Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Another Moving Van

Depending on whether you like him or not, Van Morrison, who sang at Felt Forum Friday night, is either an unprecedented original or an undisciplined weirdo. Call him a white rhythm-and-blues singer but to understand that in this context rhythm-and-blues is an obsolete form equidistant from soul, blues and rock, with Morrison its only practitioner.

And then add that rhythm-and-blues is only a center. Remember that Morrison is responsible for the most inspired two-chord schlock single in history, "Gloria," and the most lyrical top 10 rocker in history, "Brown Eyed Girl." Recall that his first Warner Brothers Album, Astral Weeks is still considered unlistenable obscure by many astute observers, and that his fourth, Tupelo Honey, epitomizes the one-dimensional domestic pastoral. Acknowledge that his reputation for live excitement is equaled by his reputation for infuriating no-shows, many of which take place with Van on stage. And note that a healthy one-fourth of his work is simply not very good.

Friday night was typical. After an ideal opening set from the Persuasions, masters of another obsolete black music form, Acapella, Morrison and his Caledonia Soul Express proceeded with the acoustic force of their show, which was simply not very good. Tupelo Honey proves Morrison a master of laid-back music, but the songs last night (unless I missed one when I dozed off) weren't from that album, which was inspired by a woman who has since split with Morrison.

I'm not sure what he did sing--recognition was hampered by Van's practice of pronouncing words without using his teeth. But I do know that things livened up with a relaxed version of "Brown Eyed Girl" and came up straight as the electric portion of the show kicked off with Bobby Bland's "Ain't Nothing You Can Do."

From there on in the music was good but not great, which for Morrison is plenty good enough. As usual, his singing conveyed a simultaneous devotion to the earth and the mystical, obviously influenced by Ray Charles and Sonny Boy Williamson, only thinner, with a hint of country intonation. Morrison has written some of the greatest lyrics in contemporary music, but his verbal attack is often oblique. Sometimes he seems to care more about sound than words, which is why he slurs, and also why he literally grunts, whinnies, howls and roars in the course of a concert. Friday night, he even barked.

In the pre-encore show-closer, "Caravan," he commanded us once again to turn up our radios so we know it's got soul. That's the way this concert worked--once the music was loud enough, the natural spiritual power of the material made itself felt. Next time he's here something else will happen. Which will be fine.

N'day, Mar. 18, 1974