Van Morrison – Talking To The Spirit (Magic Moon 2002)

Talking To The Spirit (Magic Moon 2002)

Tracks 1-14 from Ulster Hall, Belfast, 15-9-1988, tracks 15-20 from Colrain University, 20-4-1988.

TRACKLISTING:  Tore Down à la Rimbaud, In the Garden, Rave On John Donne, Did Ye Get Healed?, Star of the County Down, She Moved Through The Fair, Tá Mo Chleamhnas Déanta, I´ll tell Me Ma, Carrickfergus, Celtic Ray, Marie´s Wedding, Boffyflow and Spike, Goodnight Irene, Moondance, (BONUS tracks -Van with Derek Bell:) T for Texas, When I was a Cowboy, A Sense of Wonder, Celtic Ray, In The Garden, Raglan Road, Send In the Clowns (with Chet Baker), Celtic Spring (1997 B-side)

There are not many silver CD releases concentrating on Van Morrison´s prolific collaborations with the Chieftains. This is in itself a real pity, if one considers the importance that Van´s exchange with them has had through the years, even producing a classic oficial album (“Irish Heartbeat”, from 1988). A great exception to this rule was, for a time, the Moontunes release “Dark Knight of the Soul”, which included a concert form Van´s 1988 tour with the Chieftains. That release has acquired a kind of cult following among Van collectors; like most releases from the Moontunes label, however, it has become quite difficult to find through the years. At one point in the beginning of the nineties, I am quite sure that I had in my hands another silver CD containing that same concert, this time under the title “Songs of Innocence” and beautifully decorated with motifs and paintings by William Blake, one of Van´s favourite poets. I do not think, however, that it was published by any popular or recognisable professional label.

The CD we are presenting here, “Talking to the Spirit” is nothing more, but also nothing less, than a silver CD re-release of the material that was included in “Dark Knight of the Soul”; it was released by the Magical Moon label (completely unknown to me) and, for those who cannot get their hands on that older release, it will be a very  worthwhile addition to their Van collection. The material from “Dark Knight”…has just been reproduced here without any remastering, but the sound quality was quite good to begin (this was a broadcast performance) and makes for a very worthwhile, enjoyable listening experience.

The concert recorded here took place in the Ulster Hall of Belfast, on the 15th of September, 1988. In this particular tour Van usually performed a short set with his own band (Artie McGlynn on guitar, Clive Culbertson on bass, Richie Buckley on sax and Dave Early on drums) before being joined on stage by the Chieftains, whose line-up at that moment consisted of Paddy Moloney on uileann pipes and tin whistle, Derek Bell on harp and keyboards, Matt Molloy on flute, Martin Fay and Sean Keane on fiddles, and Kevin Conneef on percussion and vocals. Unless I am wrong, the very versatile chieftain Derek Bell himself was usually on stage with Van and his band from the very beginning, playing keyboards for the early part of the show. This recording does not include the whole of Van´s  solo spot on that particular night in Belfast; it opens in between proceedings, with a powerhouse performance of  “Tore Down A la Rimbaud”, where Van appears in full form, roaring his soul out; although the sound of the band appears a bit too thin as compared to previous and later incarnations of the Man´s backing band. The subdued accompaniment of this small band is much better suited to Van´s intimate rendering of “In the Garden”, that follows immediately afterwards. The text of “Rave on John Donne” is recited quickly as an introduction to the soulful “Did you get Healed”, which features good work on the saxophone by Richie Buckley.  

But the real excitement comes with track number five, which corresponds to the moment when all of the Chieftains finally enter the stage and fill it up completely with their joyfulness and vitality. The opening salve comes with “Star of the County Down”, which despite its brilliance is interpreted a bit too quickly; I have heard several live renditions of this song by Van, with and without the Chieftains, and he and the band always seem to get too carried away by the song and to accelerate the rhythm too much, instead of trying to reproduce the brooding, stable mid-tempo of the original. What is clear is that, form this moment onwards, Van sounds positively vigorous and energetic; the leading chieftain Paddy Moloney keeps on introducing the various pieces and acting as a master of ceremonies, always communicating his infectious enthusiasm. Most of the arrangements for this set are very similar to those in the “Irish Hearbeat” album, but with the added energy that the Chieftains always project into their live performances.

The celtic-folk spirit of the tour fully materialises in a beautiful, haunting performance of “Tá Mo Chleamhnas Déanta”, a traditional Irish piece where Van alternates his lines with those sung by Kevin Conneef; both of them are in fact singing the same lyrics, but Kevin does it in Gaelic and Van in English, and both join forces in the chorus. The result is a moving exchange between these two very different singers, a vibrant interaction full of feeling and delicacy. Another powerful performance comes with the slow-moving, solemn “Carrickfergus”, with the twin fiddles of Martin Fay and Sean Keane underlining Van´s recitation of this majestic traditional melody. The presence of Van´s own electric band backing the Chieftains becomes more evident in the following number, “Celtic Ray”, originally included in the “Beautiful Vision” album, and which can be seen as one of the undoubted highlights of the evening: a wonderful combination of folk instruments and electric arrangements, with the singer on top form and communicating all his emotion. The lively jigs and reels of “Marie´s Wedding” and “Boffyflow and Spike” lead the concert towards its culmination; one can hear Paddy Moloney, unable to restrain himself, whooping and cheering along as he drives the performance onwards with his uileann pipes. The final number is “Moondance”, as well befits a Van Morrison concert; but of course here the jazzy drive of the original has been replaced by a lively jig rhythm; a reel-like adaptation of the song´s melody frames Van´s interpretation of it, with the fiddles, flute and pipes filling all the sonic space. It´s an extrordinary climax: this is classic Morrison material being turned into real, genuine Irish folk.        

Anyone might think that this concert is in itself makes this CD worth acquiring,  and they would be right. But the real gems in this release are to be found in tracks 15 to 20, which in fact document another occasion: an intimate duo performance at Colrain University (on the 20th of April of 1988) by Van Morrison and Derek Bell, the unforgettable harpist and pianist of the Chieftains, who sadly passed away in 2002. This performance includes two brief readings of the country classics “T for Texas” and “When I Was a Cowboy”, brightly led along by Derek Bell´s piano; but the really spine-tingling moments come with the versions of “A Sense of Wonder”, “Celtic Ray”, “In the Garden”, and “Raglan Road”. Even if you are only a casual Van Morrison fan, you are going to treasure these pieces: they show a very intimate side of Van, who, over the gorgeous piano decorations by Bell, gets a chance to phrase the words to all these songs delicately and clearly, with a concentrated passion, a quiet intensity. The CD also includes, as a final bonus, Van´s version of “Send in the Clowns”, from a 1986 session with Chet Baker (which has been abundantly bootlegged in the past) and the bouncy “Celtic Spring” (taken from a single b-side from 1997, it´s not unreleased, as it says incorrectly on the cover).              

Whether one acquires this music in this particular CD or in its previous  presentations in silver is only a matter of preference for the aesthetics and packaging. What is clear, in any case, is that this is a set of songs and performances (especially the session with Derek Bell) that is absolutely indispensable to anyone who has any appreciation of the musical art of Van the Man, especially in its most openly Celtic incarnation.            

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