Van the Man

The dingy green-and-ochre poster on the subway-station wall, advertising events at Queens's Forest Hills Stadium, didn't draw attention to itself. But what else is there to do on a subway platform but look at posters? I looked at it. There, near the bottom of the left column, I read: "SEPT 12: VAN MORRISON AND WILLIE NELSON & FAMILY."

Van Morrison. In concert. In Queens.

I was torn. Van Morrison has released four of the best live albums evah! He also headlined what was perhaps the worst concert I have ever experienced. And Queens? Since 2000, when we left Santa Fe, I have grown to love my adopted city of Brooklyn. It has neighborhoods. Parks. History. Atmosphere. Culture. Four landmark bridges. Herb Reichert's Bed-Stuy bothy. But in Queens there's nothing but the dead and dying of Paul Simon's "little town." And Queens neighborhoods? Plop me down in Middle Village or Maspeth or Glendale or Jackson Heights or Long Island City and I'd have no idea where I was—they all look the same.

All four live CDs—It's Too Late to Stop Now... (1974, Exile/Columbia/Legacy), Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984, Polydor/Universal), A Night in San Francisco (1994, Mercury), and Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009, Listen to the Lion/EMI)—have been in constant rotation since I bought them, as has How Long Has This Been Going On, his 1996 collaboration with the great English Hammond organist and singer Georgie Fame (Verve). Like Jimmy Webb's, Van's lyrics tell stories, and I'm a sucker for stories. When I hear the very first words of Astral Weeks' "Madame George"—"Down on Cypress Avenue / with a childlike vision leaping into view / click and clacking of the high-heeled shoe / Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George"—I need to know what's next to come.

The blue-eyed soul singer has always had great bands of A-list sidemen. His breakout hit album, Astral Weeks (1968), had Jay Berliner on guitar and the Modern Jazz Quartet's Connie Kay on drums; the Belfast Opera House album featured Peter van Hooke on drums, Mark Isham on trumpet and synths, and David Hayes on bass. As well as Georgie Fame, the guest artists on the San Francisco album include John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, and Jimmy Witherspoon. And How Long Has This Been Going On features two great sax players, Pee Wee Ellis and Alan Skidmore. (I was privileged to jam with Skidmore one magic night in 1970, during which I learned a lesson: It's best always to play with musicians who are better than you—they'll drag you up closer to their level.)


JA (left) with Skidmore in 1970.

But it was the Belfast Cowboy's 39th and most recent album, You're Driving Me Crazy (Exile/Legacy 19075820041), a collaboration with soprano sax player and Hammond organist Joey DeFrancesco, that triggered this prose poem. I'd been visiting Michael Fremer in deepest, darkest New Jersey—as I leave Brooklyn on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge I hold my breath, and I don't inhale again until I'm safely back in God's Own Borough—and as I was about to leave, I mentioned that I'd just read Mikey's review of the LP. He pressed on me the CD.

Recorded live in a Sausalito studio in just two days with DeFrancesco's quartet—Michael Ode on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar, Troy Roberts on soprano and tenor saxophones—every track laid down to Pro Tools at 24-bit/96kHz in one or two takes, this is the best live Van Morrison gig that never was.


Every track shines, but even though the tempi are virtually identical, the reworking of "The Way Young Lovers Do" on Crazy is less frenetic than the original on Astral Weeks, more laid-back and open-sounding than the Hollywood Bowl re-creation. The key in all three versions is A minor, but the half-century-older Van sings in a lower register, digging deep into the lyric in a way that wasn't possible for either his callow 1968 self or his mature 2009 persona. The ostinato on twin soprano saxes is so right—and while this bass guitarist resents a Hammond's bass pedals being used to lay down the music's foundation, DeFrancesco's left foot gloriously swings the 12/8 time signature. Only musicians at the top of their game and supremely sure of themselves can play this loosely individually yet keep their ensemble tight as a nut.

So shall I venture into Queens in September for Sir George Ivan Morrison, OBE,'s gig at Forest Hills Stadium? I just don't know if it will be worth it. Possibly the worst concert I ever attended was when Morrison played in Brighton, England, in the early 1980s. I remember, perhaps incorrectly, him being backed by what turned out to be the superb Belfast Opera House album band, but whatever: the main man sat noodling at a keyboard while a guitarist sang the songs. Even the first time I saw Van Morrison live, in London, England, in 1965, on a tour to promote the first single from Van's band Them, "Baby Please Don't Go" b/w "Gloria," was embarrassingly bad. The bass player had too short a lead—every time he moved to the front of the stage, he unplugged himself from his amp.

Brooklyn's motto is "Fuhgeddaboudit!" Perhaps not: It's gonna be a coin toss, Sir Van!—John Atkinson

rschryer's picture

May I chime in by saying: go to the show and let us know!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Into the Mystic" ............ Van Morrison :-) ...........

mmole's picture

No, not really but gosh John, your comments sure are hurtful to a Queens lad. Where would your English punks be without Forest Hills’ very own Ramones? But please go see Van. The venue is the historic tennis stadium, food and drink (sponsored by City Winery) are excellent and for older folks like me, the 10:00 curfew means I can get back to the city by 10:45.

Go. Enjoy.

ednazarko's picture

I'm not surprised by you saying Van Morrison is on your best concerts and worst concerts list. I've heard a lot about the variability of his performances, although everyone I know who complains continues to work hard to see him. Almost every band I've seen more than a couple times has joined my "worst of" concerts list for one of those performances. Like Sly Stone being so wasted he couldn't stay on the seat at his organ... or the Mahavishnu Orchestra concert where everyone other than Billy Cobham mocked other band members in their solos. But... it's kind of like life that way.

So go see him! Could be a great concert. Or not.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Everyday I Have the Blues" ........... Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco :-) .............

volvic's picture

Saw him a few years back at Forest Hills and left the show bitter and angry at having blown hard earned dollars for such a bad performance. He went through the motions, barely moved, barely acknowledged his audience and left in record breaking time. Compare his woeful performance to Robert Plant's at Forest Hills or Belle and Sebastien's at the same venue this summer and I know who I would go see again.

PeterMusic's picture

I'm with you volvic--I saw last year's Van show in Forest Hills. Just as you say--he completely mailed it in. Salt in the wounds is that I now enjoy Too Late... and Astral Weeks much less than I used to because I'm pissed.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I've watched/heard Van phone it in. However, the opening act was none other than John Lee Hooker, and he was all that. Isn't the [deservedly] legendary Willie Nelson also on the bill? I'd go for that and hope this is one of Van's "on" nights.

There is a Cypress Avenue in QUEENS's picture

I would encourage you to explore the wonderful borough of Queens. Go to Jackson Heights and eat Himalayan food and wander around its beautiful historic district, then a short hop to Corona and The Louis Armstrong House ... onto Terraza 7 in Elmhurst for the best live South American music in the city, etc. etc. Oh, and maybe I won't defend Maspeth or Glendale, but here's what Long Island City and Jackson Heights look like (nothing dead or dying, or "little town" about them):

rt66indierock's picture

Yawn, why bother writing another article about not going to a concert? And this one is what twelve miles away?

One of the sure signs you are old is an unwillingness to attend live concerts. Personally I’d go to the show September 15th with Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Greensky Bluegrass in Camden New Jersey. It’s only about a hundred miles away.

BLI's picture

I've been a fan since first time I heard Astral Weeks. Let's see... I've been to 4 or 5 concerts. None really poor. One at Ronnie Scott's in London was somewhat jazzy; don't remember much of it. One in a sports hall lasted ca. 1 hour, had poor sound, and was somewhat un-inspiring, although the "Help me" version stood out. One in a smaller culture hall was very good, and perhaps the best: at the Norwegian Wood festival in Oslo some years ago... VM one day, and Bob Dylan the other day, as well as Lou Reed, etc. -- all for $100.

In addition to the mentioned live concerts available on albums, there are a number of superb live performances on video/DVD.
* Van Morrison in Ireland, about the time of the Into the Music release has some wonderful versions. [Bought it on VHS, and thought picture quality was good. Revisiting it -- now converted to DVD -- the picture quality is horrendous... wish an official DVD/BR version would be released.]
* Van Morrison - Live at Montreaux 1980 is superb.
* Van Morrison in Concert/Up on Cypress Avenue is fine.
* The BBC concert after the Pay the Devil album is very good -- an official release would be appreciated.
* The TV concert around Avalon Sunset is enjoyable; could be released.

hnickm's picture

I have read elsewhere (unconfirmed) that Mr. Morrison suffers from stage fright in front of large crowds. Perhaps that contributes to less-than-thrilling live performances. In fact, I also read that when Roger Waters did his re-do of Pink Floyd's THE WALL in 1989 in Berlin, he signed up Mr. Morrison by promising him that he'd be behind "the wall" when he would sing Comfortably Numb. Who knows? I guess I'd make my go/not go decision based on ticket price — presumably quite dear for a multi-group in NYC.

tonykaz's picture

Geez, our own Editor sneaking in stuff like this is another dam good sign that Stereophile is way out front in Journalistic Storytelling and leading the way for those lesser scribblers to reach deep into the image library to create inspired wonderments.

One hell-of-a-Storytelling.

Tony in Michigan

rt66indierock's picture

John is behind curve on this type of story. More than a few audio writers have already done this.

John Atkinson's picture
rt66indierock wrote:
John is behind curve on this type of story. More than a few audio writers have already done this.

Really? Tying together their experience of Van Morrison live in concert with a discussion of the differences between Brooklyn and Queens and a review of Van's latest album?

Oh well.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Il est genial :-) ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"You go to Brooklyn, everybody's got a beard and a plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me" .......... Don Lemon :-) .........

mbr12's picture

Don't write off Queens completely. If you like bridges, it has The 59th St. (Feelin' Groovy) Bridge. It also has tremendous diversity. Forest Hill Tennis Stadium is a great venue with lots of history. Simon & Other Guy, Peter Paul & Mary and...The Beatles! all played there. And it's right in Forest Hill Gardens, which along with it's neighbor Kew Gardens (where I was born & grew up), will remind you of merry ole England. Get there early and walk around the Gardens.

dc_bruce's picture

for highlighting "Driving Me Crazy." Being a long-time Morrison fan (I have the 2-record 1974 album that, I believe, was re-released on CD as "It's too late to stop now"), I took your collective advice and ordered this record from Music Direct.

It did not disappoint, sonically or musically. While i sympathize with your complaint about the absence of a Fender bass player, not only does DeFrancesco's left foot almost make you forget that it's an organ you're hearing but the whole performance floats on a pillow of rich bass.

Tasty stuff!