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Music DVD Review: Van Morrison Live at Montreux 1980/1974

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Some musicians are so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we sometimes take them for granted. It's not that we don't appreciate them — we do — but they're like that eccentric uncle who'd pull a nickel out of your ear and impart a word of wisdom to you as a bonus. You'd only see those guys every once and a while, but every time you did, it was a magical moment.

Van Morrison Live at Montreux 1980/1974 captures two very magical moments in the career of a musician whose importance in pop music's evolution cannot be overstated. If he had done nothing beyond penning the perennial "Gloria", his place in rock and roll would have been ensured. But Morrison is possessed of a wandering spirit, and has never been content to stake a claim to one particular idiom. Rather, he traverses a fine line between blues, celtic folk, soul, country, and jazz, imbuing them with a synergy that's
been described more than once as "Celtic Soul."

A reticent performer at best, Morrison has, by and large, let his music speak for itself. But when he does perform live, it's an experience that transcends all the trappings of pop stardom. He's hardly a flashy dresser, he doesn't engage the audience in snappy repartee, he doesn't even make eye contact with them. And why would he? The music, the poetry is his language, and through it, he communicates something that strikes a universal chord.

The two discs comprising Live at Montreux represent Morrison at two different heights of his career as a live performer. Chosen by Morrison himself, these performances also comprise his first DVD release. Think of the 1980 disc as the headliner, and the 1974 performance as the opening act, and the tracking makes sense. In the 1980 Montreux show, Morrison works as a jazz bandleader, with an auspicious band, including Pee Wee Ellis and Mark Isham on sax and trumpet, and John Platiana on guitar.

By this time Morrison had some bonafide hits under his belt — "Wavelength," Moondance," and "Tupelo Honey" probably the most recognizable. And the performances of those songs by far eclipse the studio versions. But it's in the performance as a whole that the genius of Morrison becomes evident. He doesn't only give the individual band members room to stretch (in the best tradition of jazz), he immerses himself so deeply into the groove, his voice literally becomes one of the instruments, alternating between second sax and percussion in some of the songs. Through it all, he maintains the uniquely Irish sense of irony, as in "Summertime in England," where he references the likes of Mahalia Jackson, TS Eliot, and James Joyce, among others, as seminal influences.

The 1974 performance, packaged as the second disc, is a stripped down show by contrast, but no less compelling. The band was put together on the spur of the moment – with only keyboards, bass, and drums backing Morrison, who played guitar, sax and harmonica, in addition to furnishing vocals. It comes across almost as a polished jam, and has a decidedly soul-blues feel to it. With the exceptions of "Naked in the Jungle" and "Foggy Mountain Top," these are largely obscure songs. Still, they do showcase Morrison's talents as a multi-instrumentalist,and foretell his coming emergence as one of the great songwriters of the last fifty years.

Van Morrison Live at Montreux 1980/1974 offers an intimate, yet very public glimpse into the soul of the artist. It's digitally enhanced visually, and the 5.1 sound is rich. The stereo separation enhances the ambiance to an extent that you almost feel as if you were there. There's nothing particularly flashy in the film direction of either performance — angles and transitions serve only to enhance the music. Neither concert ever sags, either visually or musically.

All in all, Van Morrison Live at Montreux 1980/1974 is an outstanding package that bears repeated viewings and listenings. Much like the man himself, these shows defy classification, but leave you utterly satisfied by virtue of the music's quiet intensity.

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