50 Years Later: Revisiting Van Morrison’s Impressionable ‘His Band And The Street Choir’

There’s nothing like fifty years of hindsight. Returning to Van Morrison’s His Band And The Street Choir (released 11/15/70) reminds that, dating back to his days with Them circa “Mystic Eyes,” this Irishman’s career is one of the most consistently vital and creative in rock history.  Beginning with 1967’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and followed by the near-mythic Astral Weeks of a year later, his solo efforts exceeded any expectations generated by his work with the aforementioned Irish band. 

The Belfast Cowboy later went on to hit his stride with a mainstream listening audience via a string of albums in the Seventies that cemented an impression remaining to this day. Released to great acclaim in January of 1970, Moondance is a far more polished piece of work than His Band And The Street Choir of eleven months later. Yet the latter, keynoted by its lead-off track, “Domino,” arguably contains more of the improvisational spontaneity Van The Man prefers in his music. In addition, close listening beneath the exultant horns led by saxophonist Jack Schroer, this scintillating piece of commercial pop-soul is more indicative of his irascible personality than the comparably brilliant but fondly nostalgic likes of “Wild Night” (from his next effort, 1971’s Tupelo Honey). 

Duly noted by Cory Frye in his essay for the expanded reissue of this second release in one year,  management encouraged Morrison to quickly capitalize on the breakthrough success of the previous album and that circumstance alone may account for the rootsy combination of newly-composed material interwoven with songs that had been around awhile in the author’s cache. The cryptic lyrics of songs like “Crazy Face” hardly camouflage Van’s influences—the organ and vocal evoke pure r&b—and, in the case of “Give Me A Kiss,” the combined homage to both Leadbelly and Fats Domino couldn’t be more clear (and the latter also gets a nod in “Blue Money”). Meantime, “Virgo Clowns” recalls the broad but understated eclectics of Morrison’s upstate New York neighbors at the time, The Band, via the spirit of New Orleans that often seasoned Moondance, additionally mixed with Celtic and flamenco strains.

Not surprisingly, the blues are prominent here, at the very foundation of “I’ve Been Working” as well as  “Sweet Jannie, ” a good-natured paean to Morrison’s wife at the time, former model Janet Planet. Yet neither are such overt expressions of personal emotion as “If I Ever Needed Someone” (also a stylistic nod to Ray Charles) and even more so “I’ll Be Your Lover;” on the latter, guitarist John Platania’s pinpoint fingering highlight the arrangement’s predominant acoustic textures and further nurture an air of deep introspection recalling the aforementioned mystical epic of 1968. As intimated by the superimposition of two photos of him on this cover, Van was no longer a tortured, solitary soul, but his own recollections of that state of mind remained vivid.

The five alternate versions of tunes on the His Band And The Street Choir album don’t so much belie the overall immediacy of the LP proper, but rather illustrate the fine line between just the right feel and even the slightest lack thereof. The hierarchy laid out in the record’s title comes to mind when the background vocals from The Street Choir (a shifting assemblage of singing friends and family) drift too far to the front on “Call Me Up in Dreamland,” while the ensemble as whole strains for and ever-so-slightly misses the groove on “I’ve Been Working.” No doubt the elusive ‘pocket’ is hard to reach—less so it would seem for the fluid rhythm section of bassist John Klingberg and drummer Dahaud Elias Shaar–but if the snippets of studio patter reveal anything, it’s the generally upbeat atmosphere in which the musicians, producers, and engineers worked so productively to capture the spirit of the songs.

“Street Choir” effectively bookends the original dozen tracks with another tale of estrangement like the one that began the cycle. In stark contrast to the odes to devotion and contentment with which Morrison’s would populate his next release though, Van seems almost restless for its duration, anticipating a future beyond Woodstock, though perhaps not exactly his relocation on the West Coast. Nonetheless, the subsequent issuing of  St. Dominic’s Preview two years later, including “Almost Independence Day” and “Listen to the Lion,” would redress the absence of any such extended meditation pieces on  His Band And The Street Choir, which otherwise remains an effective summary of this particular era of Van’s and one of his most diverse recordings.

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One Response

  1. Love me some Van Morrison!!! I got to see him for the Wavelength tour and was lucky enough to meet Van the Man!! So almost 50 years later, I’m going to get to see him in Vegas and would love to meet him again…..anyone have those connects? ?

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