Van in Montreal October 1, 2009

The lady’s choice

When the light shines on Van at his now customary seat at the piano, the round of applause is thunderous, and I think, if I can feel it, then so can he. It felt so good to be in a room of people who genuinely seemed overjoyed to be there. So maybe Van was just catering to his audience this night. Whatever it was, it sure seemed that he catered to me.

We were treated royally in Montreal. I love a show when somewhere in the middle of the first song you realize you have long ago succumbed to the music and you realize it was somewhere back around the first note of Northern Muse that you sold your soul to the music one more time. There was more going on with NM tonight, which may be true of the whole tour, but hearing it in Montreal, at the time, it felt unique, sensing that he was really enjoying the music – and that can only mean to buckle up for your own safety. By the end of Northern Muse, he’s turned a classical sounding piece into an r’n’b tune, with David Hayes providing the beat, and I’m sure every foot that was alive in the place was tapping it out; and Van’s voice comes at us, out in front of the music, and the band simply playing this great music back there, and Van’s at the piano, thumping his foot on the floor a la Ray Charles. My cryptic note says it all, “Yum.” The music was like that all night long.

With my foot already tapping, I am in the minority in thinking Brown Eyed Girl is perfectly placed after a NM like that one. My foot was already going, so it was easy to get both of them into the act, and as I always do, I just count it as exercise, good for the heart. But when the opening notes of Fair Play begin, my eyes are closed again, and that turned out to be my favorite position of the night, one that I found myself in most of the time. I like those kinds of nights. A lot. So you want to know about the Fair Play in Montreal? Simply the best version of this song ever performed, to date. In terms of anything I’ve heard, at least. My cryptic note says, “STUINNING.” I’m sure I meant stunning, and that it most surely was. If what Van started off doing in Northern Muse was teasing you with what he could do, then Fair Play is the pied piper with his merry little lemmings, all willing to jump off the cliff, if that’s where we’re going. All change. No prima donna. The band, it bears repeating, is simply the best. The string section is down to Tony, Terry Adams and Michael Graham. The cellos, especially, have more sound at this show than we were hearing in the D.C. time period. I like it – they sound good. I have to admit that I didn’t think of Tony at all all night, which I take as a good thing. I enjoy his playing quite a bit, and I especially enjoy how much the music has grown in him while he’s been playing with Van – he’s great to listen to, but I always find him too high in the mix. I didn’t think about that all night, so my guess is I’ve either gotten used to it, or I like what it does for me that he’s been lowered a bit. Such beautiful music, it’s not meant to be screamed at us. Van was all over the place on FP tonight – it felt eternal – in the very best sense of the word. This version definitely is on my all-time fantasy setlist. I know you’ll agree.

Mystery is one of those songs that has never moved me. It seems more like half a thought, and sounds more like the throwaway song than BEG did. But in terms of show dynamics, I needed a bit of a break, catch my breath for the next go-round; and you never know, I might not be getting my next break until Young Lovers Do. Take a sip of water, and ready to go.

Philosopher’s Stone and In the Garden. Nothing wrong with those apples. It was a treasure to hear PS, literally giving me shivers up and down my spine. Garden once again had me tapping my feet, getting a little hand drumming going on my knees. This first set has had it all – classical, jazz, blues, celtic soul, r’n’b, and pure Van soul. This is one of those nights of alchemy, turning lead into gold.

And you’re convinced he’s doing it. Here’s Astral Weeks, and I would have thought by now, I’d be a bit inured to its charms, but no – at the end of the song, I am on my feet, thinking this has been one of the most glorious musical moments of my life. He had us down to nothing – his whisper and then nothing. And the audience was right with him. This was one of the most special moments. In a night when there were many such special moments.

Beside You is so sweet, especially in that part where it gets all soft and sticky. It’s like giving candy to a baby. Slim Slow Slider gives us a my nerves are so bad, my nerves are so bad, my nerves, my nerves. There is more desperation in his voice – or whatever one calls what he had been doing on his guitar on earlier nights, strumming it to a pulp – that was what he was giving with his voice to the song this time. He’s her boy tonight. The rest of AW was more of the same…nice surprises along the way. Sweet Thing has a different up tempo to it, the opening of Cyprus Avenue swept me off my feet with its beauty; Young Lovers Do no longer seems like an oddly misplaced song among the rest of AW. I’ve come to enjoy it for the chance to break the tempo of the show, bring it back, where our feet are on the ground again. Another bit of water and a few scribbles in my notebook.

I haven’t been one to well up too much during Van’s shows over the years – I am usually so filled with joy, there’s no time for tears, but in Ballerina, my tear ducts were the last bastion to give way. Madame Joy has a few new twists to it…I couldn’t tell if his “yea” was a nod to a member of the band or to himself, and later when he repeats Joy, Joy, Joy and then brings it to a storming ending…well, it was just all much more than I would have thought possible. It was like that all night. From one song to the next – each a layer to place over the last, so that in the end, the parts are indivisible.

And The Healing Has Begun has such a good time feel to it. He’s taking us up to Hynford Street with it, although we don’t know it at the time. By the end of Healing, I feel a grin on, going from ear to ear. I wasn’t in search of salvation tonight, so it wasn’t that some big weight was being lifted, but for the first time in recorded history, I was feeling quite bubbly at the end of it. I have no idea what that’s about; I’m just reporting the facts.

And all that was nothing compared to what became of On Hynford Street. It starts with those quiet guitar notes, building a mood, where the voices echo across Beechie River, listening to the wireless, the strings creating this most luscious of sounds; and then Van starts singing the verse…and every second it is something new. That’s not why I go to see Van, to hear something new, but when he does something like On Hynford Street, trying different intonations and wraps around the notes that are wrapped around the words that are usually spoken in this poem, it creates a sense of wonder; I know full well that he’ll never do it this way again; and that’s the kind of thing that sends the shivers up and down and back up and down again. Some of that singing felt tentative, other bits were spot on – all a work in progress, and tonight we get it unfolding right in front of our eyes. I’m looking forward to seeing how it gets incorporated in the shows ahead, should we get so lucky.

This was some powerhouse of a show. I find myself saying, or at least thinking, that a lot these days…and I suspect I’m sounding like a broken record. But a lot of people are saying that these days. Montreal was just one of the finest examples of it all. The fellow sitting beside me had been to see Van at Lafontaine Park in the early ’70s, and he was pretty much blown away by tonight’s show, and his friend Roger concurred. This is certainly his finest Montreal performance, and he’ll have left the adoring locals in his wake. If you missed the show in 2007, it has been an awfully long time since Van has come to town, and you have to go back to the ’70s to remember when. Including not a new, but a renewed, fan, Frederick, who had last seen Van in 1971 at the Capital Theatre and was left speechless by what he had witnessed inside. His friend Michael was at his first Van show tonight and thought it excellent. Which it was. It would have been hard to find a dissenter among the crowd.

Yes, all these shows weave a magical tapestry, but there is nothing like being there for one of the truly great ones, when Van turns it on, turns it up one notch for us to get a grand journey into the music. I was right – this music is eternal.

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