Into the mystic with Van and Robert
Van Morrison and Robert Plant are going to rock your gypsy soul tonight at the 3 Arena in Dublin, writes Barry Egan
ONE was born at 125 Hyndford Street, Bloomfield, Belfast, on August 31, 1945; the other in the Black Country town of West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England on August 20, 1948. Both are kindred spirits.
The Belfast Cowboy and the Wolverhampton Wanderer are headlining a double-bill of authentic sonic magic tonight at the aforesaid uber-theatre in Dublin. The mystics of soul/blues/whatever you’re having yourself are both performing full sets at Bluesfest, and as such, it should be a night of nights from two of the greats of any genre.
Now 73-years-of-age, Van, like his body of work, has moved past time. He is the greatest singer to ever emerge from this island; the late Luke Kelly, Bono, and Sinead O’connor sometimes come close.
“It’s been way over 50 years since I first shared the stage with Van Morrison; and his band were positioned no.2 in the charts with Here Comes the Night,” said Robert Plant (who will perform with his Sensational Space Shifters) in advance of tonight’s show.
“His style then, and now, remains unique and loaded with deep soul. I’m looking forward to an exciting and dynamic night.”
Some would argue that no one has ever bettered Van’s 1968 album Astral Weeks (imagine Robert performing Astral Weeks’ blues masterpiece Madame George); others might argue that Plant’s vocals on Led Zeppelin’s Going To California, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Kashmir and Battle of Evermore have never been matched.
As Tom Shackleford wrote in August 2016 to mark Plant’s 67th birthday, citing his six best vocals, among them Battle Of Evermore: “In Battle of Evermore, Plant channels a very folk-driven, almost Joni Mitchell-esque style of singing, full of long, drawn out notation and letting his voice hold onto notes to really emphasise the song’s mysterious and dreamy theme.
Full of vocal layers, a range in dynamics, there aren’t very many lyrics in rock more hauntingly beautiful and eerie than when Plant sings: Dance in the dark night/sing to the morning light.” Hopefully, he will sing it tonight. “When I heard Goodnight Irene by Leadbelly, with Sonny Terry on harmonica, that was it,” Van once said. “Everything else went out the window.” Plant once attributed his desire to sing thus: “When I saw Sleepy John Estes and heard that voice — part pain, part otherworldly — I went, ‘I want that voice’.”
Ever since Led Zep stopped in December 4, 1980, two months after the tragic death of their drummer John Bonham, Robert Plant has plotted a beautiful diverse course on a solo career that has drawn inspiration from the roots music of Mississippi, Appalachia, Morocco, Gambia, Bristol and the foothills of Wolverhampton and beyond.
“I have to keep moving,” he told Uncut in 2014. “Everybody laughs at me, my kids and everybody. ‘Jeez, why?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s there to go to it’. When you go to Essaouira in Morocco, or the Welsh coast… when you go to these borderlands here, get out of the car and just sit there and take it in, it’s the very pulse of life. All the old gods are long gone but still… I don’t wanna say that they’re in the hedgerow because somebody will come and take me away. But there’s something of the old magic that’s still around...”
Although Plant and Morrison’s styles are perhaps different — and in some ways exactly the same — they are both shamen of song, singers who draw on the power of mysticism in music and the power of transcendence at their fingertips.
In 2012, when asked by producer Don Was in an interview with The Guardian, about the point at which he started to become conscious of the sort of transcendental nature of music, and how it could have a deeper impact on people, Van answered: “My father had Mahalia Jackson records, and when I heard Mahalia Jackson sing it was like, wow! They weren’t using the word “spiritual” then, it was gospel, but it wasn’t the gospel I was hearing in Sunday school. I realised, this is coming from somewhere else com- pletely, y’know? So that’s when I first became aware of it.
“And then, after that, it was soul and Ray Charles and all that. When we were in Germany, there were a lot of GIS. There was this tiny record player at the hotel, and some black GIS brought these 45s in and they played this Bobby Bland thing — Stormy Monday; the B-side was Your Friends.
“And something happened. It was the same as the Mahalia Jackson thing, only it was different, because I felt like it was actually happening to me — whatever you want to call it, a spiritual experience or whatever. That’s when it started, but it was a gradual thing to actually get it in the performance. It took until the 1970s until I had the right musicians to do what I wanted to do.”