Genere: Folk Rock, Contemporary Rock, Celtic Rock.
Similar Artists: J.J. Cale, Jackson Brown, Them.
Recording Year: Lost Highway Records, 2006.
George Ivan Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on August 31, 1945; his mother was a singer, while his father ardently collected classic American jazz and blues recordings. At 15, he quit school to join the local R&B band the Monarchs, touring military bases throughout Europe before returning home to form his own group, Them. Boasting a fiery, gritty sound heavily influenced by Morrison heroes like Howlin' Wolf, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter, Them quickly earned a devout local following and in late 1964 recorded their debut single, "Don't Start Crying Now." The follow-up, an electrifying reading of Big Joe Williams' "Baby Please Don't Go," cracked the U.K. Top Ten in early 1965. Though not a major hit upon its original release, Them's Morrison-penned "Gloria" endures among the true classics of the rock pantheon, covered by everyone from the Doors to Patti Smith. Lineup changes plagued the band throughout its lifespan, however, and at the insistence of producer Bert Berns, over time session musicians increasingly assumed the lion's share of recording duties. A frustrated Morrison finally left Them following a 1966 tour of the U.S., quitting the music business and returning to Belfast.
After Berns relocated to New York City to form Bang Records, he convinced Morrison to travel stateside and record as a solo artist; the sessions produced arguably his most familiar hit, the jubilant "Brown-Eyed Girl" (originally titled "Brown-Skinned Girl"), a Top Ten smash in the summer of 1967. By contrast, however, the resulting album, Blowin' Your Mind, was a bleak, bluesy effort highlighted by the harrowing "T.B. Sheets"; when Berns released the LP against Morrison's wishes, he again retreated home to Ireland. After Berns suffered a fatal heart attack in late 1967, the singer was freed of his contractual obligations and began working on new material. His first album for new label Warner Bros., 1968's Astral Weeks, remains not only Morrison's masterpiece, but one of the greatest records ever made. A haunting, deeply personal collection of impressionistic folk-styled epics recorded by an all-star jazz backing unit including bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay, its poetic complexity earned critical raves but made only a minimal commercial impact. The follow-up, 1970's Moondance, was every bit as brilliant; buoyant and optimistic where Astral Weeks had been dark and anguished, it cracked the Top 40, generating the perennials "Caravan" and "Into the Mystic."
The first half of the 1970s was the most fertile creative period of Morrison's career. From Moondance onward, his records reflected an increasingly celebratory and profoundly mystical outlook spurred on in large part by his marriage to wife Janet Planet and the couple's relocation to California. After His Band and the Street Choir yielded his biggest chart hit, "Domino," Morrison released 1971's Tupelo Honey, a lovely, pastoral meditation on wedded bliss highlighted by the single "Wild Night." In the wake of the following year's stirring Saint Dominic's Preview, he formed the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, featured both on the studio effort Hard Nose the Highway and on the excellent live set It's Too Late to Stop Now. However, in 1973 he not only dissolved the group but also divorced Planet and moved back to Belfast. The stunning 1974 LP Veedon Fleece chronicled Morrison's emotional turmoil; he then remained silent for three years, reportedly working on a number of aborted projects but releasing nothing until 1977's aptly titled A Period of Transition.
Pay the Devil, an album-long foray into country music, shouldn't come as a surprise to Van Morrison fans. It's a logical extension of his love affair with American music. Certainly blues, R&B, soul, and jazz have been at the forefront, but one can go all the way back to the Bang years and find "Joe Harper Saturday Morning," or songs on Tupelo Honey that touch country. More recently, You Win Again, with Linda Gail Lewis, offered two Hank Williams tunes and "Crazy Arms." The Skiffle Sessions with Lonnie Donegan offered traditional Southern tunes including Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues." Morrison's lyrics have also referenced country music blatantly. Pay the Devil comes from direct sources of inspiration: his father's skiffle band and Ray Charles' historic forays into country on the two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962. The evidence lies in three cuts on this disc, all of which Charles recorded: Curley Williams' "Half as Much," Art Harris and Fred Jay's "What Am I Livin' For," and Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." Morrison's a cagey one: his own mercurial versions of these nuggets are more traditional than those of Charles, yet are steeped in similar production styles that offer a clear nod to the late artist. While there are no horns on Pay the Devil, the layers of strings on top of "fiddles" and honky tonk pianos — as well as earlier pedal steel styles — are giveaways. And then there is the voice. Like Charles, Morrison is a soul singer no matter what he sings and he digs into these tomes with fire and the uncommon sweetness of tone and limited timbre that Charles did.
Fields Of Haze.