Prolific singer and songwriter Van Morrison has produced one of the last half-century's most striking and diverse bodies of work, which continues to leave critics flipping through their music dictionaries for appropriate descriptions. In six short years, from 1968 to 1974, he enraptured audiences with a string of recordings that married autobiographical lyrics with lush compositions, elevating album tracks to epic song cycles. Over the next four decades, the artist's piercing musical vision has drifted across exotic soundscapes, touching on everything from traditional Celtic to gritty R&B to melancholic country.
George Ivan Morrison was born in Belfast to musical parents: His mother was a singer and his father, an avid collector of American blues and jazz records. From age 13, Morrison played guitar, saxophone, harmonica and keyboards, appearing in numerous local bands. At 15, the multi-instrumentalist quit school and started cleaning windows. He joined R&B group the Monarchs on a European tour before returning home to form the cult band Them.
In 1965, the group released its self-titled debut, featuring a cover of Big Joe Williams's Baby Please Don't Go, which reached the U.K. Top Ten that year, and the sexually charged, Morrison-penned, Gloria, which has since been revisited by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Patti Smith. Despite a successful tour in the U.S., including a memorable show with The Doors as opening act at Whiskey a Go Go, Morrison left Them in 1966.
The young musician headed to New York the following year and released the classic single, Brown-Eyed Girl. In 1968, he cut the brilliant Astral Weeks, a haunting patchwork of folk, blues and jazz that knit together deeply personal, poetically complex narrative threads. Like some of Morrison's other works, the recording didn't receive critical acclaim immediately upon release. He counterbalanced the album's stormy anguish with a bright and buoyant follow-up, Moondance, in 1970.
Shake-up and settle down
After several idyllic years in California, where Morrison lived with his wife, worked with the newly-formed Caledonia Soul Orchestra and released three accomplished albums including It's Too Late To Stop Now, the artist abruptly divorced, dissolved the group and retreated home to Belfast. His 1974 album, Veedon Fleece, sounded at once a return to the introspectiveness of Astral Weeks but also a departure as Morrison set out on a creative exploration of mystical motifs and spiritual transcendence.
Three years and a bout with writer's block passed before he released the aptly titled A Period of Transition, followed by a string of albums in the 1980s that focused on myth and faith, such as No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. In 1986, Morrison appeared at the Festival in fine form, treating Montreal audiences to highlights from his spiritually-minded, poetically rendered oeuvre for the first time in more than a decade.
In 1988, the musician collaborated with famed band the Chieftains in 1988 on Irish Heartbeat, a collection of traditional folk songs. The following year, he scored a commercial success with Avalon Sunset, which featured the hit singles Have I Told You Lately and Whenever God Shines His Light. (The latter was Morrison's first U.K. Top 20 hit in more than two decades.).
In 1990, a retrospective of the visionary artist's 25 year career was released - his best-selling album yet - rewarding old fans and recruiting new ones. It set the tone for the rest of that decade, which saw Morrison receive two Grammy awards and three Hall of Fame inductions. The accolades didn't slow his creative output, however; an eclectic string of recordings followed, bringing the artist back to his R&B roots and stretching his musical muscles with a traditional jazz album.
A year after returning to the Festival in 2007 for his second visit, "Van the Man" celebrated the 40th anniversary of Astral Weeks with a live recording of the album at the Hollywood Bowl. True to form, the artist rehearsed once with his band before taking the stage and - for the first time ever - performing his opus from start to finish. That same year marked the release of Keep It Simple, Morrison's 35th album.