- 16 Sep 20
As part of our celebrations for Van Morrison's 75th birthday, Damien Dempsey, David Keenan and Gemma Hayes share their reflections on Van's music and legacy.
Across his remarkable career, Damien Dempsey has forged a reputation as one of the country's most beloved artists – with 2020 marking his 20th year of releasing albums. Following his iconic run of Vicar Street gigs in December, he's set to play the Iveagh Gardens on July 10, 2021.
One day when I was a teenager, I was sat down by an elder on the songwriting scene in Dublin. A bottle of wine was opened, and I was played Van's album Astral Weeks on vinyl. I proceeded to listen to Van bulldoze the structure of songwriting, and hoist up sails where the walls once were.
It was like Joyce selling his soul to the devil, to get an incredible voice and way with melody in return – then away with him down the streams of consciousness, singing a new world awake.
I think his music brought a lot of healing to Ireland during the conflict up the North.
Coming from the Protestant Loyalist background that he did, he was always reaching across boundaries with his art, bridging the cultural divide with his lyrics and with the covers that he done and artists he recorded with.
During the conflict, which was something that really hurt him deeply, he used to say, "we are all the same", and on the song 'Saint Dominic's Preview', he sang of people determined, "not to feel anyone else’s pain".
He was writing about Arklow in Wicklow, the Garden of Ireland, back in the 1970s, when very very few folk from East Belfast were venturing south of the border.
One of the country’s most compelling young musicians, David Keenan released his full-length debut A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery through Rubyworks earlier this year. The Dundalk singer-songwriter enjoyed a landmark 2019 – the starry highlights of which included a stellar set on Electric Picnic’s Main Stage.
I first caught sight of Van on the sleeve of Moondance, when I was a young child.
The record was part of my uncle's collection, which also included Astral Weeks. He was among the holy few who was praised as being "One of the Masters" so I read the credits and the track listings and imagined the colours about to be weaved before I sat down to listen. The first thing that struck me was the blissful looseness in the music, the freedom in it, this wholistic dreamscape being spun by a conductor with a Belfast twang. The whole thing seemed to be verging on perfection for me, full of youthfulness and imagination. I can see now, from this perspective the lasting effect that ‘Madame George’ had on me in terms of the structure he set. Extolling the subversive beauty in a fabled street character maybe of his own creation, referencing his old haunts on ‘Cypress Avenue’ and calling in the ghosts of Freud and Fitzroy to play a game of dominoes in drag. Van's body of work is a Universe of Poetry, Prose, Rhythms, Blues and Aphorisms riddled with the seek and the search, a true testament to the transcendental qualities cultivated by the rare few. I identify with the same search for meaning and understanding and the vocation of expressing yourself through Music and Art out of sheer necessity for the sake of the soul. I can however say in all honesty that his teachings helped guide me to a place where I could articulate the inarticulate devoid of fear or reluctance.
His voice inspired and continues to inspire. Rave on Van. Rave on, eternally so.
Over the last 20 years, Mercury Prize nominee Gemma Hayes has established herself as one of Ireland's leading musical talents. The Tipperary singer-songwriter released her acclaimed fifth studio album, Bones + Longing, in 2014.
I would have first connected with Van Morrison’s music in the late ‘90s. I lived in a house with a bunch of other songwriters, and we were all cutting our teeth at open mic nights. Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece were played on repeat, along with the Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. Those albums are so full of soul and nostalgia for me. What a wonderful soundtrack to my late teens and early twenties – when I was learning to be free, how to deal with love, and how to express myself musically.
While so intricate and complex, Van Morrison’s music sounds totally effortless. His music taught me about being ‘in the pocket’ rhythmically, and also about diving into the stream of consciousness lyrically. His music is intuition-driven. Lyrically, it’s a bit like he is thinking out loud to himself, and someone’s recording it by chance!
He has been a rare singer-songwriter from the beginning. He was really blazing his own trail by singing R&B and soul in a country that really had very little knowledge or exposure to those styles of music. To do that from Belfast, to tap into those styles and feel a kindred spirit with the singers and players that lived in what was really another world, must have been amazing. It is clear that Van Morrison had a deeper calling from an early age. He had the belief in himself and the commitment to continue to follow his soul and gut in his music throughout the decades.
There is also a longing in his music. He seems to transcend the listener purely by the fact that he himself is transcendent while he sings. He stirs my soul, and reminds me of what I know but have sometimes forgotten. In that sense, I feel a connection to his music and his legacy.
I love the sentiment of ‘Comfort You’ – to comfort a friend, and hold their pain for a moment to give them some respite. “I’ll put the weight on you… and you put the weight on me”. It’s a positive song about friendship and compassion. It was such an honour to get to sing this song. I thought about all the people who have put their own health at risk to save the lives of others recently. That goes way beyond friendship and into the realms of real heroism.
The Hot Press 'Rave On, Van Morrison' Special Issue is out now. Pick up your copy in shops now – or order online below:
You can find all the 'Rave On, Van Morrison' performances on the Hot Press YouTube channel.