On the weekend when it was announced that Van the Man is becoming Sir Van, it’s only appropriate that this week’s Song for Saturday choice is one of his best cuts.
“Caravan” was originally to be found on my favourite Van Morrison album, Moondance. On that studio version, it’s contemplative, even louche; it sounds like a travelling song, rather than a rabble-rouser. There’s some wistful sounding orchestration, and the tempo is considered and moderate. Van sounds soulful but restrained and controlled – when he sings “turn it up – that’s enough” you feel that he means it. And the coda is insistent without ever losing that sense of control.
But I know the song better from the 1976 concert The Last Waltz, famously documented by Martin Scorsese as the farewell gig by The Band. You feel like even Van himself, a famously taciturn, even morose, performer – a malcontent in dark suits – was caught up in the heady atmosphere. The tempo is upbeat, with Levon Helm (one of my all-time favourite drummers, a man whose vocal chops meant he played for the song as well as anyone) driving it with his almost lyrical ride cymbal and hiccuping snare fills. Meanwhile Van’s there at the front, giving it everything, in a kind of weird purple jumpsuit that screams “it’s the 1970s”.
I love the anticipation of the instrumental section around the 3:20 mark. Robbie Robertson picks out a couple of rootsy licks and Van scats a bit. But then, he sings “turn it up” and the song is carried to another plane. The coda in this version is just relentless, building and building until it becomes overwhelming. Van kicks the air, descending into incoherence, and eventually drifts off the stage as if in a trance. You can feel the enjoyment of the entire Band, especially the glee on Robertson’s and Helm’s faces.
An appropriate way to celebrate a knighthood.