Van in Waterbury and MGM Grand/Foxwoods

Say Goodbye to Madame Joy

I’d been looking forward to these two Connecticut shows since I walked out of the theater in Montreal a few weeks ago…two more chances to see Astral Weeks before it’s gone for good and, in some ways, lets me get on with my life. It’s been a great ride this past year, pure magic, this is where I always wanted to be since I was 14 — listening to Astral Weeks live. After a year of it, I am officially AW supersaturated. Two more coming up is simply the glutton going for the supersize.

Foxwoods

Waterbury was lovely, and Foxwoods, well, it wasn’t quite so lovely. There was some discomfort up on stage at Foxwoods. With Northern Muse noticeably cut short, it seemed like tonight was going to be tough on Van’s voice. His cold was obvious as he sang, and other than Fair Play, which has everything in it to soothe the savage beast any time I hear it, the first set had a “get through this as good as I can” feel to it.

I’m sure there was a collective holding of breath among some of us after In the Garden, waiting to see what was coming next. The fact that he hadn’t played AW the night before in Baltimore, even though it had been announced as an AW show, had me wondering if maybe the AW songs are harder to sing.

Harder or not, there was that voice over the loudspeaker announcing AW and we were off on our final flight of the year. Towards the end of Astral Weeks, as he was taking it down lower away from the mike, he started coughing; and I think it was about that time that he turned to Hayes and Ruggiero with his arms flailing up and down meaning something. It looked like he might have been wanting something different from the guitar, maybe he wanted something that would fit better with his physical constraints, but from that point on, it was as if Jay wasn’t even there. Perhaps if all that had been figured out, we would have got an interesting show, but in the end it wasn’t to be. The pill would have been harder to swallow if we hadn’t had ourselves such a great little show at the Palace Theater in Waterbury four nights earlier.

Waterbury

I had been rushing to get to my seat in time for the 8 o’clock curtain call, but when I got there a few minutes to 8, Donna told me the usher had indicated that Van wasn’t coming on until 8:15. That came and went too, and no Van on the piano until 8:24. Maybe the rain delayed him.

He was loaded for bear on Northern Muse, in what turned out to be surely the best version of it we’ve heard to date. He punctuates the first line with a “Come On!” done in that growly voice he does, and the growl is there to stay for the whole song, but it gets quiet too, with him moaning/crooning in his tongues, right through Tony’s violin, then back to the last verse and after the chorus, the growl gets turned up, deep down on the solid ground, deep in the heart of Down and the growl grows into that gargle thing he does in Lion when he’s really into the lion inside. Brilliant version, ending softly with It’s alright, it’s alright now. And I wonder how he gets his voice back to a whisper like that so fast.

Fun to see Van stay at the piano for Brown Eyed Girl, turning it into something a bit different. I’ve forgotten more than I remember about Fair Play this night except at the end of the round of solos, David has his bit on the bass, then Bobby a turn on drums, which is unusual in and of itself that the drums would get a solo, but then David comes back in and the two of them are playing jazz, then Jay and Van are doing a lovely guitar bit together that leads into a run of no prima donna, all change and hi ho Silver, and the thing comes to a crashing end. Pretty nice stuff. The Mystery slows it down for a bit, and then we’re In the Garden. A little growling here too, but then he goes awfully quiet, almost plaintively singing no guru, no method, no teacher before taking it louder and then back down to a whisper again. I’m not sure how much the audience was into it with him — it’s hard to tell up here in the parterre, where the sound is good but not half loud enough. The distance from the stage is a distraction for me — I didn’t feel close enough to the music and some of the nuances were probably lost, leaving me feeling a bit outside the music. If this had been a powerhouse, blowing-the-roof-off concert, any seat in the house would have been good, but a show like this that’s quieter, more complex with Van’s voice, you just want to be up close. Or you do if you is me.

The AW set sounded just as fresh as it ever did — another opportunity to revel in how great the band is, how wonderful the music sounds, how they’ve put it together for Van to work with. They’ve got the music down and that gives Van the freedom to go playing with things; at tonight’s show in the first set, it’s the deeper range where the growls live that he explores. But in AW, the exploration is in the music. When the music is driven by the guitar, both Jay’s and Van’s, as it is throughout, all those overworked words like trancelike, ethereal, and magic creep into the story. I climb up that mountainside and that’s where I stay until he’s back on the corner after leaving Madame Joy back there somewhere near Connolly Station. I’ll take that trip anytime.

A gentle Astral Weeks, full at the end with Jay, moves into an even softer Beside You, lulling us into Slim Slow Slider, which he introduced with “Any reference to any living person is totally fiction.” With that administrative detail out of the way we got down to the nitty gritty – lipstick writing on the mirror, fur coat strewn all across the floor, a note on your pillow that tells me you don’t live here no more. I went to see the German doctor at Westpoint Grove just the other day, he gave me railway carriage charm, make my worries go away, make this pain go away, he say, son, make your memory pain go away. This has been a splendid year of listening to SSS grow into a worthy successor to TB Sheets in the “how to create a pall” genre. I love how Van made this song grow, the troubadour embellishing to keep his audience rapt. We sure got a powerful version of it tonight.

At the end of Sweet Thing he brings it right down — there was Van playing blues harp and I remember David’s bass behind it, the whole thing as low as you could go and getting quieter, the harp trading licks with “champagne eyes” until it’s impossible to hear his final whisper. Cyprus Avenue leaves me a little melancholy, in a nostalgic way, mentally saying a quiet goodbye to a song I hope I am not saying goodbye to for too long. He serves it up to us quietly, and with each successively quieter in all your revelation, in all your revelation, on a golden autumn day, it becomes almost reverential until it gently fades into nothing.

Young Lovers Do changes the pace, gives me a chance to come up for a drink of water and watch the band for a while; they make it look so easy. Ballerina seems all new, Jay’s doing something different with the guitar, more of a flamenco feel to it, tonight’s ballerina is working hard tonight, Van exhorting her to keep on pushing, keep on pushing, get moving on up.

Then it’s time to say goodbye to Madame Joy, tonight with the classical music all around the room, walking away from it all, so cool, and when he gets to the backstreet, he brings it down to just guitar and viola and his humming and a whispered “Be cool.” All night long I was given no reason to believe this audience would have let Van get away with the subtleties, but they must have got it, because I think I could smell the rapture.

And the Healing Has Begun is a bit of a jaunt to start out but by the time we’re listening to Jimmy Witherspoon in the backstreet, take this backstreet jelly roll, we’re back in an alternate ending, but it feels like the same ending to Madame George, I can almost hear the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row, the violin mingling with the guitar, hold my hand, and then he’s gone, clutching has hand above the guitar neck, perhaps the most introspective moment in the show.

The return for Gloria seemed almost mistaken, but it had a few people in the audience up on their feet; my impression is that, for the most part, this was not an audience cut out for subtleties, that the quiet bits left them a bit befuddled, not knowing quite what to make of it, not finding the energy in the sublime moments, leaving them with very little to give back for Gloria.

Of course, if what they needed was energy, what they should have done was immediately get in the car, drive the 77 miles to New York City, and be in time for tomorrow night’s show at the WaMu. But for now they’ve got the band crashing away in Gloria long enough for Van to have made his getaway and be long gone before Ruggiero’s drum flourish to signal that it was all over.

At this point it would be crazy to skip New York. The only obvious smart thing to do is follow Van down the road and see what we get. It’s bound to be good.

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