The Music Of Van Morrison, Carnegie Hall, March 21, 2019

A Tribute To Van Morrison, Carnegie Hall, 21 March 2019

The Music Of Van Morrison, Carnegie Hall, March 21, 2019

As a veteran of many a Michael Dorf-organized tribute evening at Carnegie Hall, the Van Morrison encomium this past Thursday stands out as not just one of the best, but also one of the most memorable, and absolutely one of the most transcendent. These are always enjoyable evenings, but they are not always remarkable. The fact that this year’s tribute was so solid was due to a combination of the strength of the acts on the bill, the material they chose, the quality of the performances, and definitely a deft hand in the running order.

There are many flavors of interpretation: deconstruct it, stay faithful to it, learn it, or know it. At many of these tribute evenings, there are artists who pick a song and learn it and perform it well enough, but it doesn’t necessarily add anything to the conversation. “Knowing it” is about connection and some kind of intangible force that lets the artist pull something through, whether it’s emotion or a mixture of qualities that are inherent in the piece. It isn’t about effort necessarily, either. It is most often the act of donning something familiar. They have made it familiar, by years of study, by repetition, by hours lying on your back staring at the ceiling with a song on repeat, with the headphones on until you fall asleep. They are going back and capturing that moment when they heard it for the first time or understood it for the first time or that instant where they connected with something and their hair stood on end or they thought, I am not the only person who feels like this or were immersed in the belief that everything was going to be all right. There was a lot of this general mysticism Thursday night, which, of course, makes all the sense in the world.

The night came out of the gate strong and built up from there, but not in a obvious sense: Brian Fallon was the first act, with the likes of Shawn Colvin (joined by Marc Cohen) shortly thereafter. The run of show was built more on a balance of the material rather than star power (although to be fair, there is usually that consideration in the setlist, not always to the best results.).

Also, much of the evening’s quality standard had to do with the foundational solidity of the source material. You can fuck up the Stones, say, or the Who, and it’ll be largely okay, but you cannot fuck up Van Morrison and escape unscathed. There is not really anywhere to go and hide in his songs. The closest to a throwaway in the catalog is probably the likes of “Domino” or “Brown Eyed Girl.” On the other hand, you can go too deep, or pick the wrong song, or not quite land the interpretation. This did not happen at all Thursday night. I cannot say this about, say, the Prince or Bowie tributes, even, and I have still not forgiven the inclusion of “The Jersey Boys” at the Springsteen tribute.

I like Van Morrison because I am not an uncultured savage, but I am not anywhere near a Van Morrison diehard. So I was less emotionally invested in the output of the evening, I wasn’t going to be offended by a less than stellar rendition of a deep cut. But that didn’t happen. The worst we got was Richard Marx rendering “Domino” toothless, and even that wasn’t horrible because the house band--featuring Tony Garnier, Steve Jordan, Smokey Hormel and Leon Pendarvis and the horns from Antibalas--was (unsurprisingly) fantastic. I wish Todd Rundgren had done something more complex than “Brown Eyed Girl” but Todd absolutely sold “Brown Eyed Girl,” my least favorite Van Morrison song.

The best moments at these tribute evenings for me are the artists you’re unfamiliar or less acquainted with, and they turn out a performance that knocks your socks off. Robert Earl Keen turned “Wild Night” into a Texarkana hoedown, Anderson East sang “Purple Heather” like it was a brand new song, the Resistance Revival Chorus strode onstage in all white and delivered “Days Like This” like we were in church, and Amy Helm was the den mother gently guiding the teens from Little Kids Rock, who absolutely blew the doors down on “If I Ever Needed Someone.” (Everyone likes to see the kids; everyone is always forgiving of the kids--the kids required no forgiveness and got a well-deserved standing ovation this year.)

Thursday night, even the artists you expected would be enjoyable, or at least competent, delivered something beyond that. Shawn Colvin on “Tupelo Honey” felt like a gimme--she could probably sing it in her sleep--but she sold the hell out of that song. Marc Cohn joined her for “Into The Mystic” and there was something profound, and unexpectedly deep in that moment. Josh Ritter is always a trouper at these things, but the polish with which he delivered “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” (from Veedon Fleece, a record I am deeply familiar with due to a babysitter’s affinity for that 8-track and my mom’s newish stereo) was a cut above even for him.

But it was the last eight artists where the energy bubbled out from underneath the pot lid. Carnegie Hall is not a friendly room for rock and roll; it is also slightly intimidating even to artists who play regularly to larger clouds. It is always interesting to see who figures out how to work with the space, how to not be afraid of the room, how to manipulate the acoustics. Starting with Low Cut Connie, where from the instant of that first bass note (thank you, Cat Popper) Adam Weiner paced the stage like a prizefighter, challenging the space, declaring HERE COMES THE NIGHT, before stalking up the red carpet of the aisle and out the back of the hall as the song crashed to a close. Bettye LaVette sang “Have I Told You Lately” half off-mic, letting her voice fill the proscenium and reverberate around us, bringing grace and elegance and dignity.

John Paul White noted that he was now “the guy who has to go on after Bettye Lavette” and there definitely felt like a few seconds at the beginning of “You’re My Woman” where he was finding his balance, but then, my god, it was riveting. He put that song on like a favorite overcoat and then wrapped it around all of us, he just wore that song and filled out every inch of it. David Johansen singing Van Morrison is an obvious alliance, but that didn’t mean he still didn’t work his rendition of “My Lonely Sad Eyes,” reminding us that he’s one of New York City’s best blues singers.

The Secret Sisters came out and let us all catch our breath from the growing tension, singing “Precious Time” like it was theirs--and in that moment it very much was. Todd Rundgren decided to ham it up and play to the crowd, getting us all to sing along to the song every single person in that building absolutely knew, “Brown Eyed Girl,” enjoying every moment.

Given his avowed adoration of the man, it honestly wouldn’t have mattered what Van Morrison song Glen Hansard would have chosen to play tonight, because it was guaranteed to be a highlight. He walked out to center stage and hit his acoustic guitar with the kind of intensity you bring to an encore, and even for a guy who is usually cutting his chest open onstage, this was a different level even for him. The audience was riveted, hanging on every single note; there was no hooting or hollering, just this shared sense of understanding that we were witnessing something phenomenal.

And then, during one of those frenetic interludes, the guitar stopped working, cut out entirely, no sound coming from the amps.

And then he broke a string.

But this is Glen Hansard, and he is not going to let anything as trifling as electricity or physics get in the way, and he does not care that this is Carnegie Hall--or maybe in spite of it being Carnegie Hall--he came to the very edge of the stage and there was complete and total silence in the hall, while he kept singing, kept trying to get the guitar to play (he might have even broken another string, begging his instrument, “C’mon, guitar.”)

And then it was over, and the audience exploded like a cork coming out of a bottle of champagne.

My area of the second tier was populated by mostly women, which I hadn’t really noticed until Rita Houston began her final introduction of the night, and we all rose to our feet in the knowledge of who was next. Patti’s band took the stage, Tony Shanahan remaining on his feet behind the grand piano until Patti made her entrance to riotous applause. She came to the mic and said, “He never liked this version, but I’m going to thank him anyway,” before Shanahan hit the opening chords, and Patti sang that now-immortal opening line.

She also worked the house, walking the edge of the stage, making eye contact, rallying the fans in the parquet level to get on their feet (in their defense, the Carnegie Hall ushers are fairly dictatorial in their enforcement of the rules). But finally, everyone is on their feet singing “G-L-O-R-I-A.” And by the last chorus, that final, raucous recitation of her name, the artists from the evening come spilling out from the backstage, spearheaded by the joyous women of the Resistance Revival Chorus spanning the front of the stage and absolutely losing their minds to be singing onstage with Patti Smith, who kept dropping back to pull them on mic to sing a line.

It was something that was hers, but also part of that lineage that went from Them to the Shadows of Night to every garage band that has ever played “Gloria,” but also, representing that moment the first time you heard the first line of the first song on the first side of Horses. It was perfect, and gorgeous, and very New York, and definitely glorious (yes) and magical and a very fine way to end a very powerful evening.


Self-Promotion Corner

I wrote about Sam & Dave for Uproxx in honor of their Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

I will also take any opportunity to write about Aretha, and covered the reissue of her 1956 gospel recordings for Pitchfork.

I’ve been doing a lot of work around Joni Mitchell, which has honestly been a fantastic way to spend the winter; the results of that will be out later this year.

If you’re in or around Seattle, I’ll be presenting a paper called “Growing Up In Public: Artists Processing Loss in Modern Times” at the 2019 Pop Conference on Saturday April 13th in the afternoon, as part of a panel with Annie Zaleski and Holly Gleason. (I will note that admission is not free this year, and is actually quite expensive, none of which I am happy about, or knew when I submitted my proposal.)