Van Chronicles – Chapter 19

Days Like This

The idea of a group of otherwise normal adults communing over the cause of one man’s music is a bit of an odd notion, at best. A harmless one, but still a bit odd. And it poses a bit of a dichotomy. On the one hand, listening to the music is a solitary endeavor – it doesn’t matter how many people are around, whether it’s at a concert or sitting in front of a computer, the music isn’t a collective thing, it’s an individual thing. At a concert, I simply tune everything else out; it’s not hard to do.

But along comes a place on the Internet reserved for this sliver of a percentage of humankind who simply cannot get enough of Van’s music for the one reason that it touches them in some way that nothing else does – they may not know what it is, they may not be able to describe it, but if there are others out there who have that inside them, and you find them, the first thing you notice is they want to share whatever it is. A true community, and one with great spirit.

And that’s where the dichotomy lies. I have a singular attachment to the music, and somehow I’ve got to fit that in with joining a group of people who drool just as untidily as I do when he does that wan-wan-wan thing during “Game,” and you know that pretty soon we run the risk of drowning in our collective dribble, like a bunch of blubbering idiots. And I’m not much of a joiner in the first place.

But I do join. I’m curious. If for no other reason than the sheer wonder that there are others who, with the luck of the draw, got touched by something quite powerful in Van’s music. I had been a ship adrift at sea out here, just me and my Van Morrison albums, and landing on a desert island where everyone’s top ten albums were the same as mine seemed like a welcome port in the storm.

There isn’t a more generous and kind group of people out there. They are intelligent and thoughtful, enjoy a good laugh, like their sports and their drink in equal quantities. Oh, they can be bitchy and get all huffed and puffed up about slights, and they are fond of the insult as an art form, but in all fairness, only the deserving get it in the face. When the dust settles, and it always does, we all just go back to what we’re here about: the music, and the corollary, sharing the music.

Like any large family, we have our stable of comedians, writers, artists, computer geeks, gamblers, nuts, jocks, femme fatales, teachers, musicians, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, and spies. And all they want to do is share the music. And we do.

As I was about to learn, it had an added feature. Among the tinkers and tailors, there was always someone who had their nose the grindstone and always knew about upcoming shows, if not before everyone else, then at least before me. And as soon as they got wind of a show, they’d post it on Van-L for the rest of us. I had just been handed a huge gift: no more listening to the radio waiting for an announcement of a show, no more flipping through every weekend Arts & Leisure section, scouring the pages for news of a Van appearance. My life just got a whole lot easier – I’d got myself a Van concert secretary and I hadn’t even known I was hiring.

And just in time…

Somewhere around the end of October, someone posted information about shows, and they weren’t just any shows – it was going to be Van AND Bob, five shows at the Theater at Madison Square Gardens in New York early 1998. Five shows, starting the night of January 16.

Well, how about them apples? I’d just seen Van a few months ago, and here he was coming back to New York in another couple of months. Nothing wrong with that. I certainly wasn’t one to have any problems about it. I think it was at that moment that I realized just how addicted I’d become. I’m sure I was just as addicted from the moment I first heard “Madame George,” but it wasn’t until just now that I realized it. But it didn’t bother me – it seemed like a good addiction.

The addiction, however, wouldn’t be getting five nights of feeding. Sadly, our finances were not such that we could afford to put a second mortgage on the house. Two nights in New York was all we could do, so two it was – the first two, Friday and Saturday night.

And the absolute bonus was Bob Dylan was sharing the headline. Which is exactly how it turned out: One night Van would come out first, the next night it was Bob’s turn, and so on, for seven nights. Because, shortly after getting our New York tickets, they added two dates at the Boston Fleet Center, home to the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics, for the following weekend. Five nights in New York, two in Boston, and that’s the end of the Bob/Van tour. And I was going to four nights of it. It bears repeating – there’s nothing wrong with that. Bob’s new album, Time Out Of Mind, was just out, and both Dennis and I were enraptured.

The first time I listened to Bob’s new album was a Saturday morning. I was driving the kids to a morning class – Sean’s was about drawing cartoon faces, which was a really cool class; and Bridget’s was about cooking, making these neat recipes – like the one with the celery sticks with peanut butter spread over the top and a row of raisins on top of that and voila, ants on a log and you have the best snack you’d ever want. Yum. This particular Saturday morning, I had delivered them to their classes and come back to the car. I wanted to listen to TOOM with the speakers turned up. Which I proceeded to do, very much enjoying it. Somewhere in the middle of “Highlands” I went into the school for some reason – maybe the kids got a fifteen-minute break in the middle of their class, just enough time to hang in the cafeteria and get a hot chocolate. When the kids headed back for hour two of their classes, I went back to the car and turned it on. And there was “Highlands,” picking up right where it left off. And somewhere in the middle of it, that hot chocolate went right through me, so I turned off the car and headed inside for the facilities. I come back, turn the car on, and there’s “Highlands.” Of course, right where I’d left it. So I listen to “Highlands” some more. And finally, this time I get to the end of it. “Wow,” I said, “that was one helluva long song. At this point it had gone on for over an hour, and basically, I was just looking forward to putting it on again, to listen from the beginning, because there was a lot up at the front end that I liked very much – “Love Sick,” “Trying to Get to Heaven,” and the superb “Not Dark Yet.” I really liked this album, all of it, but that “Highlands” sure was long.

Later that afternoon I got my chance to put TOOM on again. I get to “Highlands,” and in ten or eleven minutes the song’s over. And I say to myself, “Then why was it so long in the car? It was endless.” Turns out, as Dennis was to tell me over dinner, one of the features of his CD player was that it started at the beginning of the last song that was on. Of course I’d been in his car – it had the better sound system. I thought all CD players, like my old rusty one, picked up at the exact spot you left it. So, hey, I got a thirty-minute version of “Highlands.”

I wasn’t a huge Bob fan; in fact, this was the first CD of his that I had purchased. Dennis and I, but mostly Dennis, had some of the early LPs, but we just never listened to Bob. I’d liked him when I first heard him, up through high school, but he had nothing on Van. I am sure some would beg to differ, big time, but he didn’t draw me the way Van did, and there really was not a lot of time to be listening to anyone other than Van, and what precious time of that there was, Bob didn’t make the cut. But I very much liked TOOM – it was going to be great to hear him do some of it live. It gave me a good excuse to listen to a lot of it between the time I got it and January 16.

But I am in the minority on the Van list. There are a lot of people in the Van community who have a love affair going with Bob, just as big as their one for Van. So a lot of people were coming to New York to see their one-and-two guys, including Simon Gee from England, and his wife, Viv, who would never pass on a trip to New York if she could help it. Which meant we would just have to have a place where we could all meet up before the show, put some faces to some of the names on Van-L. So, Patrick Kavanagh’s it was, an Irish pub at Thoity-Thoid and Thoid. They’d been having pre-show drink-ups over in England for years, but it looked like the New York pre-show was going to look like a mini-convention in comparison.

And so it was. When Dennis and I walked in around five o’clock, Kavanagh’s was packed from front to back, and bar to wall, with Van fans. Van was coming through on the speakers, and all there was for it was to get ourselves an ale and get down to the business of getting ready for a Van show. I didn’t know a soul, except for Dan and Joe, and after saying hey to Simon, in the red shoes, it was just a sea of faces who were on the other side of enthusiastic just for being there. And somewhere in that sea of faces was Linda Beatty. Linda and I had exchanged a few emails about finding a pub near the venue in Boston where the fans could meet up before the shows the next weekend. Linda had found a place and I concurred, working on the theory that if someone has gone to all the trouble to find a pub, my work is done. As long as they pour beer, I am an enthusiastic supporter. But I wanted to meet the woman who was co-signing our posts to the list with the details of the meetup. Turns out Linda was a huge fan, in town for all five shows. And she must have been a big fan, because she didn’t fancy Bob at all. It sounded a bit like it was torture for her to listen to Bob, which is testament to how much she would withstand to catch Van for five nights.

To tell you the truth, the crowd intimidated me. All these people I didn’t know, and I felt the wallflower. Mostly, Dennis and I sat at a table on our own, had some dinner, and didn’t say boo to a soul.

From 33rd and 3rd over to Madison Square Garden at 32nd and 7th was a bit of hike. Our tickets said seven o’clock, and we were planning on walking off dinner, getting some Caledonian soul, so there was nothing for it but to get going. We were in the $60 seats, back in Section 204, but that seemed fine with me. Van came out first tonight with a band I was familiar with – Geoff Dunn on drums, Georgie Fame, Brian Kennedy, Matt Holland on trumpet, Ronnie Johnson on guitar, Pee Wee, Nicky Scott; the only face I didn’t recognize was Liam Bradley on percussion – a most welcome addition to the band. Good grouping, as they say in darts.

And what does Van start with but right where we’d left off – “Burning Ground.” I don’t suppose I was expecting that. What are the odds that the last song at one concert is the first song at the next? Probably not that good. I got a bit of a lesson on that one: for all my going on how different every show with Van is, I’d mostly been looking at the whole show as a piece – one show would be different from the next, but I’d never broken it down into the songs. That would have required a bit more subtle thinking than I was apparently prepared to give to the situation. It took “Burning Ground” blasting out the door to open the show and compare that with the epic proportion of the song to close out the night on Randall’s Island, a version that I couldn’t get out of my head, to subtly knock me over the head with the realization that the difference is in the details sometimes.

It was a good solid show, not overwhelming, but good to be there. And it got better after the two young women sitting beside me who must have been long lost friends, meeting up after all these years for this one night, stopped talking. They had a list as long as their arm about things to talk about, until I leaned over to the one next to me and asked if they were here to see Bob. When she nodded, I told her I was there to see Van and I promised I would keep my mouth shut during Bob if they would do the same during Van. They saw the logic if not the point, and by the time “Man’s World” came up, we had two new Van fans on our hands. Following that up with “HITYL” and “Moondance” and then “Tupelo Honey” and those two girls were having the time of their lives, musically at least. Van had started building up a head of steam during “Why Must I Always Explain?” It’s like he turned on the faucet and the energy finally just poured out it’s just a fucking job, you know, and he just took all that energy and dumped it into “Cyprus Avenue”; those two girls were beguiled to the bone. Like every other person in the room.

Dennis and I had taken the train in from Fairfield, Connecticut, having left our belongings, including the kids, with our friends, Natalie and Kevin, whose children were fast friends with ours. It was like old home week for them, while Dennis and I were off doing our Van thing. So we’d taken the train in from their place, and on the seat in front of me was a copy of the New York Times. There was an article, which read more like an opinion piece, and in it they referred to Van as singing pop music. The piece was making some sort of point about tried-and-true musicians, which was topical if nothing else, what with Van and Bob playing downstairs at the Garden and upstairs Mick Jagger and the boys were whipping up a storm in the sports arena. It was a bit odd, calling Van’s music pop music, but I chalked it up once again to a writer who was uninterested in the facts, and then I promptly forgot all about it.

Until Van reminded me. He was building up quite a storm with “Cyprus Avenue” in all your revelation, in all your revelation, wait for me to come, babe, babe, babe, listen folks, I just read something in today’s paper. Somebody had the audacity to call this pop music, Ba-a-a-a-by, Ba-a-a-a-a-by, I mean if this is pop music, what the fuck are we doing here? It felt like an anger management session gone awry. He threw his microphone down, picked up the stand, screaming IT’S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW, and he was gone, all that was left was Brian Kennedy intoning “Mr. Van Morrison, Mr. Van Morrison.” Not too shabby at all. I’m not at all sure how Bob can top this.

But he has a great set, a large handful of TOOM songs, including a very touching version of “Not Dark Yet,” spread throughout a setlist of classics. A very nice mix, as far as I was concerned. I had figured with all the Bob I knew I hadn’t heard over the years, I could easily have been in for a night where I didn’t recognize a thing. I doubt it was intentional, but he catered to my needs to a tee.

The second night felt like a sea change, at least with Van. Bob opened the second night, and another nice performance, not at all dissimilar to the set the previous night with many songs repeated and others that felt like they were in a small rotation. I liked the way the rotation worked last night better than tonight, but mostly I just sat back and enjoyed his show. Very pleased I was there. TOOM remains one of my favorite Bob albums.

Dennis and I had better seats tonight, not exactly close to the front, but closer and off to the right. I liked them because bobbing and weaving heads were not in my sightline (I ask for so little). The sound was better too, much warmer sound, but I know nothing about sound systems. Bob’s set was delivered just like the night before and the quality of the sound seemed the same – Bob’s music both nights gets loud fast and then stays there, and I can’t judge something like that to know if this loud is better than that loud. So it wasn’t until Van’s set that I noticed the sound was better, warmer. Sitting there I attributed it all to Van, but it could have been the sound. Van seemed to be more present, thinking about what he was doing, his diction even seemed cleaner, not passing over syllables as though they were unimportant. And that’s really it – tonight’s show just seemed more important to Van. Like Bob, Van’s song selection is limited, and the first seven songs are all a repeat of the previous night. Just a better presentation tonight. And the added bonus, for no extra charge, Van’s in fine jocular form. The first sign that we were moving into the greener pasture section of the show where the flowers get picked comes in “Satisfied,” which was as superb a piece of jazz as I’d like to hear. With no script to be following, there was none to depart from when Van, after a few I’m satisfied! I’m satisfied! breaks the tempo and blurts out, “I think we’re downstairs. They’re upstairs saying they can’t get no satisfaction and we’re saying we can. Yeah.” From Pee Wee leading the horn section to Georgie on organ and Van scatting at the end, it opened the doors for the rest of the show. When Van gets to the Kilroys in “Vanlose,” he calls out Sam Cooke, Sam Cooke to the band, Georgie gets it right and we’re into “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Doesn’t sound a thing like Sam Cooke, but Van’s acting like he’s channeling him and at the end Van verbally wipes his brow with a “thank you to the immortal soul of Sam Cooke.” Amen to that.

No rest for the wicked, because we’re right into “Summertime.” I haven’t heard this since that free-for-all the first night of the Supper Club run in 1996. Good to be in New York I’m thinking right about now. Van adds some beat to it tonight, spitting out upstate, upstate New York, can you meet me upstate in New York, baby, can you meet me down in Woodstock? By the time he and Pee Wee are getting to the Swedenborg Church, Van’s having fun, and he turns to the audience with “let’s be exactly precise about this; I was sitting down in the mystic church, whoever’s doing that stuff out on the Internet, this is for you.” Van had us there; the odds are pretty good that at least a few people on the list with time on their hands had been dissecting the lyrics to SIE, if not this week, then last. And in a fine elocution lesson, Van spells it all out for us: at the Not-ting-Hill-Gate FULL STOP at-the-West-bourne-Grove-bus-stop FULL STOP I was thinking about IT FULL STOP I was thinking about IT FULL STOP. Pretty funny stuff. And then he and Pee Wee trade horns, Van’s with his voice, Pee Wee on his sax, building, then soaring to the heights. Van gives Geoff the right hand chop for the rimshot, and New York or not, the crowd was hushed, intent for the moment, feeling the silence.

Van’s just getting ready, though. He unleashes “Man’s World” at times with more venom than he could swallow, men makes more bullshit to sell, then pleading I’m lost, I’m lost in the wilderness, loneliness, lost, in selfishness. Excellent theater. And you just know the crowd was loving it. James Brown, James Brown. He mellows it out a bit with “HITYL,” “Days Like This,” and “How Long Has This Been Going On?” to another grand finale, and we’re caught one more time up on Cyprus Avenue I’m looking straight at you (and you don’t look so good). He goes and drinks his cherry wine down at the railroad and when he gets back, yonder comes my lady, rainbow ribbons in her hair (it’s another drama queen situation) but nobody stop me from loving you, solid sender and in “all your revelation” the hand is out, punctuating the air on every baby, baby, baby, IT’S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW!

Well, that was pretty good!! As in, now I’m really mad I’m not going to be here for the next three nights. But not so mad that we can’t head back to Kavanagh’s for a beer before our train takes us back to Connecticut. We caught up with Linda outside the venue and grabbed a cab to the pub, and when we arrived, the place was grinning from ear to ear. Bob fans were happy, and Van fans were jubilant. We joined Dan and Kevin Sheets, in from Philadelphia, and Joe at their table, and our little tableau, in deconstructionist fashion, reenacted the night, recreating the highlights in précis form. Fortunately, not a singing reenactment. Just parsing moments with words and short-term memories. Van fans have no trouble talking about the music.

But we were off. Say good night and goodbye to all, and we’d see a few of the stalwarts in Boston on Friday night.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Friday came and with it, a nor’easter was blowing on Boston – a miserable, if not impossible, day for travel, so the crowd that gathered at Paddy Burke’s late that afternoon was pretty much a local crowd. Linda had brought her boombox, and the delight of it all for me is when, as Linda and I pore over our collective Van collections we’d brought to play, she spots “Heavy Connection,” tells me how she absolutely loves this song, and we put it on, and again on repeat, and make a dance floor for ourselves, and simply revel in the fact we’re going to see Van tonight.

The snow had turned to slush by show time, but it was a short Caledonia walk to the Fleet Center. Dennis and I had seats halfway up the left side, about a third of the way back. As the arena got more and more full, I looked around and wondered how Van would create the atmosphere here in this monstrosity that he had back at MSG.

But you know, he didn’t even try. When in Rome, as they say. At MSG, Van played to the audience like it was his. At the Fleet Center, standing there in goal, he played like it was Bob’s audience. A completely different show – this was jazz Van, with a bit of funk thrown in. Of the seventeen songs on the night, nine of them were new, or at least not played during my two-night stint in NYC. It was like last weekend didn’t even exist. No room for a “Cyprus Avenue” in this kind of show, but when the music’s as good as this, you forget to remember that you didn’t get it. Our Irish reverie tonight came in the form of “Irish Heartbeat,” and for about four minutes I was taken to Ireland, with such vivid pictures that I remember them to this day.

“Afternoon” with Matt, while not appearing to be completely over whatever sickness he’d had in New York, blowing an exquisite solo on trumpet. I hadn’t heard him play quite so nice before, and then I realized I hadn’t heard this version of the song before, either. At the Fleet Center, it became one of those IT songs, always looking forward to hearing it again, watching it morph under Van’s steady climb through the world. I daresay that “Afternoon” is the song that got me listening to the nuances – of course I’d been listening to the nuances all the way along, but I hadn’t put a name to it – and in listening to the nuances, I began to get a sense of the space between the notes. And what better way to get started on this new path but “Summertime.” A bit of a challenge, putting SIE out there to a stadium crowd, but you know, he pulled out every stop on it, and save for the ones who weren’t into it, with Pee Wee blasting away on sax, he had them on everything; well, maybe they weren’t feeling the silence all that well, but, hey, it’s Boston. Their enthusiasm is genuine, if nothing else. The song was concise at six minutes, but if someone were going to make a compilation of SIEs six minutes or less, I’d nominate this one. A workshop Evelyn Wood style.

We’d had “Tupelo Honey > Crazy Love” squeezed in between “Afternoon” and “SIE,” a ripping version of “Muleskinner Blues” and “Wonderful Remark” earlier in the set and undoubtedly [turn down the corner of this page] the best “Moondance” I was ever going to hear live. Justin Carroll had replaced Georgie on organ, Georgie having some club dates in London that had called him off after the Monday show in New York, and he and the rest of the band outdid themselves. It all rather spoiled every other version of the song I’ve heard since. And I’ve had many opportunities to test that theory out.

Gloria was a perfect way to end the show. Here’s how I remembered it in a review that I wrote for Simon’s Wavelength:

Then there was “Gloria”; going at it like the best overdressed garage band in the world auditioning for a spot on American Bandstand as though their livelihood depended on it. The audience gave it a ’99 with a good beat to dance to’. The 17,505 available voices continued to sing/shout GLO-RI-A as Van walked off stage and without skipping a beat, Brian turns it into VAN-THE-MAN before he scampers off after Van. Pee Wee moves over in front of Geoff Dunn. With his back to the audience and doing his orchestra leader thing, he brings it all to a close, jumping two feet in the air landing back on the stage on the final Dunn crash. Bang on. What will tomorrow bring?

It wouldn’t take us long to find out. Here’s my review of the show that appeared in Wavelength at the time:

Van was the opening act tonight and broke it wide open with “I’m Not Feeling It Anymore.” “Days Like This,” “It Once Was My Life” and “Fire in the Belly” followed one after the other, causing Van to dry himself off more than once and leaving the audience on their feet. Following a run-through of “Raincheck” was a fine version of “In the Afternoon,” not as drawn out as in previous nights but Van’s whispers echo off the roofbeams and surely Ronnie’s playing is the tastiest we’ve heard all week.
After a night off, “Vanlose/Trans Euro” are back in the set with Van adding a bit of harp to mix it up a bit and chanting ‘Kilroy was here’ 18 times before he’s done. “Jackie Wilson Said” got the crowd on their feet and they roared in approval when the organ pulled out the opening notes of “Tupelo Honey.” Ditto for “Moondance.”
Toward the end of “Cleaning Windows,” a roadie with mic stand in hand gets one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night. Because here comes Bob. Van straps on the acoustic and Bob puts on the stratocaster and they’re into “Blue Suede Shoes.” For a number of different reasons, this might be one of the night’s highlights, but not because of the music. A touching moment at the end of the song when Van reaches up to put his arm around Dylan’s shoulders.
“Cyprus Avenue” is also brought back after a night off and gets a good run-through to close off the first set. After a short round of applause, the band comes back on for something a little different; “See Me Through/Soldier/Thankyou Falletinme” and right into “Burning Ground.” The ground is hot tonight as Van walks off with his stand, throws it down offstage and then kicks it. I can’t remember who goes on and off, but they’re all there for a run-through of “Have I Told You Lately.” Perhaps working on the theory of saving the best till last, Geoff breaks into “Summertime” and we’re into the show finale. Van and Pee Wee’s call and response is as good as it’s been all week with Van blowing everything he’s got into his mic. Pee Wee just keeps blowing away to close the song, taking the audience with him. Before walking off, Van instructs the guys to follow him. Pee Wee and Matt oblige only to return a few seconds later to close the set out.
Van, looking like the Belfast Cowboy in vest and blue shirt, returned during Bob’s set and joined him on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Van strapped on the acoustic and there he was singing, ‘take this badge off of me.’ Van seemed prepared to keep singing till the song’s end, so Bob had to severely motion him to cut it, allowing Bob his usual harp solo spot. Much applause for these two legends and Van is off into the night.

It was definitely a Bob crowd both nights. As I once described it, the Fleet Center accommodates Bob’s driving “one sound fits all” that flies up to the rafters and stays there for the entire show, and yet, remarkably, it could handle Van’s nuances with more ease than you’d imagine. I should probably give the artist all the credit for that. Four shows in eight days. And those four put proof to the notion that it doesn’t matter how many shows you see, you’re always left wanting more. I know I was.

Chapter 20

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