Van Morrison – His Band And The Street Choir

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Hippie vibes intermingle with Belfast Soul

After the fireside candlelit intimacy of Moondance, Van, his wife Janet, her son and their newborn daughter relocated to Woodstock, not far from where Bob Dylan (one of Morrison’s idols) was residing. Though despite its idyll surroundings, the local environs were literally crawling with hippies, whose way of life and open communal values seemed at odds with Morrison’s own generally misanthropic tendencies. And yet Van, notorious for his grumpiness, somehow managed to get into the spirit of things, wanting nothing less than to create a “big family feel,” as local singer Martha Velez described it.

Initial work commenced in March 1970, finding him and his band demoing new and older material in a garage that had been remade into a temporary studio. Once satisfied that the songs were ready, Van chose to record the album proper at Manhattan’s A&R Studios, adopting the role as producer for the first time in his career. The basic tracks were all cut live, giving the album an almost spontaneous organic feel, just as his previous albums had.

The classic “Domino” is a joyous number, with its Stax-oriented horn section and Morrison’s euphoric vocals effortlessly commanding the listener’s attention. “Domino” reached No. 9 in the US, his highest selling single ever, and is another in a long line of superb openers, both before and after this album. Morrison’s deep affection for R&B is on full display on tracks such as “Gypsy Queen,” where Van’s beautiful falsetto is put to good effect, and the funky brass-driven “I’ve Been Working.”

Some songs date back to 1968, while Morrison was busy recording what is often considered to be his masterpiece, the numinous Astral Weeks. Among these is the intimate “Crazy Face,” notable for Morrison’s wailing sax solo, the other being “I’ve Been Working,” before the album seamlessly shifts into Fats Domino territory, replete with a ‘50s doo-wop chorus. “Call Me Up In Dreamland” is one of those quality R&B/soul tunes Morrison was capable of churning out on a daily basis at this time, and while hardly one his deepest compositions, the chorus is catchy as well as uplifting.

Van bears his heart on the poetic “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too,” a delicate paean to his wife Janet, whose acoustic/vocal ruminations would not have seemed out of place on Astral Weeks. “Blue Honey” is little more than a good-time throw away, as is the wonderfully titled “Virgo Clowns,” a continental styled tune that reminds this listener of one of those cheesy paintings one used to see in Italian restaurants back in the 1970’s. The bluesy, rollicking “Sweet Janine” is just plain fun, while “If I Ever Needed Someone” (another ode to Janet it’s safe to assume) is a touching love song, describing his lover as someone who can “keep me from my sorrow… So I can see a new tomorrow.”

Final track “Street Choir” follows not far behind its predecessor’s footsteps, and is a subtle Celtic-soul based ballad on which Van seems to be doing his best to imitate The Band, in a sort of post-Big Pink sort of way.

Although His Band And The Street Choir sold well, Morrison quickly distanced himself from it, most likely due to Warner Bros. refusing to give him the full artistic control he was originally promised (either that or he just didn’t give a shit). Such ambivalence on Morrison’s part would relegate Street Choir to relative obscurity, until finally being reissued in 2015 with improved sound and bonus tracks (an early CD version was released although the mastering is a bit flat).

Many fans of Moondance, or even 1972’s St. Dominic’s Preview may well find this LP disappointing, but as any devoted listener will tell you, Street Choir is an important statement by an artist who appeared always in a state of transition, while never betraying his roots.