Van Morrison - vocals, guitar, sax, harmonica; Dennis Langevin - guitar; Mario Cipollina - bass; John Farey - keyboards; Brian Hogan - tenor sax; Johnny Colla - alto sax; Bill Gibson - drums
One of the most enigmatic songwriters of our time, Van Morrison first gained recognition as the lead singer of the Northern Irish band Them, writing their seminal 1964 hit "Gloria." When Morrison began pursuing his own career in the late 1960s, he began a long journey down one of the most idiosyncratic musical paths in history, becoming one of the most distinctive and influential vocalists in all of modern music. His synthesis of folk, blues, jazz, and Celtic influences is utterly unique. Although stylistically diverse, Morrison's greatest songs fall into two loosely defined categories: his popular hits, such as "Brown Eyed Girl," "Moondance," "Domino," and "Wild Night" are tightly structured around the stylistic conventions of American soul and R&B; but an equal and more compelling catalogue consists of spiritually-inspired forays into Celtic tradition, jazz, and stream-of-consciousness narrative, such as his second album Astral Weeks and lesser-known works like Veedon Fleece. Hypnotic, meditative, and uniquely powerful, Morrison's music has always defied classifications. Morrison is a true innovator that has produced one of the most spiritually transcendent bodies of work of any musician of the rock era.
In 1974, at the time of this intimate club performance, Morrison had recently recorded one of the most introspective and ambitious albums of his career, Veedon Fleece. He had also completed a European tour, including a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival days before, and had just returned home to California. His double live album, It's Too Late To Stop Now, which had been recorded the previous year, was receiving ecstatic reviews, but despite having performed for nearly 10 years, Morrison began experiencing stage fright. Still compelled to perform, he had begun gigging in local clubs, regaining his ability to connect with an audience. This performance, recorded at the Orphanage in San Francisco before an intimate audience, was his final club gig. To preserve the moment for posterity, the evening was filmed with a half dozen song excerpts being televised on the local PBS station. These broadcast excerpts have been treasured by collectors ever since, and have been bootlegged extensively, but here for the first time ever is the complete show, containing all 13 songs performed at the late show that memorable evening.
With a new, young band comprised of the members of Soundhole, Morrison kicks off the show playing sax on the stormy "Heathrow Shuffle" before belting out "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" (one of the many highlights of It's Too Late To Stop Now). A double dose of Hard Nose The Highway tracks follows, with relaxed takes on "Warm Love" and "Snow In San Anselmo." Over the course of the next hour, Morrison delivers an intriguing cross section of material, including songs from the recent live album (a threatening cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me" and the brassy "I Believe To My Soul); a pair of classics from the Moondance album (the ethereal "Into The Mystic" and an extended improvisation on the title track); and an unusual cover, "Foggy Mountain Top" aka "T For Texas," just for fun. Throughout, Morrison punches out his vocals like a honking saxophone, regularly leaning on blues- and jazz-based variations. When words are inadequate he scat sings both melody and rhythm.
However, it is the final half hour of this set, most of which has never been heard by non-attendees, that is most captivating. "Street Choir," which can be perceived as a self-defining song for this group of musicians, is taken at a slower tempo, sounding simmering and sultry. Then comes "Listen To The Lion," the tour-de-force performance of the evening. Here Morrison begins truly channeling the whims of his own muse, connecting the mythic power of his musical vision and his incendiary vocal delivery. Near the end, his spiraling repetitions of whispers and wails bypass language altogether, articulating emotion beyond the scope of any literal meaning.
To end the set, Morrison and the band deliver a smoldering take on "I've Been Working," with Morrison sounding as happy as he ever has and with the group creating a glorious rush of sound behind him. The crowd clamors for more and Morrison obliges by returning to the stage for a thoroughly engaging encore romp through "I Just Want To Make Love To You" that proves his harp blowing to be as original as his vocal delivery. This ends the night and concludes the club-gigging phase of Morrison's career.
Morrison's moodiness has been well documented, and tales of his frustration with his audience, his band, and himself are plentiful. While this performance is quite strong, occasionally brilliant, what becomes clear is that the audience's enjoyment is irrelevant. Morrison employs the audience, the repertoire, and the artistic craftsmanship of his band to create an environment that ultimately makes his time on stage a rewarding and cathartic experience for him alone. Notoriously difficult and eccentric, this approach to performing and Morrison's rejection of commercial trends and industry fashions has barred him from superstar recognition, but has gained him a large and dedicated cult following that has endured throughout his prolific career.