Linda Gail Lewis and The Red Hot Pokers
Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre
7 July 2000
Originally published in Wavelength magazine.
When the review was written I had no idea that this was the first try-out concert with Linda Gail Lewis, nor that the band was called The Red Hot Pokers. The try-out was in Poole because it’s less than 70 miles from Van’s Somerset home. It’s been widely noted since as Van’s worst ever show, and Linda Gail Lewis later did a kiss and tell to the tabloids. It’s notable that when Van Morrison regained his copyrights and reissued his albums, the album with Linda Gail Lewis was the only one left out of print.
The show started late. The hall had advertised seating in the balcony with standing downstairs, but had to send a letter to ticket-buyers three days before the event, offering to swap balcony tickets for front stalls … so queues were half an hour long to exchange them.
The unfamiliar four-piece band trooped on in matching drape jackets for a couple of reasonable rock and roll workouts. They were joined by Linda Gail Lewis for three country songs, culminating with an unimpressive Dark End of The Street. She’d told us that Van would be duetting with her, and he entered with a Les Paul round his neck and joined her on Jambalaya and You Win Again. The guitar was a fixture for most of the evening, being gently and usually inaudibly strummed. We were still clinging to the hope that this was only the support set and that we’d get Van’s real band later. The stuffed sheep mascot was sitting stage left after all.
It was not to be. The four piece (guitar, bass, drums, sax) plus Linda Gail Lewis on electric piano backed the whole evening. We’ve had the jazz tour, the Mose Allison tribute and the skiffle tour. So the latest incarnation is now Van as a Country & Western singer duetting with Linda Gail Lewis.
Van’s vocals were accompanied throughout by Linda Gail Lewis harmonizing (or rather whining nasally) on everything. Inexpicably a pair of backing singers joined them for a couple of widely-separated songs, disappearing in between.
The band was the problem. We decided they were probably semi-pro and extremely cheap to hire. It reminded me of Chuck Berry or John Lee Hooker playing with any pick-up band that was available, as long as they were cheap. The musicians were competent enough for R&R standards, but were so far out of their depth whenever the material strayed from rock and roll that it was ludicrous, and at £24.50 a ticket the consumer deserves a modicum of rehearsal and musical competence. I’d guess the receipts from fewer than ten out of the capacity crowd would have paid the band.
The show was advertised as “rock, country and R&B”, and the line-up seemed happiest on things like Be-Bop-A-Lu-La. Van did the worst version of A Shot of Rhythm and Blues I’ve heard with no dynamic, no accent. Last time I saw him, Mick Green (who was with Johnny Kidd and The Pirates when they did the same song) was guesting. His presence was sorely missed. But even that was dwarfed by an excruciatingly bad Rainy Day Women. The attempt at John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillun was another bad joke. They just couldn’t get that stumbling, lurching, hiccuping beat and reduced it to the boring boogie it used to be when John Lee was backed by British blues bands in the 1960s.
The audience largely sat on their hands. And on a Friday night, you know the audience wants you to be good, they want to like you, they want to enjoy themselves. You start with a huge fund of goodwill, and it’s hard to dissipate it. Coming out of the hall, I thought the audience looked subdued, disappointed. Van didn’t break sweat once. He coasted on his voice. The numbers that got more than polite applause were the originals Vanlose Stairway and Jackie Wilson Said. Van took the guitar part in Vanlose Stairway … thankfully, as the lead guitarist wasn’t up to it. The same number had got a storm of applause from an otherwise perplexed audience in the 1995 jazz tour, as it did here, but he’s not reactive to the mood. Or doesn’t care. He was trying out material, and getting paid for rehearsing. Back on Top and Precious Time were perfunctory, but were beyond the flexibility of this band. In the Afternoon with Linda Gail Lewis providing wailing/backing, was simply dire, the worst I’ve ever heard him do his own material. There were at least two new compositions, which melodically sounded very promising, when they eventually emerge with the right guys playing behind him. I Can’t Stop Loving You was the highlight as you could focus purely on the voice and the highly mannered but competent piano playing of Lewis. In the end, only he and Ray Charles can do the song justice.
The back-up band couldn’t even play the single encore, Gloria, properly causing Van to replace the drums by banging his guitar on the mic stand for the “knock, knock on my door”. It was one of the outstanding songs, nevertheless. In the end, I’ll be interested to hear Van’s forthcoming C&W album, but the whole point about C&W is that you need highly proficient backing. Even the worst C&W singers tend to have bands that play impeccably- e.g. Ringo Starr’s Beaucoups of Blues. Now, as Van CAN sing the material, no doubts there, he needs a band, preferably American, that can play it. He shouldn’t be relying on a British bar band (I think they were Welsh). On the other hand, there are thousands of semi-pro American outfits that really can play this sort of thing, so the policy would have worked better in the States. Pedal steel wouldn’t have gone amiss for starters. It was all summed up by Van’s roll-call, “and mumble. And Linda Gail Lewis.” Quizzical look at the band, no, he didn’t know their names, so repeat, “and mumble. And Linda Gail Lewis.”