Van Morrison & the Chieftains, Irish Heartbeat (Exile/Polygram, 1988; remastered & reissued in 1998)

Irish Heartbeat is an album I have lived with for almost 20 years. I first purchased it on vinyl in '88 and wore the grooves down playing it over and over again. Then in 2003 on vacation in Ireland, my wife and I took the train from Drogheda to Belfast. We spent a couple of hours there, took some wonderful photographs, and had a fine sturdy lunch of sausages and potatoes with a cold Guinness to wash it down. As I thought about the perfect souvenir to remind me of Belfast, it suddenly came to me that I didn't have Irish Heartbeat on CD. I rushed to the closest store, and there it was. More than perfect, this digital version of an essential album has been the most-played title on our playlist since we said farewell to the Emerald Isle.

John Glatt's biography of The Chieftains tells the story of the origins of this lovely album. Derek Bell (the Chieftains' harpist) was a mystic. He believed in the power of music to counteract evil, and he studied various religions and philosophies seriously. Van Morrison (he of "Brown Eyed Girl" fame, and so much more) was on his own personal pilgrimage toward the light. He asked Derek for some advice. Van the Man was "trying to reconcile his Celtic roots to his unique vision of blues and soul music." So he called Chieftains' leader Paddy Moloney on the telephone. It was 1987. Over lunch they discussed the possibilities of recording together. Seven Irish traditional tunes were selected, a Scottish song, and a couple of Morrison's original compositions. Paddy Moloney would produce the music with Morrison, and the Chieftains would bring in a couple of guests (Clannad bassist Ciaran O Braonian, and vocalists Mary Black, Maura O'Connell and June Boyce). Both Morrison and the Chieftains were happy with the results. After hearing the tapes, Van called Moloney and said, "Great shapes, Paddy. Wonderful shapes. It's great. It's going to work." And after the album was heavily criticized by purists, Derek Bell said, "It's a classic. In a sense, from the purists folk point of view it's grotesque, to put it at its most kind. Some critics don't think the collaboration came off at all." Nevertheless Bell loved the album.

So what is it about Irish Heartbeat that has kept it on some playlists for 18 years, and yet sent shivers down the spines of traditionalists? Not one track of this classic was used for the new Essential Chieftains collection. Sure there was a kinder gentler Van Morrison track from a later collaboration "Shenandoah," but for me, the reason is simple: Irish Heartbeat is an essential Chieftains album too. Listen to it one track at a time: It's brilliant. And every playing takes me back to the green fields of County Cork; to the mist and sun and rain and warmth and cold of the Ring of Kerry; from Joyce's martello tower in Dublin to the Belfast railway station's graffittied walls. This music is Ireland. The two styles of Morrison and the Chieftains crash together in a blend that is not traditional Irish in the manner of The Chieftains; neither is it Morrison's Caledonia Soul. It is something else, something new, perfectly Irish, perfectly musical.

It all begins with fiddle, bodhran, tin whistle, harp and even some guitar, and it sounds pretty traditional until Van starts to sing, "In Banbridge Town in the County Down one morning last July, / from a boreen green came a sweet Colleen and she smiled as she passed me by. / She looked so sweet from her two bare feet to the sheen of her nut brown hair. / Such a coaxing elf, sure I shook myself for to see I was really there." "Star of the County Down" dates from the early 18th century, but it is completely contemporary in this version. And yet, it pays tribute to the past. In a word, it is timeless.

They follow this with a "chieftainization" of Morrison's own "Irish Heartbeat." He had released this tune on his Inarticulate Speech of the Heart album, recorded at a low period in his career. His records weren't selling, and rightly so; they had become a sort of Muzak with the odd highlight here and there. This new setting of "Irish Heartbeat" caused me to revisit those albums from the early '80s for re-evaluation. Here it is presented with strummed acoustic guitar by Morrison, lots of fiddle (from Sean Keane and Martin Fay) and Moloney's wonderful tin whistle. The backing vocals by Ms. Boyce add strong support.

A bit of Irish language is next as bodhran player Kevin Conneff trades vocals with Van on "Ta Mo Chleamhnas Deanta." Mary Black joins in too. It's all about a poor lad walking from Belfast to Cork to Dublin searching for "the wee lass that's left my heart broken!"

One of the highlights (oh, geez...they were all highlights) of my Ireland trip was to walk down Raglan Road. "Raglan Road" is presented as a Celtic soul song. The backing is somewhat traditional, with Moloney's Uilleann pipes and tin whistle, Bell's harp driven by a drum beat from Morrison, but Morrison sings Patrick Kavanaugh's lyric like James Brown, repeating phrases, whispering, shouting...it's tremendous, mellow, powerful, moving. This goes immediately into "She Moved Through the Fair." From Dublin's "Raglan Road" haunting fiddles take us to the countryside. You can feel the mist. Morrison sings to Bell's harp, as the rest of the Chieftains "move here and move there" in the background. You could tear up listening to this track, it's that beautiful. Morrison's voice is controlled and true.

"I'll Tell Me Ma" is a glorious, raucous celebration. It begins with Martin Fay on bones, then Conneff on bodhran, then everone joins in and Van declares, "I'll tell me Ma when I go home / the boys won't leave the girls alone. / They'll pull my hair, they stole my comb, / well that's all right til I go home." You'll be dancing for sure by the time this one ends! Then the gorgeous "Carrickfergus." A version of "Waly Waly" (also linked to "The Water Is Wide") this song stems from Scotland in the 1700s. It might have sounded something like this.

"Celtic Ray" is the second Morrison original. Might be the weakest tune on the album, but it gives Van opportunity for some vocalising, and leaves plenty of room for the band, as it shifts tempos and moods. It grows on you, and sets you up for the album's marvelous conclusion.

According to people who know these things, the tune of "My Lagan Love" is from Ulster and the words early 20th century. It is done here as a gentle ballad, almost abstract. Bell's harp and Moloney's whistle set a wispy foundation while Morrison plays havoc with the melody. This is probably what Bell was describing as "grotesque." Morrison moans and whines as only Van the Man can, and yet it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, precise and clean in total. It's a mood piece.

So too is the last song, "Marie's Wedding." But the mood is completely different. Joyful! Celebratory! "Step we gaily on we go / heel and heel and toe for toe / arm in arm and row on row / all for Marie's wedding." The perfect conclusion to a brilliant collaboration.

[David Kidney ]