segunda-feira, maio 01, 2006

Van Morrison Explores the Unknowable, Sometimes in Silence (by Ben Ratcliff for The New York Times)

Van Morrison is interested in the unknowable, the forces that can't love you as you love them. This could be why, in running through streams of semi-improvised words and phrases in a performance, he mentions the names of deceased singers — Jackie Wilson, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon — almost as liturgy.

It could also be why, in the best parts of his show in the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Monday, he didn't use words at all. (The name of the unknowable, after all, may be Sha-la-la-la or Dang-a-lang-a-lang.) It could explain the silences seamed into his phrasing, which he controls uniquely but probably adapted from Louis Armstrong's roomy, airy swing.

It could also explain a moment that arrived in a version of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You." Mr. Morrison ordered his three background singers — who did not make a particularly good foreground sound — to fill in two verses of the song. As they sang, he approached the microphone to interject something as antiphony. He opened his mouth, raised a hand, and then stopped himself and backed away, and this void was part of his performance too.

Mr. Morrison could be like any number of pop singers from the late 60's who have been enshrined for decades on album-oriented radio and create a species of rigidly nostalgic hell in person. (A cursory version of "Moondance" on Monday night suggested what this might be like.) Instead, at his best, he is a bandleader in a constant state of choice, patrolling his band's dynamics and ordering up solos as he makes his silences more valuable.

For long stretches on Monday, he moved tensely in his dark suit and cowboy hat, barely acknowledging the crowd. He used impatience as a means to creativity, thinking his way through, finally hitting his stride toward the end.

His new album, "Pay the Devil" (Lost Highway), borrows its repertory and instrumentation from country music; though he played only a few of its songs on Monday, a fiddle player (Jason Roberts, from the band Asleep at the Wheel) and a steel guitarist (Cindy Cashdollar) floated in and out of the band, which at its largest numbered 11 musicians. Some of these songs — Webb Pierce's "There Stands the Glass," Clarence Williams's "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It" — aren't yet soil for great vocal improvisations, though Mr. Morrison toyed with them, working them out, testing them to see what kind of repetitions, phrase-bunching and vowel-stretching they can stand.

Those kinds of devices took over a number of songs in the show's last third: the mesmerizing waltz-time ballad "In the Midnight"; "Precious Time," in which the idea of life slipping away made him sing "na-na-na-na" and turn from plummy bellowing to a low, nasal, growling vocal rip; the almost radical confrontation with "I Can't Stop Loving You"; and a version of the old pop song "All in the Game."

"All in the Game" is just Mr. Morrison's thing: it is entirely about the unknowable: why a lover won't return one's call, why he might then change his mind. Tumbling through the words, rolling them around, he unleashed volleys of "they wanna, they wanna, they wanna, they wanna" and "once in a while, in a while, in a while." He sang the word "love" and looked straight up at the ceiling, until the next phrase appeared to him. He injected the gospel phrase "99½ won't do." Leaving the stage as musical lines kept repeating, he in turn repeated his own line, "one more time again, one more time again."

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