Suddenly, we’re in 1994 (Spoiler alert, the pace is going to pick up now; I may pause to debate why that is at some point). There was a lot of music in my life during the three years I’ve just cheerfully skipped over, but I no longer felt at the forefront of what was going on. Madchester and the rave scene pretty much passed me by; I did like some of what I was hearing, but somewhere around turning 30, my musical interests changed. I branched out into classical, and would listen to Radio 3 on the way home more often than not. Being in close proximity to London meant I could go to the occasional Prom (and wonder how all those people with season tickets were able to go night after night); I gradually replaced many of the albums I’d sold on CD, and I started that slow merge into middle age by shaking my head sadly at the seemingly repetitive and unimaginative music I was hearing elsewhere.
The other thing which happened, as I slowly developed some kind of disposable income, was that I began to explore the back catalogues of artists I knew I ought to like, but had never quite got round to.
In my first few years at Ferrero, I worked for a seemingly endless stream of managers. Some left and moved on to other things, some moved around the company as it grew and figured out how to expand into the kind of company the Ferrero family imagined for the UK. It was a somewhat bewildering time in my professional life, as there was to a degree an empty canvas for me to figure out what I wanted to do.
Officially, Sales Operations was about providing the tools for the sales team to work with; in reality that meant an unending series of opportunities to develop not only brochures and flyers, point of sale materials and business reports, but also the newly emerging technologies, which I suddenly, and perhaps to my slight surprise, gravitated to.
If we were going to give our salespeople laptops and handheld devices (there was a period where we went through Apple Newtons and Palm Pilots, before laptop technology caught up with what we needed it to do), there was going to have to be someone in the office who knew how it all worked, and who could explain that to people whose primary function was to drive around asking people to buy things.
Yes, of course we had an IT department, and technically, that kind of thing was their responsibility, but I wormed myself in alongside them, and became the person who understood both sides of the coin. It took a few more years for me to officially move in to IT, but it was a big part of my job from the first few months at Ferrero, and – somewhat belatedly – I discovered the thing I was actually good at.
I’m old enough now that I enjoy making my younger colleagues groan with my tales of how it was in the old days, but those days instilled in me a sense that anything is possible in a growing company if you have a vision and the patience to explain it to those higher up the food chain. We figured out a lot of innovative stuff in the 1990s, and had a lot of fun doing it, even if maybe half of it worked as intended.
My job seemed to change every six months or so, but I was always able to hang on to the bits of it which properly interested me, and shake off the things which didn’t; I ran a telesales team for a few months at one point, for example, which really wasn’t my thing at all. Thankfully, that passed into other, more capable, hands, and I was free to send myself on training courses, and burrow ever deeper into the IT team.
Anyway, managers. The Sales Operations function was passed around for a while – I had a period working for the IT director, while having no official IT responsibilities – but I eventually ended up back in Sales, where my responsibilities came down to dealing with technology, and developing business reporting. My Sales Director came to rely on my numbers to the extent that I was regularly hauled into the Monday board meetings to explain what was going on. In return, I began – mainly out of politeness at first – to take note of his Van Morrison obsession. I started to explore the back catalogue of an artist I’d had plenty of opportunity to hear before, but who had mainly passed me by.
I wasn’t sure that I was convinced by him for a long time, until one week in the early summer of 1994, when I was sent up to Scotland to test some reporting tools.
I say ‘sent’; I now wonder if I volunteered to go up, see my family, and then spend a few days driving slowly back south, visiting every Co-op, Kwik Save and Shoprite store in the Borders before heading home.
The ostensible reason for my driving tour of the borders was that Ferrero was testing a new chilled product, the altogether unconvincing Kinder Milk Slice, and I was working on ways of measuring and reporting not only the extremely short shelf life, but also the distribution in what was a new area for us – the discount supermarket.
I’ve deleted a whole essay here about how Kwik Save and Shoprite were the precursors of Aldi and Lidl; be grateful I did.
The net result was that I had a couple of days trundling around in the borders – the TV campaign we were testing was exclusively broadcast on Border TV, which was still a thing at that time. I had a blast, working on primitive spreadsheets, and using little more than my wits and the position of the sun in the sky to figure out where the next shop was. All I lacked was some music to listen to.
I stopped in Edinburgh – I think at the Virgin megastore in the Gyle shopping centre – and quickly scanned the racks. I had a CD player in the car by now (how far I had come up in the world!), so I was able to choose whatever I wanted, and spotted a Van Morrison live album. ‘ah, well’, I remember thinking, ‘maybe it’s time to figure out what all the fuss is about’.
There are better-regarded Van Morrison live albums, and several of the studio albums are genuine masterpieces, but none of his albums resonate with me the way this one does, because whenever I hear it, I’m returned to that first time, driving from Peebles to Galashiels to Kelso to Hawick and on to places I hadn’t properly heard of, finally connecting with all this spectacular music, and thinking “oh, now I get it”.
Over the years, A Night in San Francisco became our ‘driving home late at night’ music – something about it is perfectly suited to purring along country roads in the dark, and this found its culmination many years later when we drove back from San Francisco to our hotel in the Mill Valley, zooming over the Golden Gate Bridge in sight of the place where this was recorded, singing along to ‘Tupelo Honey’.
So, it went on my list without hesitation, and I’ve been looking forward to writing about it since the beginning of this process. The one small thing I overlooked was that it’s well over two hours of music, and even I will be struggling to find new ways of saying that I particularly like the way the music does this or that by the time we get to the end.
So this is definitely not a track-by-track review; more a kind of edited highlights package from the punchy saxophone intro of Did Ye Get Healed all the way to the loose and indulgent guest-filled encores.
The album was recorded on the tour to support Too Long in Exile, which is an album of exploration of blues and jazz, and some of the collaborators on that album such as Georgie Fame and John Lee Hooker, came along for the tour, and no doubt influenced some of the loose and free playing, which extends to the seemingly spontaneous (but no doubt carefully planned) excursions from Morrison songs into the songs of his youth and back again which make this so irresistible.
The first part is fairly straightforward – some Morrison ‘deep cuts’ interspersed with a medley where It’s All in the Game eventually bleeds into Make it Real One More Time. The highlight of the early songs is undoubtedly the explosive start to Did Ye Get Healed, but it’s all joyful and straightforward.
Then there’s a second medley; the band merge Vanlose Stairway into Trans-Euro Train and introduce guest singers – only later do we find out who else is singing, but the contrast with Van’s familiar smoky growl works really well, with Morrison name-checking Sam Cooke and Ray Charles before fading into a quick excerpt of Charles’ A Fool For You. This sets the template for pretty much the rest of the album, as we either get Brian Kennedy (so that’s who it was) singing a Van Morrison song, or the band stomping their way through a headspinning run of classics – some appear only as snatches of melody; others – like Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again) – given the full treatment.
Van brings his daughter Shana on for a duet with Kennedy, during which he apparently wanders offstage to let his band get on with it (they seem to do just fine without him), and we head into the more mellow part of the first disc as each guest and member of the band is introduced and given a chance to shine.
The medleys keep coming – the second half of the first disc is as much a quick potted history of the blues as it is a Van Morrison album, and everyone is clearly having a blast keeping up with whichever blues standard Van feels like playing next.
There’s even a – possibly unplanned – burst of Green Onions in there somewhere, while Jimmy Witherspoon and Junior Wells help out and make the whole thing sound like an end of the tour party, before we are reminded who we’ve come to see by a side-ending double of Tupelo Honey and Moondance – the latter interpolated with My Funny Valentine, because why not?
Over an hour in, this would have been plenty for most live albums, but we’re only halfway through.
By this time, I’m almost certainly in Duns or Coldstream, peering at the shopfronts to see if I can spot the Co-op, but caring little if I’m successful, as I’m enjoying this way too much.
The second disc starts with Georgie Fame Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid while Van takes another break, before returning for another of those deep cuts – It Fills You Up – which were giving me so many albums to uncover. From here, it’s medleys all the way, as more and more guests arrive to perform blues and soul standards with the occasional Van Morrison song here and there. The man himself hands over singing duties to his guests from time to time, and evidently goes off to watch from the wings every now and then. It all thunders along magnificently, and there’s a genuine sense of fun as even the famously hard-to-please Van Morrison seems to be enjoying his band. The end comes with about 45 minutes of music still to go, as everyone tries to outdo each other through an extended, never-ending encore, but the real high point is still to come.
There’s a version of So Quiet in Here which is so laid-back as to be positively horizontal, which slides imperceptibly into Sam Cooke’s That’s Where it’s At, and everyone takes a deep breath.
Then without warning, the band launch into an irresistibly high-energy, uptempo version of In The Garden, and I remember pulling over so I could listen to it properly; it turns a meditative and spiritual song into a proper barn-burner, careering through snippets of Real Real Gone, You Send Me, and even Allegheny before hurtling into the conclusive ‘No Guru, No Method, No Teacher’ line delivered as a rousing singalong chant.
Every time I listen to this, possibly my favourite version of my favourite Van Morrison song, I’m transported back to that extraordinary first time – hearing a song I was aware of as something contemplative and calm reinvented as a rabble-rousing call to arms. There is no way not to sing along with the ending – if I hadn’t quite been sold on Van up to that point, there was no turning back after this.
Oh, now I get it.
To be honest, I could live without the straightforward rendition of Have I Told You Lately? which follows; it seems to drain a lot of the energy which then has to be restored during actual set-closer Gloria which gets exactly the treatment you’d expect at the end of such a free-form and energetic performance; everyone – even saxophonist Candy Dulfer – encouraged to step up and add something to a song which fits right in with all those older blues numbers.
It’s a huge beast of a thing, this album, and there are easier ways to get to know Van Morrison, but surely none which are as much straightforward fun.
And, yes, I’m just ignoring the more recent fuss about Van’s political opinions. Sometimes, you just have to set those things aside and listen to the music.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Ah, where to start? It’s fair to say that not every Morrison works equally well, and the most famous ones like Veedon Fleece or St. Dominic’s Preview; Astral Weeks or Moondance are famous for a reason. But I’ll also suggest later albums like Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. And I retain a soft spot for the pair of Avalon Sunset and Days Like This. I’ll admit to not having heard much of the more recent albums, but those should get you going.
Compilations to consider?
The first two Best Of albums cover a lot of ground, and will give the casual listener pointers to where they should go next.
Astonishingly, this isn’t widely regarded as the best of them, although I disagree. Too Late to Stop Now and Live at the Grand Opera House, Belfast are also excellent. Neither of them has the same effect on me as this, though.
There’s no definitive biography, although there ought to be. You should watch Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, though – it’s shot through with Van Morrison music which is perfectly pitched, if not always chronologically accurate.