On The Mellow End: Norah Jones’ Three New Songs From Upcoming EP, ‘Begin Again’

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*Above image taken from the internet and likely copyrighted

It’s no secret that all of us down here at B&V are into our screaming, loud rock and roll. Hell, the first concert I ever took the Rock Chick to, before I made an honest woman out of her, was AC/DC on the Stiff Upper Lip tour. I can still remember the topless woman who popped out of the roof of the limo in front of us after the show. The exuberance of rock and roll had sort of… overcome that woman, but I digress. Even last night, after a wicked cocktail the Rock Chick cooked up with tequila and prosecco, I quickly put on some Tom Petty, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks from our Spotify playlists.

But as with all things, screaming loud rock and roll has it’s time and place. On occasion, the mood or the situation calls for something a tad more mellow. When I’m putting my smooth moves on the Rock Chick, for example, sometimes it requires more subtle music than Motley Crue. Typing that sentence makes me immediately realize two things: a) I am not smooth and b) I have no moves. Another good example of a time that require music that’s a little mellower is my physical feeling today, after a night of drinking tequila, prosecco cocktails… I believe the medical profession would describe my condition as a “hangover.” No risk in life, no reward as the saying goes.

When I’m in need of some music that’s a tad more cerebral, if I don’t put on Van’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, I find myself turning to Norah Jones. As I am prone to repeating myself sometimes in these pages, the woman has the voice of an angel. She could literally record herself singing passages from a newspaper and I’d probably listen to it, despite how depressing the news is these days. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing her in concert, she tends to shun Kansas City but I remain hopeful she’ll come my way.

I don’t know if it’s that voice, but something about Norah’s music is evocative for me. I spent most of my 20s and 30s a wandering, emotional gypsy. I had a series of emotionally damaging relationships. I tended to pick my girlfriends from the FBI’s Most Wanted List… However, by 2002, when Jones’ debut Come Away With Me came out, I had found love and with it a family. I was living in house (that was mine) for the first time in my life, instead of a suitcase or the back of a car. I tended to keep moving in the old days… I was living with the Rock Chick in 2002 and we were engaged. Her daughter, who I now describe as “our” daughter was living with us. I had been traveling for work and my plane landed right around sunset on warm, late-summer day. The sky was turning to purple, but the sun still shone it’s golden hue on the taller trees. As I was driving home from the airport that night surrounded by magnificent colors with my sunroof open, on the public radio station I heard “Come Away With Me” for the first time. We were looking for a song for our first dance at our wedding and I was instantly convinced in that magical moment I’d found the track (I got overridden on that, alas). As I drove that night, for the first time headed to a home and not just the place where I kept my stuff, I felt a level of contentment I never thought I’d know… Norah Jones’ song had completely captured and immortalized that moment for me.

Over the years I have remained a Norah Jones fan. I loved her last album, Day Break LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!. I recently heard she was releasing random singles. I made a mental note to go out and find them and gather them together on a playlist. Luckily it seems that Ms. Jones is handling that for me. She’s gathered together seven tracks that she’ll be releasing in April as an EP, Begin Again. For those of you keeping score, an album is called a “long player” or an LP. An EP is an “extended player.” An EP is longer and has more music than just a single (which used to get released with 1 song on each side), but isn’t quite as long as an album or LP.

From the new EP, Norah has pre-released three new songs. I’ve heard her new music described as “experimental” which may be why she’s releasing just an EP. If there’s nothing thematic or musically similar holding a group of songs together an EP release makes more sense. I like the immediacy of what I’m hearing in these three new tracks. And yes, it’s not hard to predict, I liked all three of the new songs. I like that Norah is willing to take chances. An artist who had so much success early on in her career could be tempted to rest on her laurels. Not Norah, she really pushes herself.

For me, the stand out track of the three is “Just A Little Bit.” It’s a jazzy, syncopated little number. If I close my eyes while I listen, it feels like I’ve just wandered into a basement jazz club, the sound bouncing off the brick walls. I feel the murmur of hushed conversations and smell cocktails and perfume as patrons huddle in the dark and groove on the tune. I can feel the horns as much as hear them. It’s jazzy in all the right ways. When she emphasizes the words, “I’m on fire…” I can feel the heat.

“It Was You” is a more straight up Norah Jones. A sultry, chanteuse style track driven by her beautiful piano and a sax. Norah’s voice drops down in the register and is at it’s very sexiest. “And I knew, and I knew and I knew it was you…” It’s more an invocation to love than chorus. Put this song on late at night and you won’t need my patented smooth moves…

The final track of the three prereleases is a collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “Wintertime.” I love it when Norah collaborates. She’s got a great track with disgraced singer Ryan Adams, “Dear John” which is one of her career highlights. I loved the album of Everly Brothers covers she did with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Foreverly. Tweedy doesn’t sing on “Wintertime.” It’s a laid back piano tune and Tweedy plays a rather subdued guitar… at least I think that’s him. The track has a slightly country feel, but that may just be my take on the guitar work. It’s a very solid track.

All of us at B&V are looking forward to hearing the rest of this EP. I love that Norah is continuing to experiment and push herself. This will be very interesting, evocative music from an important artist. Enjoy this one to keep warm in this punishing wintertime!

Cheers!

 

 

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B&V Goes Out Drinking, Supports Live Music: Kansas City’s Amanda Fish

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Anymore I find myself staying home more often than not. My Howard Hughes-hermit-loner phase is getting stronger. I haven’t quite got the point where I’m urinating into milk bottles, but I’m sure that’s coming. I seem to forget to shave for days on end but at least I do bathe regularly. The problem for the Rock Chick and me is that our friends are all married with children. Usually we just end up alone, sitting on the deck, sipping something strong.

However, work does occasionally pull me out of the house. I had one such evening a couple of Wednesdays ago. A guy who works for me, who I’ll call Ned, came to Kansas City so we could do some “second half planning,” which means eat BBQ and drink. After a rigorous afternoon spent in the office where surprisingly to me we actually did some work, Ned and I headed out to one of Kansas City’s premier BBQ joints, Q39. It may possibly be the best BBQ I’ve ever had and I’ve had a lot. The place is always packed. Although I must admit I was terribly disappointed they’ve removed the burnt ends from the appetizer menu, but this isn’t the place to air my grievances.

After feasting on perfectly smoked beast, Ned and I sat at the bar sipping whiskey. After a quick Google-Map search, I saw that he was staying at a downtown hotel, near a couple of bars I used to frequent prior to meeting the Rock Chick. While I don’t go out or drink on weeknights anymore, sometimes when I do, the wind just sort of pushes me along, I never know where I’ll find myself. I end up bouncing from bar to bar, talking to strangers, in the old days bumming cigarettes and making people laugh. I’m like Tyrion Lannister, “I drink and I know things.” I’m out spreading joy folks, one bar, one drink at a time. Although now it’s without the cigarettes.

We quickly Uber’ed down to John’s Big Deck on Wyandotte. We went bounding up the stairs, which I had trouble finding (I really need to get out more) and went up to the big deck a few flights up. John’s Big Deck boasts, as you would expect, a giant deck on the roof that has a magnificent view of KC’s skyline. The sign by the stairs reads, “Can You Handle Our Big Deck.” It was just that kind of night. Ned is from a “Red” state and I’m not sure he was emotionally prepared for the mix of hipsters, bohemians, and gay off-duty waiters in the crowd up there. We sat at the end of the bar and I educated the youngsters around me on the politics of income inequality. It didn’t take long before it was just Ned and I sitting at the end of the bar… I suppose you should never talk a little treason on a Wednesday night in Kansas City…

I was restless, as I’m prone to be, and after a few rounds, it was time to walk up a block or so to the Phoenix, a piano bar on 8th street. I briefly dated, more like “hung out with,” a woman who lived in that neighborhood, many moons ago, and we drank at the Phoenix quite a bit. The Rock Chick and I actually took our dear friend Rhonda, who is newer to town, down there one Saturday afternoon this spring. I always loved the Phoenix. There was a bald piano player, whose name escapes me, who might have owned the place at one time and he used to play there almost every night. Any more, you never know what you’ll find there. Most of the time it’s a small jazz trio/combo. I’ve heard some great singers in the Phoenix and since we were close, I felt Ned deserved the full Kansas City experience – BBQ and jazz.

We quickly bellied up to the bar and I noticed the crowd was a little thin. I was a tad worried there’d be no music. Suddenly a young woman, who looked vaguely familiar to me, but whom I couldn’t place, sat down behind the piano with an acoustic guitar. She started strumming the guitar and singing. I thought, “Oh, great, some college chick has come in to warble tortured romantic folks songs.” I put my nose in my beer and Nate and I chatted about sports. Every now and then, the singer’s voice would pierce through the fog the boilermakers were creating around my head and I’d think, “Wow, what a strong voice this chick has.” I quietly imagined her as busker on some street corner who had wandered into a great gig at premier jazz bar.

After a few acoustic guitar songs, the singer turned and pulled up an electric guitar. “Well, this just got interesting,” I said to Ned… The gal sang a few blues tunes but she really caught my attention when she played “Angel,” a Jimi Hendrix song. It was also covered by Rod Stewart, which I mention because it actually comes into play later in this story. Ned leaned over and said, “The music this gal is playing just keeps getting better… I don’t think it’s the booze.” Indeed, I don’t think we were drinking this gal’s music pretty, as the saying goes… she was incredibly talented. Ned and my conversation soon halted as we listened to this woman sing. “Who is this talented woman,” I kept muttering. I knew I’d heard her voice before.

Almost as quickly as she’d discarded the acoustic guitar, she put aside the electric guitar and turned to the piano. I couldn’t help but think, this woman is like Prince, there’s no instrument she can’t play. She belted a perfect rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” I was all in now. I had turned away from the bar and was staring straight at her, trying to place her face. It was starting to get late and I knew Ned was ready to crash but I had to stay for one more song. She broke into the old Etta James’ tune, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” As she finished, Ned tabbed us out and we lurched toward the door. I had to speak to this woman… I pulled all the loose cash I’d accumulated over an evening of drinking and said to her, “Miss, this is a feeble tip considering the amazing music you’ve played here tonight,” and dropped the money in the tip jar.

She smiled and thanked me. I had to ask, “That version of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” was that inspired by the Etta James version or the Rod Stewart version? It was spot on.” The singer asked me, “Rod Stewart did that song?” I said yes, with Ronnie Wood. And this is the moment I embarrassed myself… She asked, “With the Faces?” I’m old, and deaf and thought she said, “on the bass?” I’m sure I looked puzzled when I replied, “No, Ronnie played guitar.” In my defense, not many young people know about the Faces. She was laughing at me now, when she repeated loudly, “The Faces, I know Ronnie plays the guitar.” I smiled as the Faces reference finally registered, as everyone knows, I love the Faces. Rod’s version was recorded by the Faces but released on one of his solo albums.

And, since I hadn’t embarrassed myself enough, I said, “What is your name, you’re super talented…” Ned was holding something just outside of my peripheral vision, but I was locked in on the singer’s face. She looked a tad astonished that I’d asked. “I’m Amanda Fish…” I glanced to my left and Ned was holding her CD, with her name printed on it just out of my vision. Amanda Fish! I almost swatted my hand upon my forehead. The Blues Gods should have smote me dead on the spot. If you haven’t heard Amanda Fish yet, you soon will. She’s an amazing talent. If you dig raw blues, pick up her LP ‘Down In The Dirt’ immediately. I’d seen her several times, but I was always in the back of a room, and she was always on stage with a band. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize her close up. I blushed when I saw and heard her say her name. I wanted to crawl into a hole… at least the whiskey helped…

This, people, is why I don’t go out anymore. But then again, maybe this is a cautionary tale, a sign, telling me I should get out more… it’s hard to know how to read this sign.

If you get the chance to see live music, especially the blues or rock and roll, and especially if it’s Amanda Fish, do yourself a favor and buy the ticket. Take the ride!

Cheers!

Gregg Allman,The Blues/Rock Legend, RIP: The Midnight Ride Is Sadly Over

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*photo shamelessly stolen from the internet

Man, has it been a tough couple of weeks. It started it off well enough. I saw Soundgarden two weeks ago today and they were spectacular. I left hopeful to hear a new album from those guys sometime this year. Then things took a dark turn. Chris Cornell passed away after a show in Detroit. Then a few days later some idiot in Manchester attacks a teeny-bopper concert full of young girls, the height of cowardice. And now, in the midst of Memorial Day weekend, I got the news blues/rock legend Gregg Allman has passed away. I have to admit, my “Spidey-Senses were tingling” about Gregg for a while. He’d been hospitalized and had cancelled some tour dates. He was only 69.

The Allman Brothers Band, which bore Gregg and his brother Duane’s name, is to guitar playing what the SEC is to college football. They have all the championships. My nickname for the Allman Brothers was always “Guitar University.” Whether it was Duane Allman/Dickey Betts, or in the later years Warren Haynes/Derek Trucks, manning the guitars, you were certain to hear virtuoso guitar performances. Even surrounded by all those guitars the bedrock of the Allman’s sound was Gregg’s Hammond B-3 organ which was the melodic platform from which those guitars launched and soared. The heartbeat, and for me the key component to the Allman Brothers’ sound, was Gregg’s vocal. Even in his younger days he sang with a depth and knowing despair usually reserved for men three times his age. Who else could write, in their 20’s, “Just one more mornin’ I had to wake up with the blues…” “Dreams” indeed…

When he was a very young child his father, an Army sergeant, was shot and killed by a drinking buddy. You have to wonder if that early tragedy informed Gregg’s soulful, sad voice. Gregg Allman didn’t just sing the blues – with all the tragedy (his father, his brother’s untimely death), the women, Cher, the divorces (6), the drugs, the booze, and all the legal problems divorces, booze and drugs bring – Gregg Allman lived the blues.

I’ve read quite a bit on line about Gregg Allman the last twenty-four hours. Almost unanimously they refer to Allman as a “southern rock” pioneer. I do know that Gregg considered the term southern rock redundant. If it’s southern music, it rocks, baby! When I think about the Allman’s music, I don’t think of it as southern rock. Yes, they built the template of the multi-lead guitar, bluesy, touch of country, rock and roll. To me they were just a great blues band with a jazz ethos. The solo’ing and the playing off each other was so much more akin to Miles Davis than well, Marshall Tucker. I don’t really like jam bands, like say, The Grateful Dead, but you could easily call the Allman Brothers Band a jam band. In my opinion they played more forcefully than all that Grateful Dead noodling. These guys were taking the blues places it hadn’t been.

My introduction to the Allman Brothers Band was an odd one. When I was in college my musical taste and my album collection was exploding in all different directions. I had musical ADD. I’d buy a Stones album, then maybe a Beatles album, then back over to the Faces. I had the good fortune to have a roommate, Drew, who had a singular focus when it came to music. When he got into an artist he went straight through the catalog until he had it all. We were both musical completists. Drew came home one day with “I’m No Angel,” Gregg’s great ’86 solo album. Yes, the production is a little dated, but it was the strongest thing he’d done since “Laid Back.” This was my introduction to Gregg Allman and my gateway into the Allman Brothers Band. You have to remember, when I came of record-buying age, Allman was married to Cher and had just put out “Allman And Woman.” Not my bailiwick. Up to the point Drew brought home “I’m No Angel” I was aware of the Allmans but hadn’t paid any attention to them.

Drew also played me “Live At the Fillmore East” for the first time. That’s when I was hooked, my musical life changed that day. It wasn’t until I moved to Arkansas that I crashed through the entire early Allman’s catalog. I mean, if you live in the south you better own some Allman Brother’s albums… I consider “The Allman Brothers Band,” “Idlewild South,” “Fillmore East,” “Eat A Peach” and “Brothers And Sisters” all ESSENTIAL rock music listening. It’s an amazing catalog of work. They defined jam rock, southern rock, blues rock, just plain rock! Through losing Duane Allman, founder/leader/legendary guitarist and founding bassist Barry Oakley they continued to put out fantastic music. While it’s easy to focus on those early records, when the Allman Brothers regrouped in 1990 for the great reunion/comeback album ‘Seven Turns’ it led to a string of really great albums. I would highly recommend ‘Where It All Begins,’ but I also loved the last Allman album, without Dickey Betts, ‘Hittin’ The Note.” There’s some great playing on that record especially on the long track, “Desdemona.” They also cover the Stones’ “Heart of Stone,” which I’m rather partial to.

While the Allman Brothers’ legend is cemented, I don’t hear nearly enough about Gregg’s great solo work. One of the unique things about Gregg’s solo work is on almost every solo album he’d go back and rework one of the Allman’s early songs. His first solo album, “Laid Back” is his masterpiece and his reimagining of “Midnight Rider” is so differently orchestrated than the original you almost forget there are 2 versions of that track. “Laid Back” is a must have. His cover of Jackson Browne’s oft-covered “These Days” is definitive. His follow-up, the live “The Gregg Allman Tour” is, like “Fillmore East,” one of the great double live albums of the 70s. Gregg always brought more of an R&B feel to his solo records vs the bluesy muscle of Allman Brothers. The other 70s solo Gregg album that everyone should own is ‘Playing Up A Storm.’ You won’t recognize any of the tunes, I don’t think there are any “hits” per se, but it’s almost the same high quality as “Laid Back.” Choice listening!

Gregg’s last solo album, ‘Low Country Blues’ was produced by T Bone Burnett and featured Gregg doing almost exclusively old blues covers. The opening track, “Floating Bridge” will stop you in your tracks. He tackles Muddy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and matches the Stones version for sheer blues awesomeness. My only complaint about ‘Low Country’ was there wasn’t enough of Gregg’s seminal organ playing, but it’s a nit of a complaint.

Another album that didn’t get a lot of attention, but everyone should check out is Gregg’s 1997 solo album, “Searching For Simplicity.” He does a great, acoustic re-work of “Whippin’ Post.” There is a great, great version of John Hiatt’s “Memphis In The Meantime.” For me, “Rendezvous With The Blues” is the highpoint. Gregg’s bluesy growl is let loose on that one. It’s a solid, bluesy record and well worth checking out.

Today I am sad, because we have lost another legend. I’m starting to get that bad 2016 feeling again… We’re starting to lose people in bunches again. Thankfully we have an amazing back catalog to console us through our grief. And, I was pleased to hear that Gregg had completed his long-awaited follow up to ‘Low Country Blues,’ and that album should be out in September.

Make no mistake people, a giant of the blues, of rock and roll, of music has passed this weekend. The world is better off for knowing Gregg Allman’s artistry.

Cheers!

Classic Album Sunday: John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’

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Sunday I had to pleasure to once again leave the confines of my home and slip down to the Waldo area of Kansas City. In the back room of the fabulous Waldo Pizza, I found a small crowd huddled together like early Christians, sharing tables, food and drink. All of these people had come together on a unseasonably warm and beautiful Sunday to huddle in a dark room and listen to vinyl. I couldn’t help but think, “these are my people.” I was struck by the diversity of the crowd. The demographics cut across race, age, and gender.

Yesterday’s Classic Album was the amazing selection, “A Love Supreme” by the genius John Coltrane. I enjoyed yesterday almost more than I did the Led Zeppelin “Houses of the Holy” session I attended a month ago (which was my first CASunday). After we’d heard Coltrane’s masterwork the host for the day mentioned that some of us in the crowd had likely never heard the entire album from start to finish. He wasn’t asking for a show of a hands for the uninitiated, but I raised my hand, thus was my awe and excitement at having heard Coltrane’s quartet’s virtuoso playing for the first time. I’m ashamed to admit that when it comes to music, I have a bit of a jazz blindspot. I never thought I was smart enough for jazz. Don’t get me wrong, I love to go to a club and hear live jazz, but I never knew what albums to buy, which artists were key etc. I mean, I knew Coltrane and Miles Davis but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.

That’s what made yesterday’s CAS that much better for me: I learned something new. I looked across a pizza and beer strewn table at my friend Doug and said, I know this much about jazz and held my fingers about an inch apart. In the three hours we were there I learned more about jazz than I had known in my entire lifetime prior. A lot of credit must be given to Teddy Dibble who was our guest speaker for the afternoon. Teddy’s depth of knowledge about jazz and Coltrane specifically was great, but what made yesterday so special was the passion with which Teddy spoke about the music and the man. There was a song they played, “Alabama” that may be my new favorite jazz song. Teddy teared up as he read his pre song notes for that song. A moving moment indeed. Never underestimate the power of music on your soul, folks.

Unlike last week, where we started with influences of Zeppelin, and then went to contemporaries, the musical selections focused solely on Coltrane’s work. The focus was from 1957 to 1964, the years that saw a huge transformation in Coltrane’s artistry. He kicked heroin and booze in ’57 and began a serious spiritual awakening. The pieces selected were superb. I can not say enough about the stereo equipment these guys set up to play these records. This being a presentation of vinyl records, I was highly amused when one of the albums skipped. Be still my beating heart… a skipping record… now that takes me back. I love every pop and hiss on my vinyl collection and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, skips and all.

Just like last month when they played “Houses Of The Holy” I glanced around the room during “A Love Supreme” to see closed eyes and bobbing heads. Teddy had done such a great job of setting up the story of the record I felt like I totally understood where Coltrane was coming from. Ecstatic at the arrival of his son, Coltrane locked himself in a room for 5 days and came out with the foundation of “A Love Supreme.” You can tell that Coltrane was inspired by the Divine as you listen to the religious ecstasy in the first three segments. The album ends with Coltrane sounding out a poem he’d written and it too came across like a prayer at the end.

I had no idea what to expect from his record. I agree with my hosts yesterday, this was a work of art on par with anything, in any medium that has ever been created. It’s a towering, giant album. They ought to be teaching this record in school.

I urge any of you who love music, or wish to learn more about music, to check out this website:

http://classicalbumsundays.com

There are chapters of this group from Oslo and London all the way to California. Even if you are just curious about music, trust me you can learn something. I know I did. Next month, March, will find CASunday playing “The Velvet Underground with Nico.” Alas, I won’t be able to attend as my corporate overlords have me traveling. The way they’ll curate that record is take a musical journey backwards, through all the bands the Velvet Underground influenced, back to the VU’s first, brilliant album. That will be a fun day.

Get out there and buy some vinyl! CASundays is a joyful affair! Seek out your local chapter.

Cheers!

LP Review: Van Morrison, “Keep Me Singing” Rock’s Curmudgeon’s Understated, Rootsy Return

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I have to admit upfront that the Rock Chick hates Van Morrison with the same passionate distaste she usually reserves for the Eagles. Oh well, no two people’s musical tastes are ever going to match up perfectly… with the Rock Chick and I, we’re a Venn Diagram… with significant overlap, thank God. I couldn’t be with anybody with crappy musical taste. I once stopped seeing a beautiful, rich girl after two dates because she liked Barry Manilow. Gads man, Barry Manilow. Somehow, I’ve digressed way off point here. Anyway, I love hard rock and heavy metal as much as the next rock and roller, but there are those moments that I need to turn the volume down. Those 3 am, everybody’s asleep and I’m out on the deck, waiting for the sun to come up and join me, with a tumbler of bourbon in my hand, ruminating about “the big questions.” Oddly, I never find any solutions out there, just more bourbon. For those moments I can’t hear screaming guitar. I need more contemplative music… like Peter Wolf’s “A Cure For Loneliness.” In a word, or in this case a name, I need some Van Morrison.

My college roomie, Drew was the one who turned me on to Van Morrison. He played me “Astral Weeks” for the first time and after that I was hooked. In his early days I’d say Van was second only to Bob Dylan as rock’s premier poet. There was something about that crazy, Irish mystic that I found irresistible. That voice… Those early records were simply transcendent. 1968’s “Astral Weeks” is as close as this pagan ever got to a religious experience. I felt like I was listening to a groovy jazz monk chanting. Van was an Irish Soul Man extraordinaire. Emphasis on the Soul… Van was a searcher, always reaching out for some truth that just exceeded his grasp. He expressed his longing for enlightenment in almost every thing he did.

“Moondance” from 1970 was his best known LP and his other masterpiece but he did a lot of other great work. “His Band And the Street Choir” is a great, great album, that was a heavy influence on both Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. Seger even covered “I’ve Been Workin'” from that LP on “Live Bullet.” It’s hard to exaggerate Van’s influence on popular music in the ’70s. “Tupelo Honey” is one of the most romantic songs I’ve ever heard. If it weren’t for the Rock Chick’s antipathy for Van, we would have danced to that song at our wedding. As it turns out, I snuck a Van song in for that first dance with “Have I Told You Lately,” but I used the Rod Stewart version.

That purple creative patch that Van had during the late 60’s, early 70’s drew to a close around the time he recorded “St Dominic’s Preview” in ’72. That was another set of mostly long tracks full of mystic poetry. “Listen To the Lion” still blows me away. Shortly after that he recorded one of the greatest live albums ever, “Too Late To Stop Now.” Do yourself a favor and pick that one up. Turn it up loud and just…groove, baby. He called his band in those days the Caledonia Soul Orchestra and they sounded like nobody else.

After that period Van’s music was kind of hit and miss for me. It’s hard to sustain that kind of creative genius. I know he went through a divorce somewhere in there. Like Dylan, he even went through a Christian period, although not quite as overt and strident as Dylan. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise, the spiritual had always mixed with the sensual in Van’s music. But as I said, it was always a little inconsistent for me. For every great album like “Poetics Champions Compose,” or “Enlightenment” there was a “How Long Has This Been Going On,” or worse, “Days Like This.” I sort of consigned Van to the past. I continued to cherish those early albums but gave up on hearing anything new and exciting from him. His personality turned sour and he became the quintessential curmudgeon. I was waiting for him to record a song entitled “You Kids Get Off of My Lawn.” His latest interview with Rolling Stone can only be described as “prickly.” He’s always got that porkpie hat on… It’s like he’s channeling Boris from the old Bullwinkle cartoons. Bitter party of Van…your table is ready.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere Van released “Down The Road” in 2002. It was jazzy, bluesy and Van sounded really committed. It’s like suddenly he was focused and trying again. He even evinced a sense of humor on that record on songs like “Whatever Happened To PJ Proby.” Van wasn’t breaking any new, transcendent ground here, he was just playing great music. He continued that streak with 2003’s “What’s Wrong With This Picture,” another jazzy, rootsy album. It was official in my mind, Van was on a hot streak. This was the kind of late career stuff that inspired B&V. He capped all of that off with “Magic Time” which was a return to those mystic, searching grand songs of his early period. “Magic Time” really blew me away. “Gypsy In My Soul” from that record is a song they should play at my funeral.

His follow up album, “Keep It Simple” was still strong but it paled in comparison to the three preceding LPs. Other than a great live performance of the entire “Astral Weeks” album recorded at the Hollywood Bowl I slipped away from Van again. He put out a critically lauded album, “Born To Sing: No Plan B” but I thought, if he couldn’t bother to come up with a better album title than that, why bother. If Van wasn’t going to make the effort, why should I? He followed that up with “Duets: Reworking the Catalog,” which screamed “cashing in,” although the critics were very kind to that record as well. It wasn’t like he was recording with Lady Gaga or any current pop singer. He mostly recorded with old friends and did obscure deep album tracks so perhaps my judgment on that LP was a bit harsh. I did pick up the song “Streets of Arklow” from that disc, the duet with Mick Hucknall from Simply Red – and believe me, I know how that sentence looks (Simply Red?) – and it’s an amazing song. I almost want to put on a kilt when I hear that one… almost.

I was in my car a few weeks ago, with the satellite radio on when I heard, “Too Late” a rollicking bluesy thing from Van’s new album “Keep Me Singing.” I really liked that song. It was catchy, well sung and gave me hope for another great LP from Van. I must admit, he’s delivered just that. This is not a party record, or a screaming guitar album. It’s Van’s usual mix of jazz, blues and Sinatra-era pop standards, a truly rootsy brew that is great late night music. Listening to “Keep Me Singing” makes me feel like I just walked into the basement music joint in Westport, Blaney’s, and the band is grooving. Van’s music is so anachronistic these songs could have been recorded 40 years ago or 40 days ago. Just hearing this album, makes me want to go up on the roof and pour a bourbon and it’s not even 3am.

There is a palpable sense of longing on this album. It’s not melancholic, but Van is clearly missing someone or some period of time, now distant and past. “Every Time I See A River” and “Out In the Cold” are both great “I still miss someone” songs. “Out In the Cold” is a true stand out here. “Memory Lane” again looks to the past as the title would obviously suggest. “In Tiburon” harkens back to Van’s halcyon San Francisco period as he name checks people and spots where he used to hang and “Going Down to Bangor” also is tied to Belfast memories. Van actually quotes the old spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…” in the great song “Holy Guardian Angel.” While this all sounds like sad stuff, it doesn’t come across that way. The title track is another of Van’s songs about reaching out for something just out of his grasp. His voice is spectacular as always. His “instrument” has aged quite well. I love his bluesy growl on “Going Down to Bangor” and “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword.” I just wish John Lee Hooker was still alive to have done one of those with Van as a duet…

While the theme here seems to be looking back, perhaps longingly, it’s with a certain joy. I don’t sense regret here. It’s more of an acknowledgement of the impact the past can have on you, on all of us really. It’s all heady stuff and really enjoyable music, if you dig music grounded in the traditions of jazz and blues. This is a triumph for Van to put out something this strong at this stage in the game. I always worry about craft over creativity with Van, but in this case, creativity wins out. There’s passion on this record.

Pick up “Keep Me Singing,” pour something strong after everyone has gone to bed and head out to the deck… those “big questions” need contemplation and this is just the soundtrack you need.

Cheers!