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Music Review: Van Morrison – Still On Top: The Greatest Hits

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Van Morrison is one of those performers who rock critic types like me — you know, the folks who worship at the altar of people like Dylan and Springsteen — are supposed to be in absolute awe of. But I’ve gotta tell ya’ the truth here:

I’ve never completely got Van.

What I can tell you is this. I absolutely recognize the fact that Van Morrison has an undeniably soulful voice that, at its best, can take you to some pretty amazing places — at least as far as going into the furthest reaches of the subconscious goes. Van is definitely that rare breed of vocalist whose emotive quality can transport you to places far, far away.

Understood.

But for me, his catalog — vast as it is — has always been sort of spotty.

For the record, I’ve seen Van Morrison twice in concert.

The first time was in the late seventies. I think he was on his comeback tour for the album Wavelength, and I have to be honest here, the lure for me, like many on this night, wasn’t Van so much as it was his opening act. Rockpile fronted by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, were shit hot at the time.

Still, I was curious to see the guy who had built such a great reputation for amazing concerts. Now, I’ve gotta be fair here. The billing of Van Morrison, the great Irish soul singer, with Rockpile, the pub rockers with the New Wave pedigree of Elvis Costello producer Lowe probably wasn’t the best idea. Especially given the fact that music was particularly polarized along genre lines at the time.

Still, when Van did his entire set with his back to the audience — he was probably pissed because the Rockpile fans who comprised about one third of the audience had left — he didn’t exactly win me over.

The next time I saw Van was a few years later, at the urging of a fellow writer — and Van Morrison disciple — at Seattle’s music magazine The Rocket. Greg (God Bless him), pretty much dragged me out to see him. This time around Van was touring behind the great album Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. And unlike the debacle with Rockpile, the show was absolutely amazing — especially when Van went into his trance like reading of that album’s standout, spoken word poetry track, “Rave On, John Donne.”

This was an awesome performance. And by now I was almost ready to be 100% on board on the Van Morrison train.

Which brings me to that original problem.

Van has this amazingly huge, but very spotty catalog. There have been several songs and albums along the way which have genuinely moved me, but the thing that has always been lacking is consistency. If only there were a single album I could own with all of the songs I have loved from Van over the years — “Gloria” and “Here Comes The Night” from his years with Them; stuff like “Moondance,” “Wavelength,” “Crazy Love,” “Rave On John Donne,” and more recently, “Stranded” from his solo output.

Still On Top is almost that album. Almost.

As it stands, this is probably the most complete overview of the best of Van Morrison one could ask for. Many of those favorite songs of mine I mentioned are indeed here. You’ve got everything from those early hits with Them, all the way through his best solo stuff from albums like Moondance, Tupelo Honey, and Wavelength, to his more recent output like the aforementioned “Stranded.”

Still, what’s missing is somewhat frustrating. I can understand the exclusion of my own personal faves like “Rave On, John Donne.” The Inarticlate Speech record, while a personal fave, wasn’t exactly a big commercial hit. But what about the amazing Astral Weeks?

Now, that is what I would call a major hole.

Still, for casual Van fans like me — the ones who sit patiently on the fence waiting to be converted — Still On Top will do nicely for now.

At least until that comprehensive retrospective boxed set comes along.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly Hughes

    I saw Van in the early 70s one night when he just walked offstage in the middle of his set, never to return. Kinda hard to go on being a Van fan after that — I persevered, but never again with my whole heart. I agree with you; his greatest hits are so mind-blowing, the weaker stuff is all the more baffling. And yet there are obscure gems on every album (like “Rave On John Donne”) that it’d be a shame for first-time fans to miss. It’s the idiosyncratic stuff that makes him who he is, not the radio-ready hits. Someday maybe somebody will also release a compilation that digs into those as well.

  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/ Donald Gibson

    I’ve seen Van once, in the ’90s when The Healing Game was his current album. He was great, but the crowd misjudged what kind of show they were in for.

    He had a small orchestra and was playing in a theatre, so most of the material leaned toward the slower (and often obscure) songs. The crowd that showed up, though, was hungry for “Gloria,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” and “Tupelo Honey”. And so they shouted for them, which ticked Van off. He stopped mid-song (“In the Garden”) and said if people did not quiet down, he would be gone.

    -Donald

  • Paradox

    Glen, I understand your review and agree with most of it. The one point with which I take exception is the suggestion that somehow Astral Weeks should be on a compilation album. I personally hope that never happens. The sum of the whole on that album is greater than the sum of the individual songs; it needs to be listened to in its entirety to be fully appreciated. Bits and pieces on a compilation album would greatly diminish it. JMO, of course. Van remains a fascinating figure, though.

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.