Belfast Telegraph

How a bunch of 'Vanatics' have put real heart and soul into their tribute to The Man

Performing the extensive back catalogue of one of Ireland's greatest musical exports to packed houses isn't just a hobby for acclaimed cover band Celtic Soul... it's a genuine labour of love

Ivan Little

Scores of enthusiastic Sir Van Morrison fans were on their feet, dancing and clapping along with Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria as the singer in the dark glasses and Fedora hat blasted out two of the best-known songs from Belfast's rock archives.

It was the sort of exuberant behaviour rarely seen at a Morrison concert, where restraint is invariably the name of the audience game, because fans think the legendary Belfast singer prefers listeners to liggers.

But at the Black Box venue in Belfast, this Morrison gig wasn't actually a Morrison gig at all, but rather an homage to the music of the hometown, homegrown superstar by a hometown, homegrown band who have made Van their main Man.

Celtic Soul have carved out an impressive reputation for themselves with their respectful tribute to the iconic musician who is said to be relaxed with the band and what they're doing in his name and with his songs.

The talented line-up includes Clarke Wilson (vocals and saxophone), Ray McEvoy (electric guitar), Marcus McAuley (acoustic guitar), Rik Gay (drums), Keith Ward (piano and keyboards), Gerry McClurg (trumpet) and Mark Crockard (electric and double bass).

It's not thought that Morrison has ever seen the seven-piece outfit in the flesh.

But Van - who's not afraid of letting people know his views - hasn't apparently expressed any concerns to Celtic Soul. And he even autographed a Celtic Soul poster which has pride of place on the wall of the band's lead singer Clarke Wilson in his Bangor home after a friend gave it to him.

The story goes that Van's people once told a promoter that as the real McCoy wasn't available for a show, Celtic Soul would make more than acceptable shoe fillers.

And self-styled Vanatics - Morrison devotees from all over the world who regularly flock to Northern Ireland to see their idol in the flesh - have been known to prepare for their Van the Man main course with an appetiser of Celtic Soul.

One of the band's most memorable concerts was for the visiting Morrison legions just before Van's 70th birthday gigs on Cyprus Avenue two years ago.

"They danced from start to finish. They even did the conga to Crazy Love," says Clarke, whose Celtic Soul are regarded as the best of the 'Morrison' bands who ply their tribute trade around the world, like the Vancoovers and the Vantastics.

The Irish band were formed six years ago by Morrison admirer - but not Morrison obsessive - Clarke and a number of his musician friends.

Bizarrely it all started at a fly fishing competition in Killyleagh.

"We were asked to put a group together to play in a pub after the fishing was over and four of us took a notion to do nothing but Van Morrison music all night," Clarke says.

"We'd all been playing in different groups for a long time and some of us were thinking about packing in the music scene completely because we felt too old and too knackered.

"But the Van stuff went down so well with local fishermen and with foreign visitors in Killyleagh that we thought about the possibility of playing regularly on a Morrison theme."

Clarke, who's a classically trained flautist with a love of traditional Irish music and the blues, says he and his colleagues agonised for a long time about putting a band together.

They were determined to assemble a high calibre line-up of well-established musicians who'd take their Morrison mission seriously and not treat it as a light-hearted exercise.

Clarke says: "We didn't want to be a tribute act, as such, with lots of gimmicks.

"We wanted to produce what was essentially a celebration of Van and his music."

The aim in searching for accomplished musicians was to try to reach the standards that would be needed to capture the full soulful breadth of Morrison's magic.

As for the name Celtic Soul, it came from an old article in a rock magazine trying to sum up Morrison's music.

Clarke says that as the singer in the band he didn't set out to copy Morrison - a second-hand Van so to speak.

"I'm not a Van Morrison impersonator," insists Clarke

"I'd be the first to admit that I don't sound exactly like him, but there are similarities.

"We may both have smoked five Woodbines from the shop on the corner at the same age.

"Seriously, though, I do work a lot on Van's diction and syncopation of the words of the songs because I think that's what brings everything to life," the singer adds.

Clarke says he doesn't adopt the Morrison look at every performance, adding: "I don't wear the glasses and the fedora all the time, but sometimes people expect the visuals to complete the experience.

"What we are trying to provide for audiences is the essence of Van's music and to entertain them while playing the songs largely in the way that they were recorded.

"We also listened to loads of Van's live performances to try to use them in a bid to do justice to the entirety of the music of a masterful and massive talent who we are proud to say just happens to be from the same place as ourselves."

Van, of course, has written close to 400 songs during his 55-plus years in the music business.

And in their early days Celtic Soul narrowed that number down to 200 for consideration for their set list.

Eventually 60 or 70 songs were settled upon by the band, whose members include a physiotherapist, two civil servants, a roofing contractor and a music teacher.

At a typical Celtic Soul gig the repertoire ranges from Van's greatest hits to lesser known and sometimes forgotten classics with a little bit of humour thrown into the mix.

"But no matter what songs we play there'll be requests for other ones that we don't do," says Clarke.

Not that he personally receives all the song requests, because confused audience members are sometimes reluctant to approach Clarke because of the real Van's reputation for standoffishness.

Clarke, who is 55, grew up in Holywood and Van and the likes of Jethro Tull were huge influences on him along with Rory Gallagher (right) and even punk bands.

"I've played with a whole series of bands down the years - jazz, blues and soul - and my love for classical music has never dimmed,"says Clarke, who reckons Van is a genius and insists that people mistake his desire for perfection on stage as nastiness.

Clark has never met Van but says he would love to have a chat with him about his music.

"I've seen Van a few times out and about in Holywood. But I respect his privacy too much to go up and talk to him," adds Clarke.

Celtic Soul - who mainly play theatres rather than pubs - have a growing fan base, which reflects what Clarke says is an "enormous hunger for Van's music".

The band play only one or two gigs a month and with seven musicians in their ranks the potential for making profits is slim.

Celtic Soul are mainly homebirds but at the request of a Morrison fan they performed their first gig in Germany in April at the B Flat jazz club in the capital Berlin.

It was a sell-out and the band went down a storm according to Clarke, who works in construction and who says Celtic Soul have strict provisions in their contracts about how promoters can advertise their gigs.

"We don't allow photographs of Van on posters, for example," he says.

"And they can't mention Van's name on its own, only in the context of the Celtic Soul show.

"We don't want people to be misled about what they're going to see on stage," he adds.

Often, however, Celtic Soul fans get more than they were expecting at concerts.

For the band have collaborated in the past with a choir and with the Arco String Quartet to add strings to their bow.

"With the quartet we can go really deep into Van's Astral Weeks material, for example, and re-create something of that sound," says Clarke.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph