On the eve of the East Belfast Arts Festival - a personal Van the Man top ten...


Well, ladies and gents – only four more sleeps until I become part of the Van Morrison, East Belfast Arts Festival extravaganza – Aircraft Park, Belfast, this Saturday, September 8 for those of you who haven't heard.

I’m performing that afternoon as part of a line-up that includes Mama Kaz, Gareth Dunlop, Brian Houston, Belfast Community Gospel Choir, the Wonder Villains, Katie and the Carnival and Shana Morrison – with the whole thing topped off by a performance for the first time back in his home territory of East Belfast’s most famous son, Van the Man.
Click HERE to be directed to the ticketmaster page if you’d like to buy tickets. I understand some tickets may be available on the door on the day (maybe it’s ‘on the flap’ if you’re playing in a marquee, I don’t know)
As part of the run-up, I thought it might be nice to throw together a little personal Top Ten of Van tracks – drop me a line and let me know your selection, or some that you think I might have missed. It’s such a great back catalogue, where would you start/stop?
1 - Fair Play (from Veedon Fleece)
The first time I heard this was years ago, it was on a dusty old vinyl copy of Veedon Fleece - and it seems steeped in the ages now, the sound of upright pianos in sunlit rooms. Oscar Wilde and Thoreau… Someone gave me a CD copy of Veedon Fleece in Canada during the summer and I rode through the woods in a borrowed car for days, playing this over and over as the sun came down through the leaves and played on the windscreen. I missed the sound of the dust and the passing years, but the piano was still as heartbreaking as it had always been.
2 - She Gives Me Religion (from Beautiful Vision)
The most beautiful track on the gorgeous Beautiful Vision album: the sleepy Sunday afternoon sound of bells, pretty girls in their summer fashion and the angel of imagination lighting a fire in a young heart. Elegiac trumpet from Mark Isham and a superb arrangement. I just keep coming back to it, and it never fails to deliver.
3 – Madame George (from Astral Weeks)
There’s little to be said about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said – perfectly poetic, perfectly street-level, beautifully observed, delivered with tenderness and attitude and filled with loving details – ‘throwing pennies at the bridges down below’. It remains as fresh as ever to this day.

4 - A Sense of Wonder (from A Sense of Wonder)
Van explores his Belfast childhood on this evocative title track from the 1986 album. ‘Gravy rings, wagon wheels, barnbracks, snowballs...’ An irresistible exploration of the emotional geography of a hometown and the fields that surrounded it and were such a source of inspiration for the young artist. Van has touched on the subject many times, but never quite as beautifully. And I am an enormous advocate of… wonder.
5 - Queen of the Slipstream (from Poetic Champions Compose)
Quite simply one of the most beautiful performances from the superb Poetic Champions Compose collection. As a piece of songwriting, it sounds completely contemporary and two hundred years old at exactly the same time.
6 - Rave On John Donne (from Live at the Grand Opera House, Belfast)
‘Tonight you will understand the one-ness’… Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast is one of my favourite live albums of all time – with Van backed by an absolutely wonderful band, all of them on top form. They rise to the occasion on this fabulous rendition. When Van moves from the spoken to the sung section he rises to it, line by line. It’s hair-raising. And when the band crank up into the final, faster section they turn into a groove that takes that ruminative beauty and welds it to a punchy, muscular performance.
7 - Come Running (from Moondance)
There are few songwriters who capture the joy of summertime and young love like Van – Brown Eyed Girl nailed it wonderfully. The fact that you’ve heard it a million times doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the greatest ever songs about being young and smitten. ‘Making love in the green grass behind the stadium with you, my brown eyed girl’. It doesn’t get much better than that. Come Running explores similar emotional geography, jazzier and funkier – and his voice is just great against a hook-laden horn arrangement. I particularly love it when the horns and voice play against each other in the chorus: ‘I said HEY!’ – bam! – ‘Come running to me’.
8 - Hungry for Your Love (from Wavelength)
From Wavelength – the deeply groovy arrangement of this Wavelength cut conceals a killer punch, the syncopated roar of one of Van’s most memorable choruses. It’s like the whole band holds its breath and the heart skips a beat as he jumps in: ‘I’ve got such a lot of love…’ a perfect marriage of words, music, rhythm and attitude.
9 - Into the Mystic (from Moondance)
The Moondance album is packed with gems, and they don’t come much better than this, a Van classic that feels like it’s steeped in the waters of Belfast Lough, with reference to foghorns and an exhortation to ‘smell the sea and feel the sky’. It’s a blueprint for all kinds of music that came after, and it remains one of the best EVER examples of pure Celtic Soul.
10 - Tura Lura (from The Last Waltz)
If you’ve seen The Last Waltz, you’ll surely agree that Van walks away with the Man of the Match award for his roof-raising, high-kicking performance of Caravan. But the full performance, captured in the Last Waltz four-disc box set, contains the other Van performance from the show – a rather strange choice of Tura Lura (An Irish Lullaby) that contains a startling vocal performance from Richard Manuel and Van, who converts the song to a full-throated soul roar that put the hairs up on the back of the neck and leaves them standing. Complete with backing from The Band and the Last Waltz horn section, it’s an unmissable gem.
Drop me a line with your choices - at anthonytonermusic @ gmail.com
And in the meantime, for those of you who enjoy hearing me play the blues with the Ronnie Greer Band, we’re in action this weekend down in Monaghan at the Harvesttime Blues Festival. We play The Anchor Bar on Friday night at 9.30pm, and then on Sunday we have two shows – Terry’s Bar on Sunday afternoon at 4pm, and later that night the Westenra Hotel at 9pm.
CURRENTLY READING: Hugely enjoying Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell (right) - a collection of journalism from the New Yorker writer. A wonderful ragbag of unforgettable eccentrics and New York characters, including street preachers, bearded ladies, publicans, deadbeats and entertainers. A real treasure chest of observation - I was struck that the young Bob Dylan might have filled his first five albums with the characters displayed here.
CURRENTLY LISTENING: Prefab Sprout - the greatest hits collection A Life Full of Surprises. I have a taste for the Prefabs every now and then, but it's like chocolate. After forty minutes of it my teeth start to rot. Sweet, slick and smart, Paddy McAloon wrote some beautiful tunes, and then cloaked them all in sugary synth washes, chimy guitars and breathy harmonies. But it's great to pump yourself full of that stuff every now and then, when all the other rock bands sound a bit... meat & potatoes.