Belfast Cowboy Van Morrison is still firing after 50 years

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Astral Weeks, and Van Morrison is about to release his 40th album, writes Richard Purden

The Prophet Speaks is Van Morrison’s 40th studio album and his fifth new release in just over two years. At 73 the singer affectionately known as the Belfast Cowboy is showing no signs of resting his trigger just yet.

Joining forces with jazz veteran Joey DeFrancesco and his band earlier this year they delivered You’re Driving Me Crazy which reshaped songs from Morrison’s back catalogue as well as several jazz and blues covers.

The Prophet Speaks leans heavier towards blues and features their take on John Lee Hooker’s classic ‘Dimples’. With Hooker back in 1997 the pair won a Grammy for Don’t Look Back.

“The only Grammies I’ve ever won are with other people,” says Morrison, looking somewhat miffed. As Ireland’s greatest living singer-songwriter it is perhaps a questionable situation.

“The other was with The Chieftains (Have I Told You) but I’ve not had one on my own. It’s weird; strange world that we live in!”

Elsewhere a raw, formidable version of ‘Worried Blues/Rollin’ and Tumblin’ by JD Harris will satisfy fans of the Northern Irishman’s former band Them.

“It’s hard to get that sound today,” says Morrison.

“Muddy Waters and Little Walter would use these very small amps that they would turn up full. You can’t do that with the amps of today; they are too big. When turning them up you get feedback that you don’t need but you can get a certain amount on the small amps where there’s not the same static so you get the sound.”

Morrison clinks his tea-cup as the autumn splendour of the grounds of the luxury Culloden Hotel near Belfast sprawl out behind him.

It is here where the singer spends much of his time when not touring; staying close to his roots in East Belfast is good for song-writing.

He admits it was important to get back to writing original material such as ‘Spirit Will Provide’ a song that “changes the dynamic” while returning to more ethereal themes. “There’s nothing new. It goes back to ‘Into The Mystic’ and various things I’ve written so it’s new and old; there’s a thread which is ongoing.”

Similarly, ‘Got To Go Where The Love Is’, with its gospel warmth is as melodic as anything in his back catalogue.

“I was going for a Bobby Bland angle. Lyrically it’s about the way human beings are the lyrics say it all.”

While Morrison shared the cover space with DeFrancesco on the previous album this time it features an influence from his childhood in the form of a puppet.

“It’s from a radio show (Educating Archie) a long time ago. We were going to do it before but couldn’t get the right dummy of Archie Andrews but we found the guy who had the original from the radio programme.

I liked the idea of a radio ventriloquist — the title is a play on that.

CATCH THE FEELING

Earlier in the week at Belfast’s Europa Hotel I had watched Morrison engage freely in the kind of street singing with DeFrancesco that he enjoyed watching when growing up in East Belfast. “It’s spontaneous but in the drawing of where we are gong. It’s not totally ad-libbed, we’ve got some ad-libbed versions of songs in the set, some other versions are mostly worked out before.”

For Morrison it is all about catching a feeling, it’s how he came to understand music in Belfast listening to blues and jazz in smoky record shops with his father and uncle as far back as 1955. Read any critique of Astral Weeks and it will likely have the writer discussing what this music makes them feel as if the record has a life-force of its own. This week (Nov 29) marked the 50th anniversary of the album described by Bruce Springsteen as having “a sense of the divine”. 

Morrison is quick to dismiss an ever-growing legend around the work today. “I wrote it when I was a teenager but I didn’t record it until 1968. Some of it was recorded with Bert Berns but it never came out because the songs weren’t right. There’s all this mythology about it but a lot of the record was written between 1964 and ’66.

Some of the songs were longer, others were edited down — that album went through many forms. When the record did come out I was just 23, I thought I was being cutting edge and pushing the envelope for that time but by 1968 it was all over.

The conditions set upon Morrison undoubtedly added an intensity to the work during a period of austerity. “I was a hungry young guy, I was starving, sleeping on couches and doing albums on a low budget, it was a lot of hardship which I don’t even like to think about now. In the old days I was putting out two albums a year because otherwise I couldn’t survive. Warner Brothers were getting all the songs and publishing.

“Now it depends on what I want to say at the time, my relationship with a song and who is recording with me. My writing is just a continuous thing. There is always stuff being written and demoed in the background but now it’s just stuff I want to put out, it’s not a knee jerk reaction anymore. Some of the songs on Versatile (2017) were recorded ten years ago but we decided to put it out last year.”

ULSTER SCOT

Drawing on his Ulster Scots roots the album featured Morrison’s idiosyncratic take on the ‘Skye Boat Song’.

“I heard that when I was a kid, the melody fits in with my style of playing, it’s an unusual arrangement. I got the idea to do it in 3/4 time and it just evolved from that beat and arrangement.”

Five albums in just over two years is a significant amount of work. While Morrison is quick to point out some of the work goes back ten years the amount of quality on offer is worthy of attention.

“It’s something you do that’s normal,” he says with some pragmatism. “When you’ve been doing it a long time it’s nothing special, when you start out it is but you soon get over all that in a couple of years.

There’s a lot of mythology but you just do it, it’s not an analytical thing. If you think about it, it’s gone.

The Prophet Speaks is released next Friday, December 7


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