The recent 50th anniversary of the album ‘Astral Weeks’ has excited a great deal of interest here in Northern Ireland. Apparently tourists have been seeking out locations that feature in the album (for example Cypress Avenue, Hyndford Street etc.). Van Morrison (who was known as ‘The Belfast Cowboy’ at one stage of his long career) is seen as very much a local boy around here, and particularly in Belfast. I have to confess that the first time I heard the album I couldn’t make head nor tail of it – it took the impulse purchase of his superb live album ‘It’s Too Late to Stop Now’ to take me back to the former record. I could pick out the lyrics (full of Morrison’s usual lyrical themes – the transcendence in the ordinary for example), or the excellent musicians, but it is his voice that sticks out. His way of using jazz phrasing and scat within what a lot of people still think of as a ‘rock’ context. The beauty of ‘AW’ and other albums (like the peerless ‘Veedon Fleece’) is self evident and it is this voice that holds the whole thing together.
To Van’s voice, I want to add Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile and Guy Garvey of Elbow. In the right context these voices have the ability to bring tears to my eyes. There is a yearning quality there that speaks to the many moods that the music evokes. The great family story here is that when my wife Heather recommended The Blue Nile to me I thought that they were Australian, and was surprised to discover their Scottish origins – every one of their albums is a masterpiece – and I add to that list Paul Buchanan’s solo recording ‘Mid Air’ which is a triumph of gracious melancholy. Guy Garvey’s voice is just as moving but doubly so as his Northern roots are strongly evident and it is always good to hear a Manchester accent wherever it occurs. There is the voice of ‘One Day Like This’ and the voice of songs like ‘Mirrorball’ (from ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’) and ‘Head for Supplies’ (from ‘Little Fictions’), and a two personal favourites at present ‘The Everthere’ (from ‘Leaders of the Free World’) and ‘Lippy Kids’ (from ‘Build a Rocket Boys’).
Frank Sinatra was known for many years as ‘The Voice’. He brought together the jazz phrasing of singers like Billie Holiday with the big band tradition of singers like Tony Bennett and Vic Damone – and whenever I heard his voice I am instantly reminded of my father’s love of Sinatra and of Sunday mornings when I would hear this voice coming from the living room as I considered getting up. All of these voices remind me of the power of song to move and inspire, they speak of hope in a increasingly dark time.