Van Morrison has made multiple appearances at the Montreux Festival. This restored film highlights his performance at the 1974 event and shows the singer at a unique point in his career.
Van Morrison arrived at the Montreux Jazz Festival in June 1974 with a full-force gale in his sails. It may have been a few years since he had a genuine charting hit in either the U.S. or the U.K. — the last time he cracked the Billboard Top Ten was in 1970 when the joyous “Domino” went to number nine — yet there was no denying he carved out his own distinctive niche within rock ‘n’ roll by blending his spiritual inclinations with earthy R&B, a combination that fueled an extraordinary run of records in the early ‘70s.
When Morrison played Montreux, he remained in the throes of this creative renaissance. He had one album in waiting in the wings — the reflective, gentle “Veedon Fleece,” which appeared that October — and was armed with several songs ready for the studio, tunes he played at the festival but wound up shelving as he entered an extended hiatus shortly after this performance. Nearly three years later, he’d resurface with the accurately titled Dr. John co-production “A Period of Transition,” leaving his 1974 appearance at Montreux as a curious island within his career: It contains songs that were orphaned, performed by a band who would never play together again. It’s the kind of concert passionate fans would grow to cherish as time passes.
The audience at Montreux wasn’t appreciative of Morrison’s quirks, however. Every shot of the crowd captures stone-faced patrons. During the interim between the set and the encore — a period not documented in this concert film — a heckler jumped onto the stage and berated Morrison for playing unfamiliar material. The singer responded by growling a profanity and launching into a ten-minute “Harmonica Jam.” (The exchange happened off-camera, unfortunately.)
The spontaneity of that improvised blues number shows why Morrison was an ideal artist for the Montreux Jazz Festival, a hallowed institution that was just a handful of years old in 1974. Morrison decided to embrace the freeing possibilities of jazz, eschewing the familiar for unheard music. He assembled a crack band anchored by Dallas Taylor — the drummer who played on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s pivotal records — and featuring keyboardist Pete Wingfield and bassist Jerome Rimson, musicians that weren’t in the singer-songwriter’s immediate circle. None of them appeared on “It’s Too Late to Stop Now,” the double-live LP Morrison released in early 1974 and commonly acknowledged as one of the greatest concert albums of all time.
The transcendence arrives when Morrison pushes through the limits of generic expectations, using blues and R&B workouts as a conduit for a higher meaning.
“It’s Too Late to Stop Now” provides a yardstick by which to judge Morrison’s Montreux show. The record crystalizes his appeal, capturing a journeyman with the soul of a mystic: The transcendence arrives when Morrison pushes through the limits of generic expectations, using blues and R&B workouts as a conduit for a higher meaning. The performance at Montreux isn’t as incandescent as those on “It’s Too Late to Stop Now,” but that appears to be by design.
Assuming he was facing an erudite crowd, Morrison decided to build his concert as if he was a full-fledged jazzbo himself, dedicating a good portion of the show to instrumentals where he blows either horn or harp. There’s nothing approaching a hit in the setlist; the closest thing to a single is “Bulbs,” which would wind up being the first song pulled from “Veedon Fleece,” but nobody in the audience knew the tune that June. Indeed, almost none of the featured songs would be familiar to punters in the summer of 1974. “Street Choir” brought “His Band and the Street Choir” (1970) to a close, so possibly a few fans recognized it, but the presence of the Them chestnut “I Like It Like That” drives home how Morrison was looking for songs that satisfied him, not the crowd.
An audience seeking comfort chose to view this setlist as provocation, yet the years have been exceedingly kind to “Live at Montreux 1974” even if the passing of time has dulled what seems to be the set’s essential appeal: the presence of three abandoned original tunes. Morrison eventually released “Twilight Zone,” “Naked in the Jungle” and “Foggy Mountain Top” on the 1998 outtakes collection “The Philosopher’s Stone,” so they don’t quite surprise. But these live renditions feel robust in a way their studio counterparts don’t.
Credit should go to this one-time pickup band, a collection of pros who share the same core belief as Morrison: music is meant to be played and experienced in the moment. It’s fortunate this particular moment was captured at “Live at Montreux 1974,” as Morrison never quite made music like this ever again.
Van Morrison Montreux 1974 Setlist
I Like It Like That
Foggy Mountain Top
Naked in the Jungle
Stephen Thomas Erlewine is a Senior Editor of Pop Music at Xperi, whose database of music information is licensed throughout the internet and can be accessed at Allmusic.com. While at Xperi and Allmusic, he’s written thousands of record reviews and artist biographies as well as editing a series of record guides. He’s also contributed to Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Spin and New York Magazine’s Vulture, and has written liner notes for Sony Legacy, Vinyl Me Please and Raven Records.