2012-16 As we sailed ‘Into The Mystic’

I have always loved singing Van Morrison songs and have even recorded a few on various albums over the years. Singing the songs from the ‘Astral Weeks’ album has almost been like a meditation for me. Astral Weeks was recorded in 1968 and featured some of New York’s top jazz musicians like Richard Davis on bass and Connie Kay from Modern Jazz Quartet on drums. There is something about connecting with those songs that transports me to another place. When I recorded my first solo album, ‘Holywell’ I wanted to create an album of songs that would in some way effect listeners in the way that Astral Weeks effected me. In many ways that was my benchmark. I can’t say whether I succeeded or not but I think ‘Holywell’ has a particular charm that has created listening pleasure for a lot of people over several decades and continues to do so.
Sometimes when I am trying to write songs I will strike up a few Morrison favourites for inspiration and I never seem to tire of these songs.

While Van Morrison was in New York recording Astral Weeks, I was settling into my new life in Australia and as I have mentioned before, I was hit by a severe case of ‘culture shock’ as life in Australia was so very different to the life I had come from. On first arrival I remember walking down George St in Sydney and observing men in business shirts and ties, short pants and long socks topped off by the iconic Akubra hat, I was immediately struck by the idea that I might have landed on another planet. I walked into a bar and ordered a pint of beer only to be told I could have a ‘schooner’, which on my planet was a sailing ship. Being as it was autumn in Sydney and hotter than the hottest Irish summers day could ever get, I was very thirsty and downed the beer very quickly. The ‘brainfreeze’ that hit me almost caused me to collapse on the floor as I have never experienced a beer chilled to that subarctic temperature, they even chilled the glasses. Mind you since then I have learnt to appreciate the joy of a nice cold beer on a hot day.

I went back to Ireland in 1969 and was welcomed by all my old school friends who were by now at Queens University Belfast or The Royal College of the arts. The one predominant thing I remember from those heady days was that ‘Astral Weeks’ rarely left the turntable. The lyrics spoke of people in Belfast, they spoke of places we all knew.
 
“Well I’m caught one more time, up on Cyprus Avenue” ….. (Cyprus Avenue)

“run that train from Dublin up the Sandy Row” …..(Madam George)
 
“little Jimmy’s gone, away out on the backstreets” (Beside You)

We walked along ‘Cyprus Avenue’, I was born and lived my early years on ‘The Sandy Row’. I ran and played in those back streets as a wee lad. This is where we lived, these songs were about our lives and us and they spoke to us. We didn’t have to borrow from someone else’s culture, as this was our own. That’s how it felt to us anyway.

Sometimes I get asked in interviews, why I do a Van Morrison show and what sets my show apart from others. My answer is there in the previous paragraph. I feel that I bring an authenticity that others may not have access to.

I must say that I have never been particularly enamored by the idea of a tribute band or the general concept of covers bands on the whole and for most of my career I have not had to pursue that as an option. However a while back a guitarist singer friend of mine, Gary Young who I had played with a few times in the Glen Shorrock band, called me and said “If you are not doing anything on Thursday night, would you like to come and fill in on a shitty gig for crap money?’ Well, clearly it was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I was free, so off I went bass and amp in hand to do the gig. Now around this time an idea was forming in my head. I had had this vivid dream where I was on a concert stage sitting on a stool playing an acoustic guitar with a band and a string section singing a song from Astral Weeks ‘Madam George’. The dream was very clear and intense and the audience were really focused on the lyrics and completely transported with me to ‘that place’. It was so beautiful and I wished that I could do that. So I started thinking about how I could make it happen. I got help from some great friends Maireid Sullivan and Ben Kettlewell, who produced and directed their own DVDs and they put together a video presentation of the idea for me to try and fund the project. http://vimeo.com/28436412 I wanted to take an audience on a journey through my experience of growing up in Northern Ireland in the early sixties with all the commotion of the civil rights marches, IRA bombings, social unrest and to the soundtrack of those incredible Van Morrison songs. I wanted to use a backdrop of videos and images and creative lighting to help the story unfold. To do this properly of course I would need substantial backing. My idea was to raise interest, get funding through grants or donations, arrange, rehearse, direct and launch it on a concert stage…………  Bada Bing, Bada Boom. It was a great but ambitious idea.
During one of the breaks at the gig I was telling Gary about my idea and he said “Why don’t you start a smaller version of this idea with us?” I had to think about it as it didn’t fit entirely with my ‘big’ plan but it would mean that I could start working on it immediately even though it was in such a small way. So Gary, Cres Crisp on keys and Anny Remsnik on BVs and percussion and myself started working on the songs. Right from the first rehearsal we could tell there was the basis of something really special developing. At one of the early rehearsals we were playing ‘Ballarina’(from Astral Weeks) which is a very emotive song and right away I could sense ‘that feeling’ rising and causing me to have some difficulty singing and not get swept away by the intensity of the emotion. I looked around the room and everyone had tears in their eyes. We were all slightly embarrassed by our show of emotion, a bit like being caught crying in a movie, but it was so powerful and I remember saying  “If we can get an audience to feel like this, then our show will be a knockout.”
So we started with our little 4 piece and the first gigs were so well received and the audiences did seem to experience ‘that feeling’ and appeared to be suitably transported.
We added drums it got better, then we added brass, better again and we added even more brass, better still. I had no idea that it would be so well received by the public. Pretty much everywhere we play sells out a month or so before the gig. The great thing about it is that it is a work in progress. I still have my eyes on the dream of the big concert stage, the band and the string section. It is almost like that dream I had was a vision that was sent for me to know what I was working towards. It is a work in progress.

And so we sail on Into The Mystic.