Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher: Live at Montreux

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Each of these double DVD sets captures Morrison and Gallagher in all their emotional, mercurial glory.
Van Morrison
Live at Montreux 1980/1974
Eagle Eye Media

For close to forty years the Montreaux Jazz Festival has set the standard for jazz as an all-inclusive art form. Two artists, purely coincidentally both Irish, have recently released DVDs containing concert performances at the famed fest, each of which, in its own way, illustrates how broad the definition of jazz can really be.

Van Morrison titled one of his albums A Period of Transition, but that phrase might well apply to his entire career. Under the tutelage of impresario Bill Graham, The Belfast Cowboy had released the polished Wavelength in 1979, only to follow it with the modal mood piece Common One the very next year.

This 1980 performance catches him at the nexus of those phases: his band, including the core of his Street Choir unit—guitarist John Platania, keyboardist Jef Labes plus the individually distinctive hornmen Pee Wee Ellis and Mark Isham—is equally tight (and as absorbed in the music as their leader) whether on structured pieces like "Wild Night or the looser likes of "Summertime in England.

Morrison himself is not quite distant but definitely less enraptured by the evocative melody and lyrics of "Moondance, than the more open-ended "Haunts of Ancient Peace. Bereft of bonus features, this two-disc set nevertheless includes informative liner notes detailing the hasty preparations for the markedly different 1974 appearance included on the second disc in this set.

The eccentric Irishman is backed by only keyboards, bass and drums in 1974. The skeletal sound is augmented to a great degree by the bandleader on acoustic guitar, and the leader's innate musical sense comes through there more than when he plays horn on two numbers ("Swiss Cheese" and "Heathrow Shuffle ) later in the set and harp on "Harmonica Boogie" to close.

Despite those minor shortcomings, Van Morrison's passion permeates the rest of this hour-plus set. The way he alters his phrasing of the lyrics on "Street Choir is the kind of ingenuity that made him one of the most remarkable singers of our time. A genuine charisma arises from his self-absorption that rivets the camera on Van. It's similar to the way Rory Gallagher commands attention in the performances in his double DVD.

The five years of Gallagher's Montreux shows, compiled by his brother Donal, speak for themselves as eloquently Van Morrison's do. It's a wild ride with Rory in the early years as his frenetic physical presence matches the music he plays, a mix of rock and blues that owed as much to Chuck Berry as Muddy Waters. He distinguished him from other guitarists of his generation (Clapton) and beyond (Stevie Ray Vaughan). While similar selections ("Moonchild, "Too Much Alcohol ) reappear through the five different years on film (including the complete 1994 set), and Gallagher's accompanists vary only slightly (keyboardist Lou Martin enhancing the trio lineup in 1975), the frontman's presence alters significantly.

Slightly more reserved in 1985 than a decade before, Rory Gallagher's captured playing music with no less intensity. His eagerness to please his audience may seem gauche at times (waving a towel to cool off his guitar?!) but it's all an expression of his devotion to his listeners. Such ingenuous loyalty informed Gallagher's attitude throughout his career, right to the threshold of the fatal illness noted by eminent British journalist Chris Welch in his accompanying essay.

What's truly revelatory about Rory Gallagher Live at Montreaux is the inclusion of ample footage featuring the guitarist playing an acoustic instrument. A side of his well-defined style never captured to great extent on his officially released albums (the posthumous Wheels Within Wheels the exception), it's fascinating to see he's only a little less fevered in this style than when he plays his battered Fender electric. Gallagher is definitely no less joyous a musician, though: "Going to My Hometown demonstrates that, while he didn't dazzle by technique, he demanded listeners' attention by the depth of his own commitment to his music (which also rendered it absolutely authentic and true to its roots). Rory got his audience clapping and singing along without overt sign of encouragement!

To describe Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison as mercurial musicians and performers suggests it's well nigh impossible to capture a definitive performance by either man. But each of these respective Montreaux DVD sets truly does them justice.

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