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The Transcendent Music Of Van Morrison, Part Three

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Listen To The Lion
August 22, 2014

The 1980s marked a turning point for Morrison in his personal affairs, his outlook on life, and his music. The songwriter and his wife, Janet Rigsbee, had divorced and was he growing restless, pondering a return to his Celtic roots in Britain. Additionally, the music he was now creating took him further outside the pop mainstream, even beyond his own earlier musical territory. Much of what he recorded and released throughout the decade focused increasingly on themes of spirituality and faith, contemplation and meditation, ecstasy and humility, rebirth, music as a form of healing, and Christian mysticism. "God, woman, his childhood in Belfast, and those enchanted moments when time stands still," as stated by another. This became evident through the titles he gave to his recordings of the period; 'Beautiful Vision,' 'Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart,' 'A Sense Of Wonder,' 'Irish Heartbeat,' and 'Enlightenment' to name a few. Morrison himself said of it, "A lot of those albums in the '80s... a lot of the songs came out of the stuff I was reading at the time. Poets like Blake. Literature was more of an influence around that period. I was just looking for knowledge, looking for light. Finding a way to describe the indescribable. It was never about one thing, or one religion. It was about finding out about myself. Trying to find some peace of mind. If anything, it was more about the journey itself than reaching some kind of destination. That's where the music of that period was at."

Although now spending more time abroad, Morrison nevertheless continued to utilize select musicians from Northern California and remarkably, his live performances also remained largely confined to the San Francisco Bay Area. As I mentioned to you previously in Part Two, we were blessed. But the 1980s also brought change to my life. While still active in my radio broadcasting career (working at KJAZ), the world around me had become somewhat busier and cluttered, eventually prompting a move to England where I briefly lived. Although I remained an ardent fan of Morrison and his live shows, needless to say, I didn't attend as many of Morrison's performances as I would have liked during that period. By the time I returned to the States to work for KKCY, S.F.'s last eclectic FM radio station, it was too late, Van had permanently relocated to the British Isles, and I wouldn't see or hear him perform live again until sometime in the mid-90s.

I'm Not Feeling It Anymore

If anything, the 1990s brought even more of a sea change in Morrison's outlook and music. In his book, 'When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening To Van Morrison,' author Greil Marcus poises the question, "How do you write off more than fifteen albums and more than fifteen years of the work of a great artist?" The writer is referring to Morrison's recorded output from 1980 through 1996, a span that includes the above-mentioned LPs, as well as those that immediately followed. While I myself can hardly dismiss the entirety of those recordings that Morrison made during Ronald Reagan's reign of conservatism, I must admit that something did appear to be amiss in Morrison's world as well. It was a period of searching as the songwriter has pointed out, but Morrison had also become increasingly entrenched in a war; an escalating battle with his record labels, his managers, the industry as a whole, and perhaps even himself. Marcus goes on to quote writer, Jonathan Lethem in an attempt to possibly explain Morrison's angst. Lethem expounds on the role of a singer theorizing, "What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between the singer and the song. A bridge is being built across that void, and it's a bridge that we're never sure the singer is going to manage to cross. The gulf may reside between the vocal texture and the actual meaning of the words, or between the singer and the band, the musical genre, the style of production, what have you..." As that definition applies to someone like Morrison, Marcus then suggests, "But what if there is no tension - not because the singer has lost it, but rather because his goal has been to transcend it, and he's succeeded?" Think about that. While I don't necessarily agree with Marcus' proposition as it pertains to Morrison's work throughout the 80s, it certainly has bearing on his output in the 1990s. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the Van Morrison that I encountered when I next saw him live. Upon my return to the States, I moved into a modest unit at the crest of Nob Hill, one of S.F.'s most well-known inclines. The hill is home to two fabled cable car lines, the illustrious Grace Cathedral, the historic Fairmont Hotel, and the Masonic Auditorium. The Masonic plays host to the semi-annual S.F. Jazz Festival, as well as an assortment of independently produced music programs throughout the year. Living a mere block away, the auditorium became an extremely convenient venue for me to attend concerts, made even better when I realized that I could offer my services as a seat usher in exchange for the privilege of witnessing some extraordinary nights of music absolutely free - no parking fees or hassles, no waiting in line at a will call window nervously glancing at my wristwatch with showtime just minutes away. But the icing on the cake was the ability to actually be home (or even to bed, if the hour was late) while the bulk of the concert goers were still negotiating their way out of the parking lot, or hailing cabs. Memorable performances I encountered there included Ravi Shankar,  Sonny Rollins (where I escorted Tom Waits and his small entourage to their seats), Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and of course, Van Morrison. The first with Van was during his two or three night run at the hall in 1993 where he was recording his live outing, 'One Night In San Francisco.' As I soon discovered, those shows would not focus on Morrison, the artiste, but rather on Morrison as the showman and bandleader. Each night he trotted out a small army of guests who appeared to do most of the real performing and music making while he simply directed the proceedings, assuming the role of Master of Ceremonies. While admittedly it was interesting to hear him duet with a handful of the blues masters who had influenced him early in his career, the affair was the complete antithesis of every Van Morrison concert I had previously attended. The evening unfolded as mere entertainment, a all-star musical revue rather than the deep digging, soulful days of yore. And Morrison's ill-conceived and entirely unnecessary addition of Candy Dulfer on saxophone only served to diminish it even further. 

What's Wrong With This Picture

The following year or so, Van played the Masonic again. This time around his background singer, Brian Kennedy insisted on echoing every single phase that Morrison sang as though he were some sort of star struck schoolboy mimicking his mentor. It was annoying as hell. But to make matters worse, mid-way into the show, Morrison turned the vocal duties over to Kennedy almost entirely. WTF? Something was going on here, and it wasn't good. Where was the Van that I thought I knew? I almost didn't recognize this man on stage. Perhaps his voice was strained, I told myself, or maybe it was just an off night. I'm more than willing to give the guy a break, after all, an artist can't be inspired every night, it's virtually impossible. But then came a series of lackluster recordings rife with complaints about being disillusioned and getting ripped-off by everyone around him. And then there were the questionable collaborations - a lounge jazz date with Georgie Fame, another with Mose Allison which should have been good, but wasn't, a skiffle session with Lonnie Donegan, and yet another with Linda Gail Lewis, sister to Jerry Lee, in which they drew on his recorded catalog. Had Van simply had enough? Had he perhaps grown bored and complacent? I was beginning to wonder if maybe he had lost it. Morrison sounded upset and appeared to be in a deliberate and hurried retreat from his quest for spiritual transformation, and increasingly concerning himself with a reaffirmation of his musical roots. Well, that's O.K. too, we all have our low ebbs, but my God, where was the joyous sound that had always been the hallmark of Morrison's music? Where was the self-revelatory soul searching, the feel that had driven the very best of his work? At times, Morrison's recordings of the 1990s seemed to be almost an afterthought, resembling little more than side projects. Yet invariably, as soon as I had convinced myself that he was doing little more than marking time, that he very well had lost it, Morrison would return with a clutch of songs that would serve as an impressive reminder of everything that made him such a monumental talent in the first place. It's those handful of songs on each new release that served to restore my faith in the power of Morrison's craft.

Why Do I Always Have To Explain Myself

"You have to understand that I don't choose the music; it chooses me. My love for the music is the core of it for me. Whatever that energy is, it's not something easily understood. It comes through me at some level and I have to get it and use it, make it work. That's what I need to do. That's all I know. That's all there is. People make music for different reasons. Financial reasons or ego reasons. Maybe they can walk away from it. But I can't, because my connection to the music can't be broken. This is a need. Let's be clear about this - there is no fucking choice. It always comes back to the music. That's all that's ever mattered."

Those are the words of Van Morrison himself, offering his own side to the never-ending debate that surrounds his motives, and they remind us that's there's really no reason to ever question what drives Morrison, the man, or Morrison, the artist. As Jon Wilde of Uncut Magazine points out in a 2005 interview with the songwriter, "Van Morrison stands as one of the most accomplished musical artists of our time, the one and only figure who ranks alongside Bob Dylan as a songwriter of transcendent capacity. Many of his albums are commonly regarded as classics. For the past 20 years, his undoubted masterpiece, 'Astral Weeks,' has taken it in turns with 'Pet Sounds,' 'Blonde On Blonde' and 'Revolver' to top the 'Best Album Ever' polls. And again with the exception of Dylan, there is no other artist who inspires such blind devotion in his followers. Morrison's most zealous fans claim that his music has not only enhanced their lives, but actually transformed it." Wilde's observation is not only a salient one, but it nearly stands as a definitive summation of Morrison's importance. There's no need to look any further than that, and there's your bottom line. In the end, the simple fact is that Van Morrison is human just like me and you, but what perhaps elevates him above us is that he is entirely peerless, the quintessential artiste, a bona fide master, an untouchable.

The Transcendent Music Of Van Morrison, Part Two

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Caledonia Soul Music
August 15, 2014
 Dedicated to Janet Rigsbee, the lovely brown eyed girl for whom many of these songs were written

Of the countless live shows that I've attended over the years, I believe I've witnessed Van Morrison in action more than any other musician who is still active today. I'm also proud to say that the vast majority of those gigs took place in clubs and dance halls, 600 capacity venues or smaller. With musicians of Morrison's caliber, a nightclub date is simply the only setting in which to really hear and experience the Irish bard live. Of course my boastful proclamation also dates me. With only a handful of exceptions over the last 30 years, Morrison hasn't played actually in a small club here in the States since perhaps the late 1970s. That would then mean that the bulk of those shows I attended took place somewhere within that particular decade, a decade that if not for disco music, Richard Nixon, and perhaps a few other prominent political events, was otherwise not such a bad time to be young and alive.

Although I first heard Morrison perform while I was attending school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it was my eventual move to San Francisco a year or two later that afforded me repeated exposure to his stage shows. Despite his growing popularity, Morrison and his band continued to be booked into small, select venues throughout the greater Bay Area during the 1970s. After all, it in San Francisco were Morrison's records first broke nationwide. KMPX/KSAN FM, Tom Donahue's revolutionary radio station and its DJs were all over Morrison's music, beginning with 1968's, 'Astral Weeks.' To paraphrase from his book, 'When That Rough God Goes Riding,' author Greil Marcus says, "(Morrison) was an indistinct name almost everywhere else with (his) albums charting in the high twenties or low thirties, but in the Bay Area, he was number one. There he could do no wrong." Is it any wonder then that Morrison and his wife decided to leave Woodstock behind to start a new life for themselves in the S.F. bedroom community of Fairfax in Marin County, just a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge?

Those of us who lived there during those years were truly blessed. The Bay Area was a hot bed of musical activity, home to many outstanding musicians, all of whom played with repeated frequency in local nightspots, Morrison included. My favorites places to catch Van were the Great American Music Hall (where he is pictured above), a former brothel, rococo in design, and tucked into the seedy Tenderloin district of the city just two doors down from the infamous, Mitchell Brother's O'Farrell Theater. The latter was then a notorious den of sex and sin, "one of America's oldest and most notorious adult-entertainment establishments" where Hunter S. Thompson once worked as the night manager. Another favorite was the Boarding House were Steve Martin recorded his first few comedy records, and where Neil Young once played a week-long residency which he billed as his entire 'West Coast Tour.' The building has since been demolished for construction a mid-town condominium complex like so many others. Additionally there was Inn At The Beginning, north of San Francisco in Cotati, as well as River City and the Sleeping Lady Cafe, both in Morrison's adopted hometown of Fairfax. And of course it goes without saying that there were also the larger halls like the Fillmore West (also slated to be razed in the near future) and later, Winterland (which long ago fell victim to the wrecking ball).

Into The Mystic

Then as now, witnessing Morrison on stage could often prove to be something of a hit or a miss proposition (see 'A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man'). You never quite knew just which side of Morrison's artistic and highly divergent personality might actually emerge from behind the stage curtains. On some nights, Morrison would fail to find heart of the music that's being made, and then on other nights, he'd grab a tight hold of it and unearth the very soul that lay within his words and the sounds. It's those latter nights that frequently held me spellbound, the nights when the songs actually sang him, rather than him singing the songs. Let me explain what I mean by that. Morrison's music first and foremost has always been built and based on feel. If the feeling is right, then it doesn't really matter whether the words he sings come out clear and legible, or whether the musicians are perhaps straying from the written arrangements. The all important quest is to collectively find the groove that lays within each song, the feel. Mining that groove then allows them to dig a little deeper in order to uncover and reveal the very heart of the song - its living soul - and that is when he and his musicians would cease making the song, and collectively become the song. It was a magical moment when it would occur, a moment that not only the Caledonia Soul Orchestra would live for, but that I lived for as well. On many occasions my expectations were met with disappointment, yet on other times, it was more than I could have ever hoped for.

Morrison has always made it clear that he does not see himself as an entertainer, nor does he go out of his way to show his indifference towards those how come to see and hear him ("mercurial genius at best, certifiable grouch at worst," remember?). His relationship with his audience is irreconcilable. When he performs, he plays strictly for himself. His only goal as it applies to the music is to reach that place within the song where he is able to transcend "the apparent boundaries of any given piece; to achieve a total freedom of form; to take himself, his band, and the audience on a journey whose destination is anything but known," to quote Scott Foundas of the L.A. Weekly. Morrison himself has stated, "I don't consciously aim to take the listener anywhere. If anything, I aim only to take myself there in my music. If the listener catches the wavelength of what I am saying or singing, or gets whatever point whatever line means to them, then I guess as a writer I may have done a day's work." Often it seems that the only way he is able to achieve that breakthrough is by way of repetition, circling numerous times around a particular phrase or passage until it surrenders to him and he succeeds in finding an entry, or on a bad night, falls short entirely of breaching the enclosure. Eyes closed, standing ramrod straight at the microphone, Morrison, along with the help of his musicians would search for that elusive gateway, and when they would glimpse a soft shaft of light escaping from beneath the door, Van would gently push it open, drop his arm, throw back his head, and BAM! With the crack of the snare drum, the band would bring it down to a whisper, and with their flashlights out and on, they'd begin tiptoeing through the shadows, exploring the warm interior to root out the beating heart of song, all the while keeping the groove quietly percolating on a low blue flame. Head now bowed as if lost in a trance, Morrison would enter into 'the zone.' At a distance from the microphone but with his arm still outstretched upon it, the singer would become a medium of sorts and the seance would commence. He momentarily hesitates as if expectantly waiting for some sort of spiritual direction from the Divine, but boldly enters nevertheless. Channeling the inarticulate speech of the heart, the singer's tongue gets tied as he grapples to articulate the voice that comes from somewhere deep inside - the voice of the lion who lives within. The band has crossed the threshold to pierce the core and Morrison has spilled into slipstream. Speaking in tongues, the singer susses out the heart of the song and lets it flow gently outward to fill the room with the kind of soul that can only come from one who truly understands and breathes it. Lost in the music, the song is now singing him. Morrison lingers in the moment, listening, groping, praying perhaps. Feelings and remembrances from lifetimes past wash over him - the sound of autumn leaves as they crunch beneath his feet walking along Cypress Avenue, streets and gardens wet with rain, fireworks exploding in the distance, foghorns bellowing in the night, Madame Joy, William Blake and the Eternals, pagan streams, and haunts of ancient past. He mumbles incoherently, adrift in a sea of emotion and sensation until he finds himself so overwhelmed by the purity and depth of what he's managed to tap, there's no choice but to resurface if he wishes to remain in this world, though he'd rather risk losing himself entirely to the abyss. He raises his arm again and with a anguished cry, lets it fall and BAM! The drummer snaps his snare drum one last time, a cue for the band to swing in to action, and charge they do, wailing on the song's final chorus to bring it all to a some kind of magical and metaphysical conclusion as Van reopens his eyes, enlightened, renewed, and born again. It's overpowering, even for those of us who merely act as witness, and that, my friend, is the astral plane, the mystic, the lion's den, the place where immobile steel rims crack and the ditch in the back roads stop - the eternal Kansas City. It's known as Caledonia Soul Music, the transcendent music of Van Morrison.  

Turn It Up, Just A Little Bit Higher

Of course that level of intensity couldn't, and didn't happen every night, but when it did, it became a night of music that could burn itself into your memory. Obviously, Morrison didn't always achieve those heights during these years, but when performing in front of a hometown crowd (albeit an adopted hometown), he often miraculously found it within himself to tap that rich vein of Caledonia Soul Music. Skeptics might be tempted to tell you that it's all merely an old showman's trick designed to play the emotions of the crowd, and it can be, but in Morrison's hand's, it's the real thing, not empty drama in the name of mere entertainment. Before he became the chronic grump and defiant performer that he is today, Van was, if nothing else, true to himself, and completely honest with his music.

The four sets that comprise 'Caledonia Soul Music' draw from the years 1968 to 1979, the period in which Van Morrison was at his most creative height. His recorded output during those 11 years stand as among the very best he's ever committed to tape. It was a productive time, and one in which Morrison also seemed to be the most content, although I use that term very loosely. God knows he was never an easy man to be around, but his music during those years resonated with a certain purity and optimism that's been lacking somewhat in the music he's written since. One might even go as far as to say that Morrison could do no wrong as Marcus surmised. The man could have conceivably sung the phone book and make it come out sounding sanctified, something which Morrison nearly does on 'Twilight Zone,' should you need proof of that contention. The song from which this collection takes its name, 'Caledonia Soul Music' is a rare, revealing, and improvised instrumental that serves to wordlessly demonstrate just how the band leader would attempt to steer his musicians towards that elusive portal that he strove to uncover in his most personal of songs. At 17 minutes in length, the performance has remarkably never been officially released, but has appeared on numerous 'recordings of indeterminate origin' with abysmal fidelity. The version you'll hear, I'm proud to report, comes from the source and is CD quality (although is presented here in the mp3 format). It's a must hear for any fan of Morrison's work - an absolute tour-de-force. Other highlights might well include a handful of songs that were originally intended for inclusion in 'Mechanical Bliss,' the 1974/75 LP that Morrison shelved. Beyond these, everything else is widely available, and all are golden. It goes without saying of course that there are bound to be a few favorites left out of the mix, but nevertheless, it took me four volumes to achieve what I believe is a well-balanced and comprehensive overview of the many remarkable recordings that Morrison made during those years, and that's hard to do with an artist that I consider as being untouchable. Hopefully you'll agree with the choices I've made.

The Transcendent Music Of Van Morrison, Part One

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A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
August 08, 2014

It can be a bit difficult when one stops to consider Van Morrison, the man. He's been described as "a mercurial genius at best, and a certifiable grouch at worst." As that relates to the everyday world, it might be tempting then to simply dismiss him as a practiced curmudgeon - "creative, but moody, unpredictable, perverse, and often downright willful." As an artist however, it's another matter all together. Morrison is indeed a gifted talent and a chronic grumbler, yet despite his reputation as a difficult personality, he's also been responsible for writing some of the most evocatively soulful music within the rock idiom over the last 45 years. A superlative songwriter, Morrison has additionally proven himself to be an accomplished musician (playing guitar, harmonica, and saxophone), band leader, showman, and singer, although it's similarly difficult to categorize him strictly as the latter. His voice is not one that you might rightly describe as pleasing and mellifluous, although what it lacks in melody, it more than makes up for in expressiveness. In other words, Morrison's not a traditional vocalist in quite the same way that someone like Sinatra for instance was considered a singer, or that Nat King Cole was a singer, likewise with Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, or Johnny Adams. Vocally, what distinguishes Morrison from them and his generational peers is that Van was simply the very first 'rock' singer to emote with an uninhibited power. He possessed a voice that was every bit as emotionally charged as another soul brother, the late, great, Ray Charles. It's as simple as that. Making that quality even more substantial however was also the fact that he was not the dark-skinned man one might have imagined him to be, but rather a surly, 20 year old, red-bearded, Anglo-Celtic leprechaun of an Irishman who carried around nearly enough negative energy to create a black hole. In the early days of his music career, Morrison emitted an almost animal magnetism on stage, particularly when fronting, Them. He appeared almost threatening - snarling, spitting, stomping, and sneering more than actually singing. He injected his performances with sexual menace and unadulterated emotion, and the end result was something new - something raw, commanding, soulful, and completely mesmerizing. 

In the mid-1960s, Morrison and Them worked as the house band at the infamous Maritime Hotel in Belfast, Ireland, a gritty dance hall that was home to working class toughs. The band's residency at the hall proved to be a fortuitous workshop for the songwriter, performing night after night on the same stage, in the same room, in front of a growing and appreciative audience of regulars who welcomed his group of angry young men. The comfort of this setting allowed Morrison and his band to freely woodshed in an atmosphere that provided them not only with the artistic leeway to stretch the boundaries of their live performances, but also to receive immediate feedback on those experiments from an audience that fully supported their excursions. Frequently working without a net - no defined set list, no restrictions, no expectations - Morrison and the band often improvised, feeding off the energy of the moment and the tenor of the crowd. Essentially, they achieved the equivalent of musically painting on an open, empty canvas, and what young, aspiring, working artist wouldn't appreciate that luxury?

This is where the songwriter that we've come to call, the 'Belfast Cowboy' first developed his stream-of-conscience approach to lyrical content - a technique not as simple as it may at first seem. When he later embarked on his solo career here in America, he began expanding on these free association narratives - ruminations that seemed to spring from somewhere deep within his inner most psyche, "reflecting lifetimes behind it." This new technique added to the expressiveness of his vocalization, and signaled the beginnings of his own brand of unconventional poetry. Songs like 'Who Drove The Red Sports Car,' 'Beside You,' 'T.B. Sheets,' 'The Back Room' and 'Madame George' are all highly personal and symbolic reflections that showcase his new found voice. The lyrical content of those songs may not entirely make sense to us as third party observers, but then, the experiential window that Morrison provides us is intended to be from the perspective of our standing outside looking in. As Morrison continued to grow as a songwriter however, he perfected this approach, now shifting the viewpoint to us now being allowed on the inside looking out. Simultaneously, his narratives became something closer to meditations, or personal confessions. They were, and still remain very powerful tomes, and plenty soulful too. In fact as time when on, his approach even developed into its own self-named genre - 'Caledonia Soul.' Unlike blue-eyed soul, this was a classification applicable only to Morrison himself. One that was not only deep, artistic, heartfelt and expressive, but extremely sensitive and transcendental as well. Beginning with the two sets of music that are offered below, you'll hear the genesis of Morrison's, 'Caledonia Soul,' drawing from his very early work with the group, Them, and his first solo outings recorded for Bang Records in 1968. Then in the weeks to follow, we'll explore Morrison's artistic development and journey into spiritualism as he ventured into the mystic. Ladies and gentlemen, Van Morrison, a portrait of the artist as a young man.

Only Tigers Can Survive

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The Enduring Artistry Of
Iain Matthews
August 1, 2014

"I have been in love with painting ever since I became conscious of it at the age of six. I drew some pictures I thought fairly good when I was 50, but really, nothing I did before the age of 70 was of value at all." - Hokusai

Artistically restless and stubbornly persistent, Iain Matthews (formerly Ian Matthews, and even earlier Ian McDonald) is an unwavering survivor. His diverse musical career has endured for nearly 50 years now, yet why is it that most are virtually unaware that Matthews continues to produce stellar material well into the new millennium? The casual music listeners among you may be marginally cognizant of Matthews' name as having once been the leader of Matthews Southern Comfort, a group who enjoyed brief commercial success here in the States and in England with their 1970 cover of Joni Mitchell's, 'Woodstock.' The more serious listener meanwhile will no doubt be aware that Matthews had previously been an integral part of the early Fairport Convention line-up and group sound, just prior to his setting out on a solo career. After getting off to a shaky start with his first LP, 'Southern Comfort,' he chose to return to an ensemble setting forming the aforementioned Matthews Southern Comfort for a lovely pair of recordings, only to abruptly walk away from the band at the very height of their popularity. The following year brought his brilliant sophomore effort, 'If You Saw Thro' My Eyes,' an LP that easily on par with anything that Fairport Convention had produced musically. That should really come as no surprise however considering that Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Andy Roberts (guitar hot shot), Tim Renwick (Al Stewart), and Pat Donaldson (Fotheringay) all liberally contributed to the proceedings. Then came 'Tigers Will Survive' a mere twelve months later. While 'Tigers...' was not quite as memorable as its predecessor, it was a pleasing effort nevertheless that yielded a minor hit with his remake of the Crystal's, 'Da Do Ron Ron.' Another U-turn followed in 1972, demonstrating once again just how perpetually unsettled Matthews has proven to be. The singer established another group effort, forming the lesser known, Plainsong with compatriot, Andy Roberts in tow. After releasing only one LP, Matthews then turned back to his solo career, this time in earnest. As a few more of you might then also remember, this about face resulted in the excellent, 'Valley Hi' in 1973 with ex-Monkee, Michael Nesmith in the producer's seat, and 'Some Days You Eat The Bear, And Some Days The Bear Eats You' one year later. But for the vast majority of people, the musical history of Iain Matthews seems to end right there in 1974, none the wiser that Matthews soldiered on in what he's come to call his "borderline career."
*For the record, we could also mention his very early stint with Pyramid, but its inclusion is not really essential since they only released one single.

I find this to be somewhat astonishing when you consider that the mercurial Matthews has actually maintained a very active presence within the music community, releasing nearly three dozen additional recordings in the four decades that followed 'Some Days...' That Matthews is associated primarily with only the first ten years of his music making while the public at large remains nearly oblivious to his latter day work then becomes an unforgivable oversight. Of course one could almost be pardoned for having overlooked his erratic output from the late 70s through the 1980s. That period in time was something of a sink hole for nearly every musician of Matthews' generation and prior. After punk rock rendered their kind as prehistoric, the next wave of neu-Romantics then ruled the day with their hairdos, synthesizers, and their steely sonic landscape, forcing the Cro-Magnons to adapt alternative and often unsuitable approaches to making their music, an option that often didn't result in memorable outcomes. Even top-tier talents like Joni Mitchell succumbed to recording missteps like the Thomas Dolby produced, 'Dog Eat Dog,' and a misguided duet with Billy Idol on 1988's, 'Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm.' Needless to say, Iain Matthews wasn't exempt from donning clown costumes either. It was the only way for he and others to remain viable. Matthews choices appeared simple - M.O.R., dance friendly blue-eyed soul, alá Boz Scaggs' 'Silk Degrees,' or techno-pop. Not surprisingly, he tried all three with decidedly mixed results. The late 70s brought soft rock and white soul, while the 80s saw the heavy reliance on ARP synthesizers and drum machines, none of which truly fit him well. The songs were still there, in fact his writing remained as impeccable as ever, it was just that the format in which they were framed was not an especially complimentary showcase for his material. Nevertheless, the musician recorded an amazingly prolific 10 LPs during that difficult period, not one of which seemed to make any appreciable impact upon the public. Dejected, Matthews threw up his hands in disgust at the end of that run, and walked away from the art of making music to instead perform A&R duties for the new age label, Windham Hill. Of  that startling decision, Matthews says it was actually quite easy - "I was struggling for nearly 15 years, living hand to mouth with nothing to show for my efforts but a string of out-of-print LPs" - but then again, Matthews is a survivor.

The 1990s proved to be more forgiving for the songwriter. A gradual return to a more rootsier form of music in the marketplace opened the door for Matthews, the musician, to re-enter a more stylistically flattering playing field. It sparked a productive and rewarding succession of recordings that began in 1992 with 'Pure And Crooked,' and continued through 'A Tiniest Wham' which closed out the century. With acoustic guitars once again in vogue, Matthews' songs came alive as they had previously in former lifetimes, to deliver inspired, tastefully mature, and haunting reflections from a steadfast and eloquent musician who was now well into 3+ decades of making music.

One interesting facet of Matthews recording career up until this point had been his discerning ear for the songs of others. Throughout his first 20 years, the singer mixed his own material with well placed covers by the likes of Neil Young, Randy Newman, Jules Shears, Richard Farina, Al Anderson, Jesse Winchester, and the aforementioned, Joni Mitchell, as well as lesser known talents such as Paul Siebel, Duncan Browne, Allan 'Jake' Jacobs, and Pete Dello. One revealing aspect of Matthews brief hiatus however showed that the songwriter had gained new confidence and momentum as his own supplier in the interim. He increasingly began penning more and more of his own songs that easily stood shoulder to shoulder with those from whom he admired. Each new release became a musical statement of Matthews' belief in both himself and his talents. But the singer's impulsive side came to the fore as well in the new millennium, finding him collaborating with others as a way to maintain the momentum, and to explore new territories and genres. He worked with the talented guitarist and renowned songwriter, Elliot Murphy on two outings, reformed both Plainsong and Matthews Southern Comfort for new records, and hooked up with the Searing Quartet upon his move to Amsterdam in 2002. Under the direction of pianist, Egbert DeríxMatthews immersed himself in acoustic jazz for several recording dates with the pianist, in addition to forming No Grey Faith for a tribute to Sandy Denny, and assembling the trio, More Than A Song with bassist, Ad Vanderveen and guitarist/vocalist, Eliza Gilkyson, who collectively released two recordings.

Matthews' pleasant and silky tenor has always provided an anchor for his work, but his penchant for folk rock tinged with touches of country has also remained relatively consistent throughout the singer's extensive songbook. Lately however, the songwriter seems to be enjoying his collaboration with Egbert Deríx, declaring that his latest release, 'The Art Of Obscurity' will be the last of his solo efforts. Obviously, the title of his solo swan song is a self-deprecating reference to his disillusioning inability to connect with the record buying public. As difficult and as frustrating as that can be for any talented artist to accomplish, sadly there is more than a grain of truth behind Matthews' assessment of his own achievements, although not for lack of talent, nor trying. Even during those dark days of yore when preferred record production trends and public taste worked against him, Matthews always displayed the grace, resolve, and prowess of a jungle tiger. And like that tireless feline with its nine lives, Matthews has repeatedly shown that tigers can survive despite the odds against them. God bless you, Iain.

Sex, Romance and Passion. Anger, Lies And Deceit

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The Anatomy Of Lovers...
Intertwined and Apart
Vignettes Of Love and Lust From Kip Hanrahan
July 25, 2014

The Composer's Storyboard

Impressionistic vignettes. That is the music of Kip Hanrahan. Once referred to as the "Jean-Luc Godard of contemporary music," Hanrahan's recordings themselves play like miniature films in music. Invariably they carry a discernible theme or storyline, one that nearly always involves the carnal pleasures. But even if the narratives aren't always linear in design, they (with the help of the music) at the very least convey some sort of overarching attitude. Or perhaps it's more so a mood that's implied; a flavor, a feel, a tone. In doing so, Hanrahan's songs then resemble suggestive, voyeuristic glimpses into the complex anatomy of lovers; interior dialogues of men and women intertwined in a delicate dance of 'sex, romance and passion, anger, lies and deceit,' not to mention the occasional regret that can arise in any libidinous dalliance. Take for instance his sweeping three volume masterpiece, 'A Thousand Nights and a Night,' a musical interpretation of 'Arabian Nights' (a.k.a. 'A Thousand and One Nights'), the epic tome of Islamic folk tales passed down through the ages. The richly textured chronicle of love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, ancient history, burlesques and the erotic is a timeless and fascinating one. In Hanrahan's presentation however, he deftly positions the principle characters of Shahryār, the Persian king, and his bride, Shaharazade in a modern musical context. But of course, rather than incorporate the associated tales of adventure that also make up 'Arabian Nights,' fables such as 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' or 'The Seven Voyages of Sinbad,' Hanrahan's suite dwells exclusively on the corporeal aspects of the story - infidelity, jealousy, rage and bitterness, peppered with several extractions from Shaharazade's thousand and one tales - her clever, open-ended and never-ending stories designed to forever entertain and distract the king, thus allowing her to stay her pending execution; a fate decreed by the king for her own extramarital indiscretions. 

The New York born and bred writer and producer does on occasion stray beyond the somatic however, as well as beyond the related conditions of the heart, whether they be uplifting, or rife with sorrow. Other notions in his work have included God and religion, war and peace, Israel and Palestine, commerce and greed, as well as justice and injustice as it applies to the working man. But primarily, the subject at hand is usually that of lust.* The selections in the mix that I've assembled below are far more democratic in their overview however, striving to reflect a balanced cross-section of his suggestive work.

Built on late night, after hours jazz, elliptical poetry and sultry, poly-rhythmic Latin percussion, those atmospheric vignettes that Hanrahan creates warrant any number of descriptive phrases - warm and intimate, evocative and sexy, voluptuous and sensual, powerful and revealing, elegant but earthy, fiery and turbulent, enchanting and seductive, acidic and contemptuous. But they're also about motion --- rhythm in motion, poetry in motion and sexuality in motion; the to and fro of the lovers waltz with its myriad of physical, emotional and spiritual negotiations.

And then there are the percussionists, the wonderful drummers who supply the intricate undercurrent that flows through these pieces like a wellspring. The pulse that they collectively create is simply jaw-dropping, not to mention absolutely sublime.
*One exception here is the track, 'Wardrobe Master Of Paradise' which is taken from 'Conjure: Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed,' and features the vocals of Taj Mahal. Conjure is a Hanrahan side project.

The Impressive Cast Of Players

(although not necessarily all heard on the tracks below) 





















While many of these names may be unrecognizable to you, the drummers listed within, rank as among the finest of Afro-Cuban percussionists working today, drawn largely from the decades old and still thriving New York music community of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Latin American rhythm keepers. One must take into consideration that although these players are more than capable of creating the hot, fiery propulsion normally associated with percussion based music, under Hanrahan's guidance they instead create a lush and complex canopy of tropical undergrowth that serve to supply a steamy, erotic rhythmic mantle for Hanrahan's carnal vignettes to play themselves out.

Willy DeVille: When The Saints Come Marching In

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Bourbon St., Vieux Carré & Crescent City Soul
Remembering Willy DeVille (1950-2009), Part 3 of 3
July 18, 2014

"Few people could write a love song quite like DeVille. He was the embodiment of rock & roll’s romance - its theater, its style, its drama, camp, and danger."Thom Jurek

As the 20th century became the 21st, Willy DeVille had finally kicked his longtime addiction to heroin, moved to New Mexico and immersed himself even deeper into his music. The previous year saw him recording in Memphis with the Dickerson brothers (Jim and Luther) at the helm, working in the studio alongside Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins and David Hood to produce 'Horse of a Different Color.' Coinciding with his 25th anniversary in the music business, the musician then assembled an acoustic trio that resulted in one of the most unique recordings in his extensive catalog, the excellent 'Live in Berlin,' a two-disc set that covered blues, soul, country, r&b, and rock, all in a stripped down setting that highlighted his masterful interpretation of song. One reviewer said this of the Berlin dates:

"Willy DeVille is a one of a kind in a world of carbon copies and that in itself would be more than enough to recommend him. But he is also one of the most honest, heartfelt interpreters of songs and gifted songwriters that I've ever heard. Listening to DeVille is to be reminded of how rock & roll should be played, and the true meaning of the word passion. The intangible quality of having looked into the darker part of your soul and come out on the other side with your spirit intact can't be taught, it can only be experienced, and it's always present when DeVille performs."


Richard Marcus addresses his interpretive skills further saying:

"There are those performers who through strength of personality and distinctiveness of sound have carved out their own niche in the business. Unfortunately the very uniqueness that makes them such invaluable artists makes them a poor fit for the music industry and they end up as cult figures with small but loyal followings around the world. One of those who was far more deserving of attention then the small amount he received was the incomparable Willy DeVille. From the Latino inflections, to the voice made of gravel, he made the songs he sang come alive like no else had ever managed. But that was the beauty of Willy DeVille, he put the songs ahead of himself. It's not that he's irrelevant, it's just that he offers up his interpretations of the songs without putting his ego in the way."

Despite his renewed health after 20 years of addiction, not everything had turned around in DeVille's world. His move to the Southwest was prompted by a defeat. In a losing battle with the I.R.S., he and his second wife (who was also his business manager) were forced to surrender their home in Mississippi to back taxes, as well as forfeit a good deal of the savings they had fortunately been able to amass from his strong record sales abroad. Despondent over the lost, his wife committed suicide by hanging with DeVille being the first to discover her swinging body. Distraught, he climbed behind the wheel of his car and drove off into the New Mexico night only to severely injure himself when he veered off the road and crashed head on into a truck, breaking his arms, knee, and hip. DeVille was lucky to survive, but he did require surgery for a hip replacement and subsequently walked with crutches for the next three years, frequently performing while seated. During his recovery from the accident, the musician was then delivered yet another troublesome blow. It was discovered that DeVille had contracted Hepatitis C.

The series of tragic events that had transpired over just a short window of time sent the musician into a spiritual tailspin. Surrounded by a landscape that was rich in Native American culture, DeVille immersed himself in their customs to embrace the Indian blood that coursed through his veins, a byproduct of his mother's lineage. Shedding the razor sharp image of his previous years, DeVille dispensed with the hair products, the tailor-made clothes, and even the ever present well-groomed facial hair that suited his chiseled face so well. Instead, he took to painting his face, allowing his long hair to flow free, and adorning himself with feathered breastplates and turquoise jewelry. American critics as usual dismissed DeVille's turnabout simply as posturing, casting him as their whipping boy, intent on rejecting him for his chameleon-like image while overlooking his superior command of music. Our loss again. What they failed to realize was that DeVille approached his public persona much like a method actor, losing himself in the character until he eventually emerged as that person. While many a rock n' roll star have employed characterizations as a mere theatrical ploy, Bowie wasn't derided for transforming himself from ragamuffin to the Thin White Duke. Likewise, neither did Kiss for their comic book character stage make-up, nor Madonna for her many transfigurations. And don't forget, even the rootsy John Mellencamp once called himself 'Cougar.' As it's been said, "It's all in the showbiz game," except as far as DeVille was concerned, this wasn't contrivance. So, did I find him pretentious? Not in the least. I like flamboyant people if there's substance to back them up, and DeVille certainly walked the talk. His theatrics may have occasionally been a bit over-the-top, but his music was always true and very, very honest, and that's the yardstick by which he should be measured and remembered.

Two more musical outings were to follow after his accident and personal upheaval, 'Crow Jane Alley' and 'Pistola.' Although DeVille had since returned to New York after a long absence, he carried the romance and feeling of the Southwest with him in these two stellar recordings that featured such established sidemen as Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello's band, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, jazz drummer, Alex Acuña, and the group, Quetzal. Bold and blazoned, the two LPs showed no sign of DeVille letting up in his creativity. The recordings featured several left turns including a few forays into country music, as well as evocative spoken word pieces like nothing the artist had ever done before. Richard Marcus again says: "(These are) not the type of albums you'd expect from as established a performer as Willy DeVille. Most people at his stage in their careers wouldn't be taking the risk of including unconventional pieces, but Willy has always marched to the beat of his own drummer. It's that willingness to take risks that keeps his music fresh and alive."

However, the hand of fate was not yet done with DeVille. While undergoing treatment for his hepatitis, it was also discovered that he had pancreatic cancer. That was in May of 2009. A short three months later on a sultry New York City summer night, Willy DeVille slipped away from this mortal coil just a few weeks shy of his 59th birthday. The date was August 06, and whether we here in the United States knew it or not, we had truly lost an American treasure.

The articulate Thom Jurek once again:

"Willy DeVille is America’s loss even if America doesn’t know it yet. The reason is simple: Like the very best rock & roll writers and performers in our history, he’s one of the very few who got it right. He understood what made a three-minute song great, and why it mattered — because it mattered to him. He lived and died with the audience in his shows, and he gave them something to remember when they left the theater, because he meant every single word of every song as he performed it. Europeans like that. In this jingoistic age of American pride, perhaps we can now revisit our own true love of rock & roll by discovering Willy DeVille for the first time — or, at the very least, remember him for what he really was: an American original. The mythos and pathos in his songs, his voice, and his performances were born in these streets and cities and then given to the world who appreciated him much more than we ever did."