Too Long in Exile

Van Morrison one-ups Bigfoot, Easter Bunny with rare metroplex appearance

Van Morrison has been called many things: mystical poet, New Age guru, reclusive genius. Above all those, he's a guy who doesn't bother with the formalities of promotion or touring, making his March 6 concert at Nokia Theater quite special--it will be his first metroplex stop in more than two decades and one of only six American stops on the entire tour.

"I can't believe he's even playing around here," says 1310 The Ticket's Mike Rhyner, the current Hardline host who followed Morrison's career while working for Dallas' KZEW in the '70s and '80s.

"The last time I can remember him coming to the area is when he played Texas Hall at UTA in 1972," Rhyner adds, speaking of Morrison with the kind of admiration typical of the converted. "The man is so soulful. His music is spacey, ethereal, but underneath it all is a lot of pure soul...Even over all the years, I still feel we've only seen the tip of the iceberg of his talent."

Morrison has characteristically refused all interview requests--his last American interview came in the mid-'80s. As Lost Highway's promotional representative points out, "Not a lot of promotion is necessary with an artist of Morrison's stature." That's obvious--the Nokia show in support of his new country-influenced effort, Pay the Devil, sold out almost as quickly as it went up for sale.

Strangely enough, that label rep asked to remain anonymous, and the hush-hush nature seems fitting for Morrison. Always disdainful of the trappings of popular music, he has avoided the press as rigorously as he shuns accolades. Morrison couldn't give a damn whether anyone liked his music besides himself, even as it has veered with varying results like individualistic Celtic soul and religiously inspired contemporary blues.

Years ago, when the Waterboys did a decent job covering Morrison's "Sweet Thing," his response was terse and indignant: "My version's better." Never giving an inch, Morrison has quietly released as significant a body of work as anyone in rock history, and his best work may well lie in the shadows of his well-known (and much-deserving) classics Astral Weeks, Moondance and Tupelo Honey.

1979's Into the Musicmarks his transition from Celtic R&B mumbler to religious mystic. Featuring ravers such as "Full Force Gale," it's the lengthy song cycle that concludes the effort where Morrison really transcends all influences. Starting with "Angelou" and finishing with "You Know What They're Writing About," this rare mix of religious and sexual intensity proves that desire can coexist with piety.

Released in 1974 at the end of his most popular period, Veedon Fleece has an irritated stoner buzz about it, as if Morrison was reacting against fame the only way he knew how--challenging conceptions and expectations. Featuring an unfamiliar high register, standouts like "Fairplay" and "Linden Arlen Stole the Highlights" play out like rough-hewed tributes to Ray Charles, an influence he again visits on Pay the Devil. Full of intricate detail and beautiful accompaniment, Fleece is injected with a cynical edge that would rarely present itself in the future.

Morrison's '80s catalog is filled with competent material, but in that era, he became better-known for his hot temper and onstage petulance than for the middling New Age jazz he was releasing. It wasn't until 1987's Poetic Champions Compose that he came to grips with age and inspiration. "I Forgot That Love Existed" and "Did Ye Get Healed?" are easily his best songs in the decade. Instead of the professional curmudgeon persona he had worked so hard to cultivate, Champions revealed a thoughtful elder spokesman, the standard-bearer of intensity, both musical and spiritual.

Now at 60, Morrison confidently turns his attention to country, a genre he has always flirted with but never fully embraced. As usual, Morrison appears both at ease and wary even within the same song. "Things Have Gone to Pieces," a song made famous by George Jones, is a highlight because Morrison forgoes intrusive backing vocals and strings. But for every barebones gem like "There Stands the Glass," Morrison offers odd, country-lite takes on "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Half as Much."

Morrison's singing is still a wonder, full of blustery nuance and fitfully contained power, but his reverence for the country stylings of Ray Charles (Morrison's obvious model for Pay the Devil is Charles' Modern Sounds of Country and Western) restrains his interpretive gifts. Even the closer, Rodney Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again," has been done better by Blue Rodeo.

But Van has always followed his own muse while racking up significant sales figures. His career, even in its twilight, serves as a model of integrity. So what if he won't talk and comes around as often as a comet? So what if his new country effort is only partly successful? These are slight details in a career rich in the intangibles that always make the best music matter, make it transcend the seeming necessities of advertising and applause.

 
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