Van Morrison Must Never Die, and a New Live Collection Reminds Us Why

I really like McDonald's french fries. They're hot, small, salty, and basically all the same. There's no element of surprise in them and, with apologies to potatoes, little residual physiological value. But I like them nonetheless, because I know exactly what I'm getting, and what I'm getting is unchallenging and tasty — two adjectives that could be used to describe much of what's in heavy rotation on commercial FM radio today.

New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook explores this aural ecosystem in great depth in his latest book, The Song Machine. If some verbiage in the preceding sentence sounds overly scientific, that's because pop music has followed suit, thanks in large part to Swedish studio maestros like Max Martin. Taylor Swift might write her own lyrics, but the beats and melodies on 1989, the most recent Grammy winner for Album of the Year, are precisely bioengineered to addict listeners in the same manner that McDonald's reels in regulars. It's impossible to stop at one fry, just as it's impossible to turn "Blank Space" off even though you've heard it a hundred times. The sonic components deliver pleasure in a scheme similar to crack cocaine, and leave you sprinting back to the dealer once the high wears off.

While he supplied plenty of pleasure, Prince Rogers Nelson never resorted to such shallow tactics. So omnivorous was Prince's musical appetite that many of his songs were rendered virtually unlistenable for all but his most devoted acolytes. But when they hit the mark, they were downright transcendental. The same cannot be said for anything off 1989.

Enter October's Desert Trip Festival in Indio, California. All of the artists (Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, et. al.) headlining the event are a good deal older than Prince was when he died, which I think is an unspoken factor in the manic pace at which tickets are selling. With artists this unique and influential, there's really nobody waiting in the wings to fill the void — only a permanent hole. When your father dies, there isn't a replacement dad to pick up where he left off. He's just gone.

Such trepidation gives the title of Van Morrison’s peerless live CD, It's Too Late to Stop Now (originally released in 1974), added heft as three additional volumes become available on June 10. The set, culled from from a trio of intimate 1973 shows in California and England, includes a live concert DVD shot at London's Rainbow Room, where Morrison is joined by an 11-piece band that features a string quintet.

Morrison dubbed his accomplices The Caledonia Soul Orchestra, a moniker that sounds tongue-in-cheek. It isn't, as proven toward the end of the fourth volume's version of "Caravan." Here, Morrison repeatedly sings, "So you know it's got soul" while backed exclusively by the string section. He had horns at his disposal — drums, piano, and guitars, too. These are the generally accepted instruments of soul. Yet Morrison, a soul singer if you had to pigeonhole him, sidelined them for violin and cello.

Onstage, the 5'5" Morrison emerges wearing white pants, a wide-collared shirt and a blue ascot, his face almost instantly beading with sweat. A famously mercurial and socially awkward live performer, Morrison mostly holds his microphone stand with one hand and snaps with the other, either keeping his eyes shut or staring at the ground. Morrison’s famously antsy on-stage demeanor and genre-exploding compositions — which frequently stuff jazz, R&B, and rock into a mere minute of music — are angular and jarring in the best way possible, the polar opposite of the modern song machine (or McDonald's fries, for that matter). His creations stick with you; it's no accident that tracks like "Into the Mystic" are such first-dance staples at weddings. People want their most memorable moments marked by music that evokes their fullest self. And, thankfully, that music will live on, even if the artists won't.
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Mike Seely
Contact: Mike Seely