We’ve got seats in the left orchestra, not terribly close to the stage, but not so far either. I have a couple of distinct memories of this show, neither of them particularly memorable, but there you go. The first is watching what seems like a constant rotation up on stage. First Jimmie Witherspoon was on, then he was off and Van was on, then he’s off and Junior Wells is on and then Van’s on, then they are both off and Witherspoon is back on and then off and Van is back. All this off an’ on and back and forth, it was enough to make me go for a bromo. Just stand in one spot. Don’t move.
I had no idea at this point in my life who Jimmie Witherspoon and Junior Wells are. They are names to me, like Winston Churchill is a name to my children – they’ve heard it before, they know it’s important, but that’s all they know.
As it turns out, Jimmie Witherspoon and Junior Wells were just the first of many names I had never heard before and was about to get introduced to through Van Morrison. I know I am a feeder on this one, but thank you, Van, for introducing me to a number of musicians I’m not entirely sure I would have heard otherwise. I appreciate the tip, so to speak. Cheers, Van!
I got to see Jimmy Witherspoon once more, in 1996, when he was on stage with Van, but Junior Wells, that was my one and only time seeing this man. It was a privilege.
Tonight’s band is the same one that’s with Van later in the year out on the West Coast, performing at what became A Night in San Francisco. There was Haji Ahkba on trumpet and acting the MC, doing the R’n’B schmoozer character I came to recognize over the years, often a handler – but not Haji; he was always just as cool as cool could be up on stage – a welcome treat it was, the years he was in Van’s band. And Teena Lyle. Teena Lyle, Teena Lyle. She was on vibes, lending a very jazzy feel to the entire proceedings. When I listen to music from this era, I often think, if music were a glove, that Teena and Van wore the same glove – she plays like he sings, simpatico. Yes, definitely, Teena is in the dVb (dream Van band). A girl’s got to have her dream band. I don’t want to show my cards too early, but another member of this band, Kate St. John, she’s a shoe-in. The way her oboe and Van’s guitar could sing together at times – it was just startling, the beauty; he makes it look so easy. And to round out the band, Ronnie Johnson on guitar, Geoff Dunn on drums, Nicky Scott on bass and John Savannah on keys. Not too shabby.
The band stayed pretty much the same after the New York show until their last show in August, and then young Brian Kennedy came aboard in the supporting vocals spot. James Hunter (Howlin’ Wilf, Howlin’ Wilf) joined the third week of October; and Candy Dulfer and Georgie Fame made a couple of appearances, for a bit of warm up before the U.S. December shows. Once in the States, they were joined by Shana Morrison and none other than John Lee Hooker himself. With Jimmy Witherspoon and Junior Wells, there were separate entrances and exits to accommodate the flow of traffic on and off the stage. It was definitely a good year for music.
My other distinct memory is of the crowd. My first New York crowd experience. My. There is no law that says once you put your money down, you shouldn’t be having the best time you can possibly get on your own dime. We’re all entitled to enjoy our live music any which way we want; it’s just that New Yorkers are a little more entitled than everyone else. The law of New York is that you are going to be seated immediately in front of, beside, or behind someone who firmly has the night in his or her grasp – it’s a night to entertain and be entertained. How it works is there are three scenarios: (a) if you’re sitting behind the person, you’ve got the guy who leans across his girlfriend to talk to his friend two seats down and after a few trips out for beer, he becomes a hooter, you know the type; (b) if you’re sitting in front of him, he’s the loudmouth, with an opinion on everything and attempts to sing pretty much every song Van sings – it’s a regular sing-a-long jubilee till he forget the words or discovers it was a different song than he was thinking; and (c) if you get beside her, you’ve got a night of nonstop chattering of the he said, she said, oh, and then he said, and you can imagine what she said variety. On and on and on. And you know it is like this every time they get together – sigh, so much to talk about, so little time.
We’re in the (b) spot tonight and we’ve got a real going concern serving as our New York audience introductory offer. I didn’t notice him at first, only because he wasn’t there to notice. He and his gang arrived a couple of songs into the set. After finding out what songs he’d missed and determining that since the guy on stage wasn’t the opening act, it was OK for he himself to provide the local entertainment. But when Van got on stage, credit to our fellow, his full attention shifted to the man and he was not in the least bit shy to share that with us all. I don’t think he closed his mouth once until “See Me Through” that built into “Soldier of Fortune,” constantly building I’m still on the chain gang, louder, more I’m still on the chain gang taking the crescendo higher I’m still on the chain gang till we’re all this big soppy mess out here and our guy behind us is gob smacked and is about to have a conniption fit, he can’t stand it. I thought he was going to burst. Nothing wrong with tonight’s entertainment. Van picks up his guitar for “Vanlose Stairway” and he does that noodling scat with it, the one that mimics his voice. He takes it from a whisper I’m on a I’m on a trans-euro train look out my window station to station see a sign on the wall kilroy was here kilroy was here kilroy was here kilroy was here kilroy was here to a scream vanlose stairway Vanlose Stairway VANLOSE STAIRWAY. And he’s just getting started. He winds us through “Tupelo Honey” and then he’s into “I’ll Take Care of You” with Junior Wells, who sinks into it with his signature squeals and pops and throat contortions and it turns out he’s just warming up for “Help Me,” which ends up busting a gut. We’re soaked. And the show is only half over. Annoying New Yorker (and how do I know, he could’ve flown in from Kalamazoo) notwithstanding, this show was on the move from the get go. If I came looking for something different, I most certainly got it.
I never stopped at any time to think about how that was – that every time he did something, he did it completely differently. I admit, I had come to expect that of Van Morrison – that it would never be the same way twice, not even close. But I never thought about what that meant for the musician. Sure, I get to hear something new every time, but for the performer, what does that mean, that he doesn’t play something the same way twice. That’s jazz. We got great jazz tonight. A lot of it was blues, but it was all jazz.