audiotrack Back on Top

reviewed by Jill Hill

Published in Issue No. 24 ~ May, 1999

The theme this month is humor. So why an Irishman and a blues singer? Well, one is funny-looking, short, fat, and very pale…and blues singers have been the center of many comedy sketches on Saturday Night Live and In Living Color…? Okay, honestly, the thought of listening to “comedy albums” made me slightly queasy.

Recently at a Poetry Festival, while discussing with another poet seeing Van Morrison in concert, mentioned that he glowed as he sang. The poet I told this to became quite insulted, suddenly pulling back from me. He told me that it was impossible for any man to glow, maybe inferring that he was as talented as Van, causing me to laugh in a most unbecoming way; however, it pointed out the trouble with being Van Morrison: He has developed an aura that sometimes overshadows his music.

It’s easy for critics to disregard him. His workman-like habits, which allow him to put out new music nearly every year, make him suspect to some. He doesn’t do a media push, doesn’t tour, doesn’t make the night time TV rounds, doesn’t do many interviews, and when he does an interview he is unwaveringly rude. That is Van Morrison the man, who doesn’t interest me. I am interested in the musician.

But such critical disinterest or antagonism can mislead. Several years back, I didn’t buy

The Healing Game
because of a bad review, but when I bought it later, I discovered a solid CD. Back on Top, his current CD, has likewise received less than rave reviews or been ignored. Yet, it is a solid CD. Not the best, but a good solid CD and in this era of one-hit CDs (albums that contain one good song and a bunch of rubbish) that is a compliment. One review said it had nine duds and one good song. That is harsh and ignorant and probably from someone who thinks “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Domino,” and “Gloria” are his finest songs.

Back on Top can best be summed up by the word “mellow.” Only the first track, “Goin’ Down Geneva” hits a blues/ rock mood, and though the lyrics don’t live up to the music, the authentic blues rhythm remains impressive, Van’s voice rough and sweet. Geraint Watkins breaks out with a piano solo that speaks of old bars and dancing until dawn.

Morrison’s back-up band is often overlooked and unmentioned. Many of these musicians have been with him for years. Pee Wee Ellis, on sax and occasional back-up vocals, proves most notable, along with the remarkable Brain Kennedy on back-up vocals. Kennedy has a fine smooth tenor that echoes Morrison in a manner that adds depth and richness to the lyrics. They bring out the best in each other’s vocals.

In a departure from his usual style, Morrison adds a light pretty tune, “In the Midnight.” He sings it as if it were a lullaby, a slow dance, a soft moment, a love song more about loneliness than love:

In the lonely, dead of midnight

in the dimness, of the twilight

If you meet me, by lamplight

I’ll be around.

The CD’s climax comes in the middle with the song “When the Leaves Come Falling Down.” Everything, romantic lyrics, the mellowness of Morrison’s voice, the clear sweet backup of Kennedy, the string and horns, meld into a song where Morrison has never been stronger or better:

I saw you standing with the wind and the rain in your face

And you were thinking `bout the wisdom of the leaves

and their grace

When the leaves come falling down

In September when the leaves, come falling down.

And this is why Morrison, after all these years, is still making music, still “turning lead into gold.”

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Jill Hill lives with some kids, some dogs, writes, and manages a restaurant where she tries out her new CD's. She listens to a variety of music, from Classical to Blues, but tries to stay away from most rap. In her words: "I am always on the look out for a new band or singer/songwriter that I will like. I like a CD that does not grow old and weary sounding, which mean I don't want buy a CD that can be found on the used CD sale table a month later. One of my favorite CD's is Neal Young's Everyone Knows this is Nowhere. My favorite writer is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and my favorite novel of his Of Love and Other Demons. X-Files is about the only TV I watch. I do not watch sitcoms and do not like music inspired by sitcoms. I'd rather listen to a sampled rap version of the Jetsons theme song."