game.
But it would turn out to be another three years before I was to see him again, with a lot of water under the bridge, if not Van’s, then at least mine. Van played two shows at the Orpheum in Boston, and then two nights again at the Paramount in New York in 1992. I never made it to those shows and in the process was totally oblivious to how Van had just kept going, like a whirling dervish, starting in 1990, on through 1991; and by the time 1992 rolled around, the band had gone through a lot of changes, and Van had just kept building up the momentum. He was like the Energizer Bunny on ludes. Incredible shows, lasting hours, Van wailing away on guitar, Teena Lyle on vibes, Kate St. John on oboe, the great Ronnie Johnson on guitar, keeping up with Van every step of the way, and Dave Early, master back there on the drum kit. Nicky Scott on bass, and John Savannah having the time of his life, both on keyboards and some nights just going crazy with his voice. It was a fairly intense band. I couldn’t be more sorry that I missed it all.
I was going through a sketchy few years right around then, with my marriage getting a pretty good scratch going on its ten-year itch. We scratched a lot. For a while there, it didn’t look like the marriage was going to make it, made worse by any interest on my part to actually make it work. I carried around my victimization like a badge of courage. I was in a tough spot of my own making. I had no green card so I couldn’t work and two small children, so striking out on my own most days didn’t seem like the smartest move I could make for all concerned. Our marriage never recovered, but I did and so did our family. By 1993, the water under the bridge, while not exactly clear, was a lot less muddy and the boat wasn’t rocking so much.
But Van was. In April 1993, Van showed up in the U.S., with a short jog up to Toronto, for fourteen shows in nineteen nights. And Dennis and I caught him one of those nights at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Life could be worse. Much worse.