I flipped over the page of the April 13, 1997, issue of the New York Times and there it was – a full page ad announcing the Guinness Fleadh – that’s a flaw, not a flee-duh, and a fleadh means festival in Irish – on June 14 and 15, and big as bold, there’s Van’s name, headlining both nights of the Saturday and Sunday festival.
It’s going to be on Randall’s Island, which I don’t know from a hole in the ground; all I know is it’s around New York City somewhere and we’re going. It’ll be a wonderful opportunity to visit our friends, the Chases in Connecticut, who like us, were at home with their children, learning about life. Good friends we had left behind when we’d moved to Massachusetts. I’d missed Ginnie over the months, and it would be wonderful to see her, and Tucker, and Abbie and Dennis, friends of Bridget and Sean’s.
And the plus side is that being such good friends, Ginnie and Tucker were glad to wave Dennis and I off to have fun while they stayed home with the kids. It was a win-win either way. We’d tell them all about the first day when we got back later on that night.
It wasn’t just any old festival – it was my first one. Hard to believe at this late stage of the game that I’d never been to a festival, but it all stems from the fact that I was just too young. It was September 8, 1964, and my older brother, Scott, I was informed that afternoon, had a ticket to see the Beatles that night down at the Forum in Montreal. I was fit to be tied. Because of course I wanted to go. Why does he get to go and I don’t? “You’re too young, you’re far too young to be going downtown to a concert.” So basically suck it up. The vehemence came rolling out in my tears. Mind you, at nine years old, it could be my mother was right. I don’t think so, though.
Flash forward to August 1969. I see a bit of my mother’s handiwork in this one too – between August 15 and August 18 I was on the other side of the country. Ostensibly, I was out there to have fun – and I was – but it didn’t go past me that I was going to miss any opportunity I might have to go to the Woodstock Festival, but as my mother said to me as I boarded the plane for Vancouver, “Shannon, at fourteen you are far too young to be traipsing halfway across the world to see a bunch of bums play music; so enjoy your trip to Vancouver, because over my dead body were you ever going to Woodstock.”
And if in 1973, when Van came to Montreal to play Lafontaine Park on July 5, I’m sure I would have been too young at eighteen to go downtown to see a different set of bums playing music in a park. I say I would have, because I never heard about this show until thirty years later. This one flew right by me.
But now at 42, I guess I am officially old enough to go to a festival and watch a set of bums play music for me all day. Nothing wrong with the sound of that, especially on this sunny Saturday afternoon, as we spread out our blanket about 80 feet from the stage shortly after noon. I don’t think I moved from that spot all day, except to get up for refills of Guinness and requisite trips to the facilities. It was definitely an Irish day, starting off with Shana Morrison and then Brian Kennedy, and between them and nightfall, we got Paul Brady, Christy Moore, The Saw Doctors, Soul Asylum, and a few others whose names have forever gone from my memory. Then it was Sinead O’Connor up just before Van, and she sang with such beauty. One of the most lovely, distinct and captivating voices – sometimes I imagine Sinead captured Edith Piaf’s soul.
And I would have missed my first time seeing her if it hadn’t been for the headliner bringing me to this festival. We were up on our feet by now, crowding the stage, and it was a big crowd, only somewhat the worse for wear for the Guinness. I can’t put my finger on it – it might have been the sound, which had a washed out feel to it – and that could have simply been the serious breeze that was pushing its way through the park by sunset and, at one point, whipping Van’s hat and sending it flying midsong. So that could have been it, but something else was missing, that something that would make me want to be on my feet, given that I had to be on my feet anyway. It just didn’t come across as that type of set. It had all the makings – horn-driven, backup singers, Georgie was there, big band, Van on harmonica. But I was glad to be standing there to hear “Snow in San Anselmo” I gotta tell you. From the underrated, in my opinion, Hard Nose the Highway, just a delight to hear. Maybe Van is of the majority opinion on this album, because rare is the time he’ll deliver anything from it for our listening pleasure. So I was well pleased to be getting at least one, once. “Satisfied” didn’t do much for me, but it got the energy level up for the crowd and they were right with him for “Healing Game,” which led into a most satisfactory rendition of “See Me Through > Soldier Of Fortune > Thank You Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” All credit to Nicky Scott on bass for carrying that freight train of a song through and giving it all over to Van for “Thank You Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin” where it turned into this eerie reverie that bled into an even eerier “Burning Ground.” What he gave to it felt like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” only with my mouth open twice as long, and my scream was silent. At times it felt like the jute was Sisyphus’s rock, at times Paul Bunyon with his heavy load, but all the time as though with every painful step, Van would sink deeper, burdened with a weight that sunk him further into the murk. But there, beyond the burial ground, is the burning ground, and he grabs his microphone/jute and he throws it down – three times – and he’s off, the band closing up the song and letting those of us out here be dancing fools. Something to dance about. By far, this was going to be the best version of “Burning Ground” I was ever going to see. I could stand in that river of Guinness and do that again, for sure.
We’d have no trouble reporting in superlatives when we got back to Ginnie and Tucker’s place. As it turned out, I couldn’t imagine how it got any better than that – watching Van on his quest to get rid of the jute – but it turned out that those who stayed back couldn’t have had a better time of their day, and everyone was glad that there was one more day of it left to go. You could put me at the top of that list.
Nothing like seeing Van two days in a row. It’s like having your cake and eating it too. I don’t remember much of the afternoon lineup – the ever-Irish Suzanne Vega and Neville Brothers were two of the acts; the evening act was Natalie Merchant, who’d cobbled together her band for tonight’s gig the day after she got the call asking if she’d like to open for Van Morrison. She waxed poetic about Van in introduction to “Into the Mystic,” which got the crowd all goose-bumpily as they were reminded, if reminding was necessary, why they were there. The skies, which never got to the promising stage all day, were threatening to become worse, but by that time the river had turned into Lake Guinness, so a bit more liquid wasn’t going to make a hill of beans’ difference. Throughout her set, Dennis and I moved through the crowd to get near the front, and there was no question, she sounded a lot better up close; on that theory, so would Van.
And he did. Van brought all his energy to bear, ripping through every song, winding us up. If I hadn’t been on my feet already, trying to dodge the guy who had passed out at my feet, I would have been up on them from the first note of “Rough God Goes Riding” to open the show. By the time he got to “Jackie Wilson” he was operating on all cylinders, and it gave me a smile to think back to last year’s version at the Supper Club. But he was just getting started, screaming in “Sometimes We Cry,” then bringing it down for “In the Afternoon,” then bringing it up with a wild amalgam of places a voice can go, at one point, taking it away from the mic, and that was Shake, Rattle and Roll. Good golly, Ms. Molly, indeed. The crowd knew a good thing when it heard it. And what do you do when you like the music? You push yourself forward, or the music pulls you. Whichever, I was just going with the crowd, and passed-out guy was someone else’s lump to avoid. I was now standing on top of a crumpled up ball of Guinness and mud-soaked blanket, giving me another six inches, all the better to see what was going on up on the stage. And if where Van was on this night was in doubt, “Irish Heartbeat” told the story. I guess it was meant to be sung as a duet with Van and Shana, and Brian providing some harmony, but unfortunately, Shana’s mic wasn’t working, leading to a very odd-sounding duet. With Van speaking in tongues at the end of it, you just have to wonder what daughter Shana would have done with that.
And on “Vanlose,” Ray was there in place of Kilroy, and he slid into “Fool for You,” wailing on Cry-y-y-y-y-y, way down in my soul. O-w-w-w. We were in the church for “Healing Game,” Georgie intoning the hymn on his B-3 and Brian as the angel. It was one of those songs where the sum is greater than the parts and speaks volumes about the talent of the musicians in support as they work Van’s dynamics. Executed to perfection in this song. Instead of taking us into “See Me Through” straight away and running the risk of a collective spontaneous combustion event out on the lake, he brought it and us down with “Have I Told You Lately.” “See Me Through” was even more electrical than the night before, but as the clock on the wall is bound to say, “If you’re going to sing HITYL, you better make it a snappy trip to the burning ground – none of this Bunyan lollygagging. It fit the pace of the night, and we were riveted as Van walked offstage, hunched over his harp, wailing into the mic, this time carrying the mic stand/jute over his shoulder, and say good night, Irene.
I think we were all just a little dumbfounded when it was over. I spotted Dan a few bodies over, making like a birthday kid who’d just had the best present a kid could ask for. As we sloshed through the muck, skirting the assorted piles of discarded belongings, thankfully none of them humans lying face down in the water, Dan pointed to the flagpole over in left front field, which had been flying a bright green T-shirt all weekend. I’d been able to make out some lettering – something about VanL and surfnet. I had no idea what that meant, had no idea why it was flying on top of a flagpole, and that is about as much intellectualizing I gave it. Dan was able to shed some light – those words on the shirt were the name of the group of Van fans that had a chat list going on the Internet, and I might want to check that out.
Oh, good. Something to do when I got home. I had no idea what a “group on the Internet” meant, but if what Dan was saying was true, there were actual fans out there and somehow they were connected. Real fans. This I had to see. All I had to figure out was how to get there. I was so behind the curve on this Internet thing, I might as well have been living on another planet. It was time to get, if not ahead of the curve, at least somewhere near where the line started.
Ten days later I was signed on to Van-L, absolutely beside myself with glee to find myself in the company of fans who were equally, if not more, crazy about this music. Not to be too sappy about it, but to be able to hang out with people I don’t have to explain that it’s Van, not Jim, gives a girl a sense of belonging. Even if these people were bodiless and faceless, their passion for Van’s music made my heart glad. It felt like some secret club with our own secret language. If anyone came upon us, they wouldn’t have a clue what we were on about: “What does that mean, that lion inside of me crap?” “Bunch of poofters singing about Joyce lifting the hoist.” To me, it was like coming home.
And my first question to all these Van savants on the Internet was “Who was the Hollywood motion picture actor who knew more than they did… last time they saw him down in the Bowry, with his lip hanging off an old rusty bottle of gin that Van refers to in “The Great Deception”? I’m still waiting for the answer.