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What It’s Like to See Van Morrison in Belfast, Northern Ireland

What It’s Like to See Van Morrison in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Mar 17, 2013 | 20 Comments

VAN MORRISON
EUROPA HOTEL, BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
MARCH 16, 2013

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Europa Hotel. Tonight, this is the best place in the world to be.”

Truer words were never spoken. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I discovered Van Morrison would be playing a) during my trip to Ireland, b) on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, c) in his hometown of Belfast, d) in a tiny 250-seat venue and e) that I was able to get a ticket. Granted, it was £140, but seriously, was there ever a question?

It was an eclectic crowd, pretty much the norm for a Van show. Some were dressed to the nines to honor the occasion, some looked to have paid nine dollars for their duds. My hopes, though, were that they were all actual fans who would appreciate the event properly, not just there to be part of something. I guessed that I might be the only single at my table, but my seatmate was Alan, who had flown over from Denmark for his first Van concert, a definite fan. I thought perhaps I’d traveled the furthest, from Northern California, but apparently there was someone there from Australia. More fans, a good sign.

Shana Morrison was there to help out pop and she “opened” the show with an abridged version of the band, doing three quick numbers, including “And It Stoned Me” and a kickass “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” With barely a break, the rest of the band was onstage and broke into the intro for “Only A Dream.” With a simple “Van Morrison” from one of the band, the man appeared—and magic happened.

Live Review: Paul Thorn and Ruthie Foster at the Napa Valley Opera House

Live Review: Paul Thorn and Ruthie Foster at the Napa Valley Opera House

Feb 9, 2012 | 6 Comments

The only thing missing at the Napa Valley Opera House Wednesday night was the tent.

Billed as the “Soul Salvation” tour, the co-headlining lineup of Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn brought the fervor of a religious revival, with a decidedly temporal bent, to the gathered congregation.

Both Thorn and Foster have early backgrounds that include heavy doses of religion—Thorn’s father was a Pentecostal preacher; Foster sang in and played piano for her church choir. Take those gospel influences, mix with equal parts of blues and soul, and you get an energetic and entertaining performance with somewhat different approaches.

Thorn can rock when backed by his touring band, but when performing acoustically, his regular guy, southern-accented attitude with some “aw, shucks” self-depreciating humor allows the listener to focus on the humor, love and pathos in his writing. His self-introduction, “Hi, I’m Paul Thorn and I’m gonna play some songs I made up,” set the tone for a wide array of song subjects.

He opened with “I’m Still Here,” giving thanks for making it through another day’s often bizarre trials and tribulations. The song “I Don’t Like Half The Folks I Love” said what many of us feel, but are afraid to say, about extended family—”I like it when they come, but I love it when they go.” Thorn told the story of “Joanie, the Jehovah Witness Stripper,” who was a good girl at heart just trying to make ends meet.

Death and destruction played roles in Thorn’s gospel revival: the touching “I Have A Good Day (Every Now And Then)” was prompted by the suicide of a friend, and Thorn promised “I’ve got a can of gas and I’m a dangerous man” to an unfaithful wife in “Burn Down The Trailer Park.” He paid tribute to his mother, who lived in the shadow of his preacher father for so many years, with the song “That’s Life,” stringing together different phrases she used throughout her life. Then, channeling his father, Thorn promised the crowd “If you don’t buy my CDs, you’ll go to hell,” before closing with “Everybody Looks Good At The Starting Line,” a tune about those good intentions we all have.

Ruthie Foster came to celebrate. She was genuine, warm and energetic, and her gospel roots inhabited every song. Although Foster was honored by the Blues Foundation last year as Best Contemporary Female Blues artist, she effortlessly blurs musical lines of Mississippi blues, Texas roots, Memphis soul, Cajun funk and Southern gospel. It’s an infectious mix that just exudes energy.

Her band took the stage one by one—Tanya Richardson on bass, Samantha Banks on drums and Scottie Miller on keyboards—slowly working into a slower, jazz-infused version of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer,” one of the songs from her recently released album Let It Burn. The band changed instruments, with Richardson on violin, Banks on a wood block and spoons and Miller on the mandolin, to brilliantly cover Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richmond Women’s Blues.”  They went a cappella to perform “The Titanic,” on which Foster is backed on her new album by the Blind Boys of Alabama. (The foursome on stage did a magical job, so much so that Foster beamed, “We get the Blind Boys with us on that and woo, we have church!”)

The energy began to build as Foster belted out what may be her signature tune, “Phenomenal Woman.” With the immediate standing ovation, the night could have ended right there, but she then went solo a cappella with the Son House song, “Grinnin’ In Your Face.” A slow-cooking “Real Love” followed, and the band closed with an extended version of the traditional “Death Came A’Knockin’.” Lyrically a generally morbid song, it was transformed into a lengthy upbeat jam, giving each of the musicians some quality solo time.

Thorn joined Foster and the band for two encores. With everyone on their feet, they did Fosters’ “I Hear Music In The Air” and closed with a new Thorn song, “Take My Love With You,” both high-energy, gospel-swaying, hand-clapping crowd pleasers.

With the spirit in the building, it’s a good thing they’ve renovated and strengthened the rafters of the Napa Valley Opera House. And at that point, if your soul wasn’t saved, well… maybe you just weren’t listening.

Live Review: Lucinda Williams at the Wells Fargo Center

Live Review: Lucinda Williams at the Wells Fargo Center

Jun 28, 2011 | No Comments

(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)

I’ll admit I haven’t been a hardcore Lucinda Williams fan. Her alt-country sound has been mildly attractive to me, enough that I own a few of her CDs, had at least listened to all of the others and had actually paid to see her in my own hometown 6 or 7 years ago. My interest was mostly due to a close female friend of mine who has had her share of ups and downs in life, and who for quite a while saw Lucinda’s music as the soundtrack to her own difficult journey on the planet. As such, I paid a bit more than average attention to Williams’ songwriting, and while some of it was very raw and direct and spot-on, some of it was almost annoying in its simplicity and repetitiveness. Her tendency to slur her vocals and deliver same in the occasional monotone didn’t grab me either.

Lucinda’s stage presence as a performer can be lacking—even borderline non-existent at times. The one previous time I’d seen her live was at the end of nearly a year of nonstop touring; the stage was about the last place she seemed to want to be that night. She did her best Van Morrison-esque impression, keeping her cowboy hat pulled low over her eyes and barely addressing the audience at all. And yes, alcohol may have been involved. Musically, it was a decent enough show, but not enough to turn me into a dedicated fan.

All that changed last Friday night. I had purchased a couple of tickets the day they went on sale (ninth row and reasonably priced, these days anyway, at $45.00) and had the aforementioned female friend/fan as my date. And even though I hadn’t been very impressed in two of Lucinda’s recent releases, West and Little Honey, I bought Blessed for a preview of what we’d be hearing. What struck me immediately with the album was the quality of the musicianship. Williams has the stature to have surrounded herself with some pretty good players through the years, but this just felt different somehow. With some real anticipation, I hoped it would translate to the live show.

When the 8 PM show still hadn’t started at 8:30 and the natives were getting restless enough to start rhythmically clapping, whistling and calling out Lucinda’s name, it was hard to remain upbeat. The house wasn’t full, and I tried to embrace the possibility that they were waiting for just a few more bodies to fill just a few more seats. She finally emerged with the three-piece band, mumbled, “Hello everybody,” and went straight into “Can’t Let Go.”

For the next hour and fifty minutes, the four musicians (Lucinda included) were simply brilliant. Props as well to the sound crew—this was one of the most crisp, clear and clean shows I have heard at the Wells Fargo Center in a long time. When you get that kind of sound right out of the gate, you can focus completely on what the performers are giving you. And what they gave to the night, interestingly enough, was more of a rock and roll feel, infusing a different kind of power and energy into the setlist than what I had expected.

Lucinda’s drummer, Butch Norton, immediately took charge. He was there. He converted his drums from a percussive device to an actual instrument, seemingly using every piece at every moment. At times, he inspired personal recollections of Animal from The Muppet Show band and the great Keith Moon. And though he was all over his kit, he was in complete control without overshadowing the rest of the band—loud and forceful in accentuating tunes like “Buttercup” and “I Changed The Locks,” and effortlessly holding up the quiet, introspective songs like “Born To Be Loved” and “Blessed,” both from the new album.

The other half of the rhythm section, David Sutton, was the perfect complement to Norton. While providing most of the backup vocal work, he alternated between a standup bass, a hollow body electric bass and a Fender Precision to provide a melodic bottom end that formed a real connection with Norton’s drum work. He ran the gamut from a hard rock sound to intricate fretwork to quiet single-note accentuations. He especially shone on “Get Right With God,” the encore’s closer.

Lead guitarist Blake Mills was simply amazing. He brought something different to each tune, from screaming, shredding leads to seamless slidework to finger picking staccato to light and buoyant accentuation of Williams’ vocals. He elevated music that was already brilliant to the level of stunning—every song would have made a highlight reel. A collection of guitars that I finally stopped counting covered most of the sound spectrum. At just 24, he plays well beyond his years.

Oh yeah, Lucinda. Sure, she still has those awkward-but-endearing moves onstage. And I’m not sure when this practice first started, but she now employs a music stand with a notebook that contains all the words to her songs at the ready, referring to it quite often. (C’mon, how many times prior to this show has she sung “Lake Charles” or “Pineola” or “Drunken Angel”?) But tonight, I’ll gladly give her that and whatever else she wants or needs to prop her up. Lucinda was in stellar form vocally. Her voice was strong and clear, she was both forceful and demure, she gave us pain and joy, she made us stop and think, she had us nodding our heads in common experience and deep feeling. She didn’t marble-mouth her lyrics, she didn’t fall into a lazy growl, she simply sang ever so beautifully in that slightly rough-around-the-edges Louisiana drawl which makes everything that comes out of her mouth so flat-out real. Again, the sound was brilliant, letting the audience easily fuse with the woman who has been included in the short list of the greatest songwriters of all time.

Tonight, for me, it all came together perfectly. No doubt I’m late to the party, but now I get Lucinda Williams. The strength and quality of her backing musicians (interestingly enough, all from California), the power of the real-life stories she crafts lyrically, the quality and emotion in her voice—it all felt so deeply, penetratingly real that it was almost scary someone could do it so well.

Tonight’s show was magic. I’m a fan.

—Bob Meline

(Previously by Bob Meline: Bonnie Raitt at Sonoma Jazz +)

Live Review: John Hiatt and the Ageless Beauties at the Mystic Theatre

Nov 20, 2008 | 2 Comments

(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome back guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)

With props to Philly’s Billy Paul, John Hiatt and Sonoma County have a thing going on. The Mystic Theatre is a regular stop on Hiatt’s tour schedule and it’s definitely a two way street when it comes to this thing. Sonoma County loves him—his shows always sell out early, whether he’s performing solo or with his endless array of kick-ass bands—and Hiatt always returns the favor tenfold with nothing less than stellar shows taken from some 30 years of some of the best songwriting ever offered.

Touring in support of his latest release, Same Old Man, Hiatt’s performance Thursday night was counter indicative that the title might be autobiographical. After a few listens through his new offering, the album’s writing isn’t nearly as strong as some of his recent work and the vocals at times seem to be even more rough around the edges that fans are used to. But Hiatt was in prime form at the Mystic, his voice as clear and strong as ever while changing tempos, reworking lyrics, extending solos and exercising his endless array of facial gymnastics—definitely not acting like the same old man.

He opened the set to a thunderous ovation with a strong, determined, version of “Perfectly Good Guitar.” From the onset, he seemed to be a man happy in his own skin, extremely comfortable on stage and genuinely appreciative, if not somewhat surprised, at the raucous support of the Mystic audience. At the conclusion of the song, he spread his arms in his first of many acknowledgments of his band, the Ageless Beauties: “It’s great to be back in Petaluma at the Mystic Theatre“, he drawled, “where much mysticality always takes place.”

The band then went into a trifecta of tunes from the new album, “Old Days,” “On With You” and “Love You Again,” creating a feel that was much more fresh and lively than the studio versions.

The intro to “Cry Love” was the beginning of an amazing night of guitar work from guitarist Doug Lancio, providing a soaring, ethereal, heavenly feel that complimented the tunes’ references to “the tears of an angel.” Lancio, who has worked with the likes of Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle and Todd Snider, is the latest guitarist to work with Hiatt, who seems to have a certain magnet that attracts extremely accomplished but sometimes underrated musicians.

Born in Nashville and introduced by Hiatt as one of the original “thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers from Nashville,” Lancio worked through the evening with an array of electric and acoustic guitars, a dobro and a mandolin, effortlessly providing the perfect feel to Hiatt’s tunes.

The band continued nonstop through a number of Hiatt’s classics, “Walk On,” a hard driving “Master of Disaster,” “Crossing Muddy Waters,” and the always hot and greasy “Drive South,” a terrific character study of two young lovers trying to make it work.

One would not expect a songwriter who recently received the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting to have the cojones to start a tune with “Well, I’m sitting on the toilet with my sunglasses on / Wondering what you are up to,” but there’s probably no more fitting intro possible to “Ethylene,” a rare gem that Hiatt pulled out of his big ol’ box of songs as a gift to the audience. Hiatt expounded on Ethylene herself after the song, letting everybody know they could find her at a diner in east Tennessee, where they have the best bologna and cheese on white bread sandwiches anywhere—because they slice the bologna fresh right in front of you. And with a can of Diet-Rite cola and a bag of peanuts for dessert (dropped into the can, of course), well, there you are. It was a nice peek into the window of Hiatt’s oft-times offbeat songwriting brain.

The Ageless Beauties expertly transformed the classic “Memphis in the Meantime” from a catchy country rock feel to a full-bore rock and roll number. The two other Beauties, bassist Patrick O’Hearn and drummer Kenny Blevins, provided a solid rhythm section, albeit at times Blevins’ drums seemed to be a bit loud for some of the softer songs. O’Hearn filled the bottom end working from standup, acoustic and electric bass.

Hiatt rounded out the evening touching all the bases—the crowd pleasing “Tennessee Plates” (introduced as “a song about grand theft auto“), “Paper Thin,” “Slow Turning” (with a modified monologue and homage paid to the younger vote: “It’s their time now”), “Feels Like Rain,” and an extended “Ridin’ With the King,” giving Lancio the front and center one more time.

The band encored with—what else?—“Thing Called Love,” wherein Hiatt again gave Bonnie Raitt her due for both her having made the song as popular as it is and, as a very nice side benefit, having helped to put a couple of his kids through college. A keyboardless “Have a Little Faith in Me” closed the show.

Throughout the night, Hiatt was as appreciative of his audience as they were of him. During his encore, he thanked the audience again for coming, noting that it was especially appreciated “during these hard economic times.” And with the trademark ear-to-ear Hiatt grin, he promised that he’d be doing this as long as he was able—even if, he joked to the crowd, it reached the point where he’d have to arrive onstage on a motorized mobility scooter.

It looks like this “thing” may be going on for a long time.

Robert Meline

Bonnie Raitt at Sonoma Jazz+

May 31, 2008 | No Comments

(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)

Acknowledging that early in her career she would “never have been able to set foot” in a tent housing a jazz festival, Bonnie Raitt very aptly closed the four day run at Sonoma Jazz+, constantly educating the audience in musical history and, in the process, giving the capacity crowd the party they were looking for.

While the festival seems to be moving more and more away from traditional jazz, Raitt brought an amazing band and some well-suited musical guests in paying tribute to blues, rock, reggae, r&b and jazz—“all the tributaries and roots of not just jazz,” she said, “but what we call good music.”

Bonnie Raitt has worked through the years with drummer Ricky Fattar and bassist extraordinaire James “Hutch” Hutchinson, but the addition a few years ago of George Marinelli on guitar has become the perfect compliment to Raitt’s slide guitar and rock and rhythmic style—expertly filling the voids with single notes, short riffs and all-out leads without taking the attention away from center stage. But by far, Raitt’s band has profited the most with the addition of Jon Cleary on keyboards. His swampy New Orleans jazz/roots/funk style is the base from which he can also deliver rock, r&b and even those dark, smoky bar ballads, wrenching true human emotion out of every single note from his keyboard.

Raitt’s set list drew from all along the timeline of her lengthy career and showcased a varied cross section of musical styles. While Raitt has not written the majority of her recorded material, she has a gift for choosing other artists’ songs, no matter what the genre, and making them uniquely her own. Bonnie’s all out rockin’ version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” was early in the set, soon followed by the r&b gem from Isaac Hayes, “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” She introduced it as a song about “how messed up love can be—and I’ve been makin’ a livin’ off it ever since.”

Working some reggae into the evening, she did “Premature,” her recent duet with Toots and the Maytals, calling Toots Hibbert “a great songwriter and friend.” She then brought out her first guest of the evening, Maia Sharp, duetting on a song from her recent Souls Alike album, “I Don’t Want Anything to Change.”

Returning to her self-titled debut album of 1971, she paid tribute to the pioneering blues singer of the 20’s, Sippie Wallace, performing an acoustic slide version of “Women Be Wise.” Cleary’s honky tonk piano solo was a perfect fit and enthralled even Raitt—who waltzed over and laid her elbow on the piano, propped her chin in her hand and seemed as amazed as the rest of the audience at Cleary’s ability.

As advertised, slide master Roy Rogers made his first appearance on stage next, doubling up with Raitt on an absolutely incendiary acoustic version of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” Raitt is one of the better slide guitarists in the business, but even she was thrilled to have Rogers alongside showcasing his unique style. After the song, and the well-deserved standing ovation, she remarked to Rogers, “Your wife is a lucky woman…”

Raitt included John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” bringing Sharp back on stage to join the band, the four backup vocalists soaring on the choruses. The lead track from her most recent album, “I Will Not Be Broken,” finished with a fade into some soft gospel vocal vamps, which led into “Something to Talk About, ” the first of two roadhouse rocking set closers. Exhorting drummer Fattar to “Keep it going, Ricky,” the band finished with “Love Sneakin’ up On You.” The all-ages audience, long ago tired of doing Dan Hicks’ “barstool boogie in their seats,” had filled the aisles in all manner of dance and wasn’t at all ready for the party to be over. Thunderous applause filled the huge but now-intimate tent and brought the band back for a four-song encore.

Noting that it was “not exactly a dance tune,” Raitt, absent her guitar and perched on a stool with a single spot accenting her flame red hair, rode Cleary’s sensuous keyboard work into the beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” While known for her guitar chops and rough edged vocals, Raitt took everyone on a spine-tingling soul search for love never returned, the raw passion fueled no doubt by having admitted in the past that she’d been on “both sides of this one.” And if Bonnie’s vocals didn’t break your heart, Cleary’s closing piano solo finished the job and brought the hard truth of the title into plain view.

Staying in the smoky bar-like vein, and again working with Sharp, Raitt came as close to jazz as she would get on the night through Sharp’s “The Bed I Made.” As suited as Raitt’s vocal intensity is to the song, it was again the musicians who shone, Hutchinson working a nice bass melody, Cleary wringing emotion out of every note and Sharp adding a sexy, breathy baritone sax solo to close out the tune.

Kicking it back into high gear, Raitt strapped on her guitar and pronounced, “Yes, I’m ready!” and brought back Rogers, the song’s co-writer, for their thumping and chunking “Gnawin’ on It,” going shoulder to shoulder with him so she could watch him “blow the windows out of the place.” And that he did.

Always paying tribute and giving credit to others, Raitt dedicated the last song to the late Phil Elwood, the longtime jazz/blues reviewer for the San Francisco Examiner and later the Chronicle, calling him “one of the best friends music ever had.” And in her unending praise to those who paved the way for her, she introduced a tune she’s done through the years with Charles and Ruth Brown, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” A rocking, rollicking shuffle blues, it was the perfect opportunity for Raitt to let each of the musicians shine one more time, including her brother, David Raitt, on the harmonica.

In welcoming the sold-out audience at the start—and make no mistake, this show was the draw of this year’s festival—Raitt, performing close to her real home, said she felt like she was with family. No doubt the crowd, as it reluctantly filed out, was feeling the kinship—“Souls Alike,” if you will—and hoping for a reunion much, much sooner than later.

Robert Meline