Friday Night with Guitar George: Van Morrison Edition

There are some things in this world that cannot be explained. Stonehenge. The platypus. The 1969 New York Mets.

And Van Morrison.

Calling Van Morrison a rock singer is like calling Stonehenge a circle made out of stones: technically it is accurate, but it falls far short of a meaningful description. As front man for the band Them, Ireland’s contribution to the “British Invation” of the early sixties, Van Morrison was indeed a rock singer, and a very good one at that. Them’s 1965 debut album The Angry Young Them stands up well against the music produced at that time by the band’s more famous counterparts from London and Liverpool, and the album included the hit “Gloria”, which inspired a whole new sub-genre that would come to be called “garage rock”.

After his brief tenure with Them, Morrison went on to a long and successful solo career that covered a broad spectrum of genres and combinations thereof: blues, jazz, R & B, soul, folk, traditional Irish, and rock. Regardless of the musical idiom, Morrison’s voice is always infused with the richness of a Celtic sensibility that recalls the verdant hills of Westmeath, yet also invokes the choppy waves on Ireland’s rocky west coast, or the dingy but proud workaday demeanor of the Belfast where Van grew up. Descriptions of Morrison’s voice always contain oxymorons: smooth but rough, melodic but chant-like, soothing yet urgent, understated but powerful.

Although Morrison’s reputation is largely built on his remarkable skills as a vocalist, he is a talented musician as well, picking up the guitar at age 11, the saxophone at 13, and learning harmonica and keyboards as well. As a member of various club bands in Ireland, Van honed his skills in his early days by playing one or more of the aforementioned instruments, and singing in a loose, improvisational style, often making up lyrics on the spot. As evidenced in tonight’s video, this improvisational style continued throughout Morrison’s career. Notice the subtle cues he gives to his backing musicians during the instrumental breaks.

“Into the Mystic” appeared on the 1970 album Moondance, but it recalls the imaginative love-as-transcendence metaphor that characterized much of Morrison’s previous album, the highly acclaimed Astral Weeks, released two years prior to Moondance. The latter album features more pop-oriented song structures, and “Into the Mystic” is a perfect blend of Moondance’s radio-friendly structures and Astral Weeks’ poetic open-endedness. Appropriate to its title, there is a mystical, ethereal quality to the song, which is beautifully captured in this 1974 performance on the German music program Musikladen. The song seems to flow through the singer and musicians, as if they are not so much performing but simply giving expression to the essence of the song as it emanates from a transcendent realm, then returns–into the mystic.

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