- 29 Oct 18
The Van & Bob Show. Pat Carty Catches A Double Header To Remember.
There are several records with Van Morrison’s name on them that I reckon are amongst the finest ever made. Take my personal favourite, Veedon Fleece. I got a right dose of the auld Celtic mist as I listened to it, walking the changing riverside towards the show, cranes swaying above me in the city I love, the country I was blessed enough to be able to move back to. You see? He makes even the most cinder block handed hack go all poetical. It’s a beautiful record, from soup to nuts. Here, hold on…“William Blake and the eternals, and the sisters of mercy, looking for the Veedon Fleece”…I’m off again. And, as I said, he’s got a handful of others that are nearly as good.
Live, it can be a very different story. Although I’ve heard tell of transcendent nights, I’ve only seen him a few times and they were, to put it mildly, disappointing outings, but at least he’s looking good in the usual hat/sunglasses/pinstripe suit rig out as he leads the band into the gentle swing of ‘Down The Road’ and then blows some sax for a nice run at ‘Days Like These’. His voice is in good nick too, and he gives it a bit of soft scat – the only acceptable kind – to close out the tune. ‘Have I Told You Lately’ is such a gorgeous song, but this jazzy arrangement doesn’t really do it any favours, although it’s lifted when backing vocalist Dana Masters takes a verse, and Van’s a dab hand at that horn. It’s when he starts blowing a mean harp in ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ that you begin to think, to hope, that we’ve got him in a good mood on a good night. The band slip into Slim Harpo’s ‘Don’t Start Cryin’ Now’ – as covered by Them, long ago – before ‘Here Comes The Night’, carried by some nice use of two tambourines and cracking tremolo guitar from Dave Keary.
‘Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid’, which stretches back to Lester Young in the forties and had lyrics added by King Pleasure in the fifties, is pleasant enough, and we don’t see half enough vibraphone in this day and age, but ‘Sometimes We Cry’, from 1997’s The Healing Game, is better. Dana Masters is a much better fit than the backing vocals on the original recording and the percussion work behind the Hammond and guitar solos is quietly perfect. The band chase the bass line of ‘Real Real Gone’ around the song, bringing it down near the end as Van evokes Sam Cooke, and the ‘Let It Be’-esque ‘Carrying A Torch’ is just lovely, the “keeper of the flame” he’s talking about in the song might just be himself.
The band get a nice Jimmy Reed style groove going for ‘Talk Is Cheap’ and Van straps on the big Gibson for ‘Why Must I Always Explain?’ at the end of which he even essays a neat guitar solo. ‘Moondance’ is good to hear, even though again it’s a bit too jazzed up. Everyone gets a solo – trumpet/guitar/vibes/double bass/drums and Van himself on the sax. I wouldn’t be crazy about the song ‘Broken Record’ but the way the band manage to stay in time against the jarring skipping vinyl effect played on some class of güiro just proves what a crack unit they are.
There’s a false start to ‘I’m Not Feeling It Anymore’ due to some technical problem, which results in what looks like a bollicking for members of the crew, but it runs along nicely once it gets going. The sweet swinging chords ‘Wild Night’ get a good response, as they should, as does John Lee Hooker’s ‘Think Twice Before You Go’. ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ is surprising in that the slide guitar solo gives it the sound he had around Into The Music, which is a good thing. The vibraphone solo in ‘The Party’s Over’ is cheesier than a French man’s pantry but at least it’s over quickly.
‘Ancient Highway’, from the Days Like These album, is a great song, from the muted trumpet intro to Van slipping off into his stream of consciousness ad libitum, but it does go on a bit tonight, acting as an impetus for some to take a bathroom break which they probably regretted as soon as they heard the faint strains of the opening of ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ ringing out. Again, it’s jazzed up, and the syncopated drumming throws off some of the audience who are determined to clap along anyway. That would have seemed like a suitable closer, and Van does nip off, but he’s back seconds later to lead the band into Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’ which sounds great as The Man hollers out, demanding his nightshirt. Again he walks off but comes back one last time to finish out with ‘Gloria’. The band aren’t quite loud enough to do it full banging garage band justice but everyone is happy to shout out the chorus just the same. It would seem we did indeed get him on a good night. Still The Man.
Bob's Yer Uncle
One could argue that the tribal drumming intro to Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters, and this is before he set foot on the stage at all, was sexier than Van’s entire set, but that’s like comparing oranges to forklifts. They’re different animals altogether. I’ve reviewed this show twice in the last year, so it’s going to be difficult to find anything new to say, but I’ll do my best. It’s impossible to have anything but admiration for the great man as he could be off making enough money to fund his own space programme if he would just get his old band together for a few months, but he’s decided to follow the muses and his heart instead.
Plant appears on stage to a huge roar, and that’s not the only response he gets. According to my two female companions, who must remain nameless on this occasion to spare their blushes, Old Percy, at seventy, still makes them feel a bit funny and wouldn’t have to work too hard to enjoy their company. He does look good in fairness with his long hair tied back in a casual ponytail – although he’ll shake this free after one song because he’s, you know, Robert Bloody Plant – and purple shirt. A close up of his lightly bearded face has an almost leonine aspect. Perhaps, given the fact that the two ladies got a fit of the vapours as soon as he walked out, we can call him “The Loin King”.
He may not be interested in getting the old band together, but he’s happy to play some of their songs. Things kick off with a mighty ‘Ramble On’ - permanent guest Seth Lakeman playing the original guitar parts on his violin, before the Bo Diddley rumble of a trip on the ‘Charley Patton highway” for ‘Turn It Up’. Then it’s a dark version of ‘Black Dog’ as Plant malevolently whispers that he “just can’t keep away” over hammond swirls. When the “Hey Baby!” section comes in, the house lights go up as both guitarists jump around the stage, playing a slightly altered version of that riff. When Lakeman reappears for the breakdown, it becomes some sort of gypsy-dervish freak out.
Plant doffs his cap to Van, saying how great it is to play with one the classic characters of the last fifty years of popular music, which is very gracious of him seeing that Van didn’t say a word to or about anyone for his entire set. ‘The May Queen’ is introduced as a “song from before handwriting”, and it’s great. But then, Jaysus, acoustic guitar and piano introduce ‘The Rain Song’ from Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy, and you could hear a pin drop as gently brushed drums and double bass move it to the point where Lakeman takes over the counter melody near the song’s end. It’s pretty breathtaking. And, if that wasn’t enough, we get the mandolin-led classic ‘Going To California’. Zep fans turn to each other in the audience, open-mouthed.
Once its finished, Plant leads the audience in some Oh-Oh, Ah-Ah call and response exercises like some sort of sexy, village elder Freddie Mercury. He drops a reference to Maureen’s Bar in the Olympia and then reflects on the fact that this is the end of about a seventy show run and he doesn’t know what happens next. Acknowledging his debt to American music, he muses on how fortunate he has been to have seen the likes of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Bukka White and Skip James. One giant he never did get to see was Leadbelly, but he gives ‘Gallows Pole’ a go anyway. Lakemen, who is just an incredible musician, turns it into a hoedown for a hanging, and there’s some electric banjo, which there just is not enough of in the world. It swings like the poor bastard hanging from the lyrics’ noose.
The African/Arabesque guitar of ‘Carry Fire’ evokes a longing to sit by a campfire somewhere far away and the epic reading of ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’, featuring the incredible acoustic guitar work of Mr Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson, shall be whispered about amongst those of us lucky enough to be here for a long time to come. Justin Adams carries ‘Little Maggie’ on what looks like a ngoni, but he is savage during ‘Fixin’ To Die’, talking his guitar for a walk through Dick Dale, Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters, Pete Townshend, and even a bit of Hendrix.
The encore starts with ‘New World’ from last year’s excellent Carry Fire – and Plant’s last five or six albums are all worth having – but it’s quickly put aside for the big finish. The huge riff from ‘Bring It On Home’ crashes into the room like a bulldozer into a wall but the five note ‘Whole Lotta Love’ da-na-na-na-NAH is like a wrecking ball colliding with one of those Japanese paper houses. The middle section finds room amidst its wild caravan of sound for Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do you Love?’, the guitars roam while Lakeman’s fiddle burns, and then it’s all brought to a final bluesy berth.
People like Jack White get a lot of credit for “updating the blues” but he could take a few leaves out of Plant and his merrie band’s book. As Jimmy Page sits at home designing Led Zeppelin Frisbees, or whatever his next move is to squeeze money out of old lemons, Plant continues to adapt his past successes into something new, cherry picking from the musics of the world, from his American roots work with Alison Krauss and the Band Of Joy to this marvellous “world music” stew he peddles with the Sensational Space Shifters, which cops ingredients from Mali to Memphis and all stops in between. There’s a lesson there.