Archive for July, 2007

Dear Prudence

July 13, 2007

On Prudence (1959)
Josef Pieper (University of Notre Dame Press, 1965)
40 pp. First reading.

Among Josef Pieper’s many fine books are found a series of seven on the virtues: one on each of the classical virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and a trilogy on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. This volume, On Prudence, is brief but rich. His purpose is to present, in a compressed form, the central ideas about prudence to be found in the Western tradition of moral philosophy.

As a starting point, prudence may be defined as “the ability to make right decisions”. It is concerned directly with choosing appropriate means to some end. It is closely related to, but not identical with, conscience and “right reason”. Prudence is the foundation of the other virtues; it is the sine qua non of the virtuous life. “All virtue is necessarily prudent” and, more specifically, “Prudence is the cause of the other virtues being virtues at all.” An act may have good properties — good effects, for instance — but unless the act be prudent it does not have specifically moral goodness. Prudence, says Pieper, “is cause, root, mother, measure, precept, guide, and prototype of all ethical virtues; it acts in all of them, perfecting them to their true nature; all participate in it, and by virtue of this participation they are virtues.”

Prudence has two primary parts: the cognitive and the imperative. It consists first in understanding and then in deciding. Understanding comes first because a good decision must be based on a clear, truthful appraisal of the context within which the decision takes place. Prudence is thus oriented, at its foundation, to reality and truth. In the second, imperative, element of prudence two parts may be distinguished: judgment and action. Unless one both judges the rightness of an act and follows through with it, the virtue of prudence is damaged. The imperative element of prudence, residing as it does in the judgment and will, is oriented to goodness. The cognitive element considers the past and the present; the imperative element the future.

Though prudence is the cornerstone of the virtuous life, it does itself rely on certain things. Consider, for example, the cognitive element, the role of which is to truthfully assess the situation within which a moral choice is being made. Preeminently, this demands that the person strive to perceive reality as objectively and disinterestedly as possible, which in turn requires a capacity for still and silent consideration. What does this striving for truth look like in practice? First, one must foster a memory that is true to past experience, without self-serving distortions or willful blindness. Second, one must cultivate an openness to the variety of experiences and situations one may encounter, not trying to force the world to fit a mold of one’s own making. This also includes an openness to advice, an openness rooted in a genuine desire for understanding. At root, this calls for humility; a prudent person is not a know-it-all. Third, prudence requires what the medievals called solertia, a calm but nimble clear-sightedness in unexpected circumstances. A person strong in the virtue of prudence is not entirely befuddled in an emergency.

The imperative element of prudence has prerequisites too. It demands, of course, a rightness of will to desire genuine goods, for unless this is present the whole structure of prudence is misaligned. And one must have hope, too, that the genuine goods which one seeks can truly be attained, for otherwise the will would falter in its resolution. But primarily, sure judgment requires foresight: the ability to estimate the suitability of actions, always aware that in prudential judgments there is an element of risk, for no one can see all ends. The requirement of foresight explains why we rarely see habitual prudence in the young; it comes only with experience.

The exercise of prudence has a personal existential quality that cannot be removed. It demands that I make a decision here and now in these specific circumstances, and I must do so without knowing with certainty what the consequences will be. In this sense, a moral philosophy based on the virtues seems opposed to casuistry. Pieper agrees, arguing that casuistry can have, at best, a useful pedagogical function. It cannot substitute for the lived experience and demands of the here and now. Prudence demands that we mature to the point of making our own decisions, not that we merely follow a set of rules.

This sketch of prudence as consisting in proper consideration, well-founded judgment, and vigorous decisiveness allows us to discern various forms of imprudence. There are, first, defects of form, such as thoughtlessness and negligence rooted in a failure to investigate and observe one’s situation; there is poor judgment resulting from inexperience or otherwise deficient foresight; and there is irresoluteness, the failure to act on a considered judgment. But in addition to these defects of form, there is the higher corruption of faulty prudence: prudence which serves some false or lesser good rather than the true end of human life. Such a faulty prudence may more properly be called cunning. Like Iago, a cunning man cannot face things squarely or act straight-forwardly, and by his scheming destroys the inner simplicity and silence which we said was a prerequisite for clear perception of truth.

In his treatise on the virtues, Thomas Aquinas makes a startling statement about all these forms of imprudence; they all, he says, arise from covetousness, and are by nature allied to it. Covetousness means the immoderate pursuit of goods which are thought necessary to ensure importance or status; it is self-preservation; it is immoderate concern with security. Even if it is not immediately clear that such things prevent one being prudent, I think it is clear that they prevent one being just or brave. The connection to prudence is simply this: all these forms of self-regard will incline one to filter one’s perceptions and prejudice one’s judgments in such a way that the basic orientation of prudence toward reality and goodness is deflected by self-interest.

Prudence is one of the classical virtues, and thus far the discussion has been confined to the precincts of natural goodness. But a Christian will want to press forward to ask about the relationship of this virtue to grace and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Pieper points out that, paradoxically, a truly prudent person may be tempted to resist grace precisely because he is already so competent and capable in the conduct of his life. Yet, if he is open to grace, and lives from a faith inspired by love, he will find his natural prudence strengthened and enlightened in a variety of ways. We have said, for instance, that prudence involves a readiness to accept counsel, especially from those whom we know to have our best interests at heart, and who are able, in some measure, to “put themselves in our place” as they offer advice. By grace prudence opens itself to the counsel of the Paraclete, the “one who comes alongside”, the Counselor. Friendship with God teaches one, also, to see things as they truly are, and to keep them in perspective. It enables us to loosen their grip on our inner selves in order that we act more selflessly than we otherwise could. This “relativizing” of things in the light of the Highest, mind you, does not involve any willful violence toward created things, but retains all the essential qualities of prudence: its respect for truth, its orientation toward good, and its decisiveness.

This was an excellent book, the weightiness of which belies its modest size. The style is terse and occasionally difficult to follow, but one’s concentration is repaid many times over.

[The qualities of prudence]
Prudence, then, is the mold and mother of all the virtues, the circumspect and resolute shaping power of our minds which transforms knowledge of reality into realization of the good. It holds within itself the humility of silent, that is to say, of unbiased perception; the trueness-to-being of memory; the art of receiving counsel; alert, composed readiness for the unexpected. Prudence means the studied seriousness and, as it were, the filter of deliberation, and at the same time the brave boldness to make final decisions. It means purity, straightforwardness, candour, and simplicity of character; it means standing superior to the utilitarian complexities of mere ‘tactics’.

[The challenge of prudence]
Nowhere else is the danger so great as here [in the truthfulness of memory], at the deepest root of the spiritual-ethical process, the danger that the truth of real things will be falsified by the assent or negation of the will. The peril is the greater for its being so imperceptible. There is no more insidious way for the error to establish itself than by this falsification of the memory through slight retouches, displacements, discolorations, omissions, shifts of accent. Nor can such falsification be quickly detected by the probing conscience, even when it applies itself to the task. The honesty of the memory can be ensured only by a rectitude of the whole human being which purifies the most hidden roots of volition…
It therefore becomes apparent that the classically Christian concept of the ‘virtue of prudence’ is a far cry from the ordinary idea of it as knowledge of what to do in a given situation, a knowledge acquired without any great difficulty. The virtue of prudence, too, is a bonum arduum, a ‘steep good’.

[Growth and maturity in prudence]
Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent; but only one who is previously prudent can do good. Since, however, love of the good grows by doing good, the foundations of prudence are sunk deeper and firmer to the extent that prudence bears fruit in action.

[Grace and prudence]
Things are nought only before God, who created them and in whose hand they are as clay in the hand of the potter. By the superhuman force of grace-given love, however, man may become one with God to such an extent that he receives, so to speak, the capacity and the right to see created things from God’s point of view and to ‘relativize’ them and see them as nought from God’s point of view, without at the same time repudiating them or doing injustice to their nature. Growth in love is the legitimate avenue and the one and only justification for ‘contempt for the world’.

Feast of St. Benedict

July 11, 2007

“In the days of Totila a Goth named Galla, an Arian heretic, resorted to the most monstrous cruelties against the Catholic Church’s religious men. No cleric or monk who came face to face with him could escape death at his hands. One day, afire with the heat of greed and looking eagerly for plunder, he was inflicting various kinds of torture on a certain peasant, and the victim, unable to endure the pain, blurted out that he had put himself and his property under the protection of Benedict, the servant of God. His tormentor believed this and allowed the suffering man a spell of relief, but, while desisting from his savage treatment of the peasant, had his arms bound with stout thongs and marched him ahead of his horse to find this Benedict who had taken over the man’s goods. The peasant, his arms tied behind him, led his oppressor to the holy man’s monastery and found him sitting at the door of his cell reading a book. The rustic said to Galla, who was following him fuming with rage: “This is Father Benedict, the one I spoke about.”

Galla looked at the saint and, carried away by his perverse wrath, thought he would terrorize this monk as he was used to terrorizing others. He shouted at him: “Get up, get up, and return this fellow’s property to him!” Hearing this voice, the man of God looked up from his book and stared at Galla and the man who was held in bonds. When the saint glanced at the peasant’s arms, the thongs that held them miraculously fell off, more quickly than any man could have untied them. Galla, seeing the man who had been bound now standing free, was shaken at the sight of such power. He dismounted, fell to the ground, and bent his cruel, stiff neck at Benedict’s feet, commending himself to the holy man’s prayers. The saint hardly interrupted his reading, but called the monks and ordered them to take Galla inside, where he would receive a blessing and some food. When the Goth was brought back to him, Benedict admonished him to give up his insane cruelty. Galla took his leave and no longer dared to demand anything of the peasant whose bonds the saint had loosed, not with his hands but with a glance from his eyes.”

– Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea
(trans. William Granger Ryan)

The typology of wine

July 10, 2007

“In fact, if I may be permitted an excursus, it is conceivable that a theological answer to Nietzsche could be developed entirely in terms of the typology of wine. After all, the wine of Dionysus is no doubt of the coarsest vintage, intended to blind with drunkenness rather than enliven whimsy; it is fruit of the same vine with which Dionysus bridged the Euphrates, after flaying alive the king of Damascus, so that he could conquer India for viniculture (so we know from Plutarch, Pausanias, Strabo, Arrian, Diodorus, Siculus, and others); and of the same vine for which Lycurgus mistook his son Dryas when driven mad for offending the wild god, causing him to cut Dryas down for ‘pruning’ (as Homer and Apollodorus report); the vine that destroyed the pirates who would not bear Dionysus to Naxos (so say Homer, Apollodorus, and Ovid); it is the wine that inflamed the maenads to rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by his own mother Agave (as Euripides and others record); the wine repeatedly associated with madness, anthropophagy, slaughter, warfare, and rapine (one need consider only the Dionysian cult at Orchomenus—with its ritual act of random murder—and the story of the daughters of Minyas—frenzy, infanticide, cannibalism—from which it sprang).

The wine of Christian Scripture, on the other hand, is first and foremost a divine blessing and image of God’s bounty (Genesis 27:28; Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; Psalms 104:15; Proverbs 3:10; Isaiah 25:6; 65:8; Jeremiah 31:12; Joel 2:19-24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Zechariah 9:17), and an appropriate thank offering by which to declare Israel’s love of God (Exodus 29:40; Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 15:5-10; 18:12; 28:14; Deuteronomy 14:23; 15:14; 18:4); it is the wine that ‘cheers the hearts of gods and men’ (Judges 9:13), to be drunk and shared with those for whom nothing is prepared on the day holy to the Lord (Nehemiah 8:10), the sign of God’s renewed covenant with his people (Isaiah 55:1-3), the drink of lovers (Song of Solomon 5:1), and the very symbol of love (7:2, 9; 8:2), whose absence is the eventide of all joy (Isaiah 24:11); it is, moreover, the wine of agape and the feast of fellowship, in which Christ first vouchsafed a sign of his divinity, in a place of rejoicing, at Cana—a wine of the highest quality—when the kingdom showed itself ‘out of season’ (John 2:3-10); the wine, again, forsaken with all the good things of creation, when Christ went to his death, but promised to be drunk anew at the banquet table of his Father’s kingdom, and from which—embittered with myrrh—he was forced to turn his lips when on the cross (Mark 15:23; Matthew 27:34); the wine, finally, whose joy is imparted to the Church again, and eternally, with the fire of Pentecost (Acts 2:13), and in which the fellowship of Christ and his flock is reborn with every celebration of the Eucharist.

Of course, Nietzsche was a teetotaler and could judge the merit of neither vintage, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that his attempts at oino-theology should betray a somewhat pedestrian palate.”

– David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite.

Mr. Know-it-all

July 9, 2007

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922)
G. K. Chesterton (Darwen Finlayson, 1964)
190 pp. First reading.

This is a set of eight short murder mystery stories. Chesterton’s famous Father Brown detective tales derived their charm, in part, from the very unlikelihood of their hero, an unobtrusive but psychologically astute priest. In this volume the hero, if I may so call him, is Horne Fisher, a middle-aged, balding man of the British privileged class. He is on friendly terms with cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and even the Prime Minister; he moves easily from one context to another, well able to meet others on their own turf and in their own terms. He is the man who knows too much.

There is an unexpected note of world-weariness in the stories. Fisher himself is heavy-lidded, laconic, and uninterested, and at the end of each story, when the identity of the murderer is known, Fisher always has reasons, reasons of variable plausibility, for not bringing the perpetrator to justice, arguing that doing so would do more harm than good. One doesn’t expect to find such things in Chesterton’s oeuvre.

They are all slight tales following a standard template: the set-up, an unexpected murder, and a surprising revelation of the murderer. There is not a great deal to ponder in most of them; they are enjoyable stories, but there is not much depth to the characters, nor much to motivate the resolutions. It might seem, therefore, that I am disappointed with them, and I suppose that in a sense I am. But that judgment is not entirely untroubled, for I cannot help remembering something Chesterton himself said about such stories:

“…if we can read a popular detective tale six times it is only because we can forget it six times. A stupid sixpenny story (no half-hearted or dubious stupidity, but a full, strong, rich, human stupidity), a stupid sixpenny story, I say, is thus of the nature of an immortal, inexhaustible possession. Its conclusion is so entirely fatuous and unreasonable that, however often we have heard it, it always comes abruptly, like an explosion, like a gun going off by accident. The thing is so carelessly written that it is not even consistent with itself: there is no unity to recall. The reader cannot be expected to remember the book when the author cannot remember the last chapter. We cannot guess the end when the writer does not seem to know it. Such a story slips easily on and off the mind; it has no projecting sticks or straws of intelligence to catch anywhere on the memory. Hence, as I say, it becomes a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It gains an everlasting youth… It is beautiful and comforting to think what a vast army of amazingly brilliant detectives I have forgotten all about.”

In other words, like his protagonist, Chesterton himself has a way of seeing things from a new and original point of view. If Chesterton loved such stories, perhaps he set out to write some himself, in which case the book must be counted a success.

A whoppin’ good time: Bob Dylan live

July 6, 2007

Well, we had a treat tonight. There was a sense of anticipation as the start time approached. In the previous hour a trickle of determined late-comers had wended their way through the doughy forms of lounging civil servants to pack the space quite tightly near the stage. And I’ll bet they’re glad they did, too, for Dylan’s famous publicity paranoia meant that the enormous screen set up for the benefit of those far removed from the stage remained blank through the entire show. My heart goes out to all those who were thereby stranded in the far reaches of the grounds. I hope, at least, that they could hear the music.

It was a great show. This was the third time I’ve see Dylan in concert, and it was by a fair margin the most enjoyable. Never had I seen him so communicative with the audience. Of course, his geniality didn’t quite extend so far as to speak to us, but he acknowledged the festive occasion in other ways. He brought the crowd into the show immediately by opening with two of his most popular songs, everybody joining in the refrain “Everybody must get stoned” (an injunction the folks ahead of me took in a spirit of humble obedience, I’m afraid). Moreover, rather than retire at the outset behind his keyboard, he came up front to play the first half of the show on the guitar. From my Bobservatory a few tens of metres out, I’m quite sure I detected a little hip swivel and foot waggle now and then. And, most charmingly of all, in Spirit on the Water, from Modern Times, he was careful to articulate the final stanza clearly:

They think I’m over the hill
They think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time

The first couplet was met with choruses in the negative, and the second with cheers of appreciation. This, my friends, was very nearly a full fledged conversation!

When last I saw him live I commented on the way his songs have transformed over the years into something quite other than the versions familiar from his recordings. Watching the River Flow has acquired a deep groove; delivered with a sepulchral croak, Masters of War has become a very effective dirge; Girl from the North Country has morphed almost beyond recognition: melody, tempo, phrasing, texture, everything is different but the words. But nowhere was this phenomenon more astonishing than in It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). At one time this was a flat-toned acoustic rumination, but tonight it reared up on two legs and took flight as a raucous barn-burner.

Dylan has surrounded himself with wonderful musicians, and they were in fine form. From where I stood the sound was clear and detailed, and I was delighted by the creativity and restraint of the playing. I was pleased, too, to find that on several songs they swapped their electric instruments for acoustic, lending a clean, open texture to the music. But they could conjure up a storm too, when appropriate, as in their blistering rendition of Highway 61 Revisited.

For the record, here’s the set-list:

Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (1966)
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (1963)
Watching the River Flow (1971)
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (1965)
Girl from the North Country (1963)
Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (2006)
When the Deal Goes Down (2006)
Honest With Me (2001)
Spirit on the Water (2006)
Tangled up in Blue (1975)
Masters of War (1963)
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Like a Rolling Stone (1965)
Thunder on the Mountain (2006)
All Along the Watchtower (1967)

Comparing this to my wish list, you’ll discover that I again scored 3 of 12. To be honest, I was very surprised to hear Girl from the North Country, It’s Alright, Ma and Masters of War, and would have put them on my wish list if I’d thought they were a possibility. I’ll do better next time.

And I hope there is a next time.


Update:It was only the screens near the stage that were turned off. Those in the back half of the grounds were on.

Into the music: Van Morrison live

July 5, 2007

The big night finally arrived. I went a few hours in advance in order to secure a good vantage point near the stage, and in this I was successful, for I staked out my square foot not 3 m from the front. It was an outdoor concert, and a gentle drizzle was tickling the back of my neck in the lead up, though happily it cleared off before the music began. The crowd around me, who ranged from baggy-panted teenagers to silver-haired seniors, seemed to be in good spirits, despite some close quarters and jostling as the appointed hour approached.

He took the stage with a 9 or 10 piece band: guitars, percussion, bass, banjo (on occasion), a Hammond B organ, fiddle, trumpet, female backing vocalists, and, on several songs, Van himself took up the saxophone. He seemed to be in a bit of a surly mood, and had some sharp words for his bandmates now and then, if I’m not mistaken. As for us in the audience, there was little to spare in the way of chit-chat — no stories, no jokes, no “Do you wanna rock?”, no “Hello, Ottawa!”. In fact, no “Hello” at all. But that’s all right. We weren’t there to hear him talk.

He was in fabulous voice, and that’s what counts. That flinty, explosive instrument of his has somehow lasted all these years, still full of flexible power. The band ploughed through a few straight 12-bar blues tunes to warm up (fittingly, I suppose, considering the occasion) but he soon branched out into his wide repertoire of jazz, country, rhythm and blues, and rock. The set was mostly up-tempo, which disappointed me a little since many of my favourite Van Morrison songs are quiet, contemplative pieces, but an outdoor concert before thousands is probably not a forum friendly to such meditations. The arrangements were often considerably altered from the recorded versions, usually in the direction of a big band R&B sound. As on his records, the music had an improvisatory feel to it, the band members taking turns strutting their stuff, and the man himself straying way out of the tempo markings, as he is wonderfully prone to do. The set-list appeared to have not been entirely planned in advance, and on at least one song (Don’t Start Crying Now, I believe it was) I’m convinced Van simply launched into it and expected his band to catch on within a half a second or so.

As for the set-list, he was certainly not playing to the casual fan who remembers a few songs from the 1960s and not much more. I, too, had to struggle more than once to identify songs. It’s a very pleasant kind of challenge, I assure you. He did reach back to some crowd-pleasing numbers from Moondance, and even drew from the Them albums a few times, but many of the songs were from recent years, and that is as it should be. Here’s the list:

Talk is Cheap (2002)
All Work and no Play (2002)
Moondance (1970)
Enlightenment (1990)
Cleaning Windows (1982)
Days Like This (1995)
Stop Drinking (2003)
Bright Side of the Road (1979)
Playhouse (2006)
Into the Mystic (1970)
Domino (1970)
Here Comes the Night (1966)
Jackie Wilson Said (1972)
Baby, Please Don’t Go (1964)
Real Real Gone (1990)
Wonderful Remark (1973)
Wild Night (1971)
Precious Time (1999)
Don’t Start Crying Now (1964)
Have I Told You Lately (1989)
Brown-Eyed Girl (1967)
Gloria (1964)

Those last two were barn-stormers.

Comparing this set-list against my wish list, you’ll note that I scored 3 of 12, for 25%. Not too bad, considering the size and quality of his catalogue. There were a number of near misses, and in two ways: (i) had I written a wish list as long as his set-list, and knowing what songs I would have included on the longer list, I would have raised my score to 8 of 22, or a very respectable 36%, and (ii) many of the songs on my wish list are adjacent on the albums to the songs he played, which is a near miss of some sort. In any case, my list was a wish list, not a prediction.

All in all, a great night. It was a dream come true, really, to see the man standing there, see him open his mouth, and hear that long-treasured, inimitable sound come out. Gloria, indeed.

Van Morrison ticket

My back pages

July 3, 2007

To prepare for the Bob Dylan concert later this week, I’ve dug up the thoughts I set down the last time I saw him live. This was originally written November 6, 2006.

Last night Bob Dylan and his band came through town, and I was able to attend. It is the second time that I have seen him live, the first having been in Toronto about eight years ago. Bob turned 65 years old earlier this year, but his never-ending tour keeps on rolling.

I suppose the first thing that must strike the casual Dylan fan who buys a concert ticket is the near total incomprehensibility of the lyrics. This has been a joke of long-standing, but it’s quite true, and the problem is worse now than I remember it being. His voice is cracked, a sand-paper growl, its range increasingly limited, and sometimes sounds more like a barked clearing of the throat than an articulate utterance.

I’m not really complaining, mind you. These limitations would be fatal if he were trying to perform the songs as he did thirty or forty years ago, but he is not. His style has evolved to play on his strengths, and the songs have evolved with him. This, in fact, is probably the first thing to strike the devoted Dylan fan who sees him live: the melodies have changed. The songs have been played for so many years, night after night, rolled around in the mouth this way and that, a small change here, an experiment there, and after a time we have something new. It’s Lamarckian evolution in action. Not everything has changed: rhythms are largely consistent, and the song structures are stable, but the melodies and the phrasing of the words are largely new. In only a few cases was I able to identify the song before the lyrics began (and even then, of course, it sometimes took a while).

The other big change for the old songs was the musical texture. As on his last few albums, they’ve been given a serious case of fever-swamp blues; they are up to their eyeballs in muddy waters. This was terrific in some cases: Highway 61 Revisited was superb, and Ballad of a Thin Man was even better. In other cases I was less convinced. A song such as Just Like A Woman, which relies for its effect on the subtlest expressive nuances, was simply drowned in a swirl of pedal steel and wailing blues guitar. Newer songs, of which he played a few, and which were written with this style in mind, were very fine.

Dylan is not really a showman, and never has been. He introduced his band before their last song, but otherwise said not a single word to the audience. At least he didn’t play with his back to us, the way he used to. The showmanship doesn’t really matter. There is no singer alive today with a stronger repertoire of songs on which to draw, and just to hear them again, to admire again the art of this marvellous song-writer, was a great pleasure. It was a wonderful evening.

For the record, here is the set-list:

Maggie’s Farm (1965)
She Belongs To Me (1965)
Watching the River Flow (1971)
Just Like a Woman (1966)
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Ballad of a Thin Man (1965)
Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (2006)
Simple Twist of Fate (1975)
High Water (2001)
Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (1966)
Tangled Up in Blue (1975)
Nettie Moore (2006)
Summer Days (2001)
Thunder on the Mountain (2006)
Like a Rolling Stone (1965)
All Along the Watchtower (1967)

Blues and bliss

July 2, 2007

They say that when it rains it pours, and this week there’s high water everywhere. The Ottawa Bluesfest begins in a few days, and it kicks off with two nights of music that could hardly be bettered, even if I were in charge of the planning and were omnipotent. I’m beside myself with anticipation.

On Wednesday night the legendary Van Morrison will be in town. I’ve been waiting for the chance to see and hear him live for at least a decade, and I can hardly believe it’s finally going to happen. He was a late addition to the festival’s line-up, so the happy news fell on my ears like an unexpected thunderclap from the clear blue sky. I’ve no idea what Van is like in concert these days. It’s likely, given that he has now settled comfortably into his sixties, that the incendiary ecstasy captured on his live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now is far behind him. But there is a sense in which it hardly matters, for the man could sing the proverbial phone book and it would be music to my ears.

As if that were not blessing enough, the next night the same stage will be taken by that old curmudgeon from Hibbing, Minnesota, who also happens to be the best songwriter in the world. I saw him back in November, and never imagined another opportunity would come up again so soon — or ever. I am thankful to have been wrong about that.

I’ll post more about these concerts in a few days, but for now I can’t resist making a dream set-list for each of the shows:

Van Morrison Wish List

Because I’ve never seen Van Morrison in concert before, this list is more or less just a dozen of my favourite Van Morrison songs.

Avalon of the Heart (1990)
Contemplation Rose (<1998)
Country Fair (1974)
Full Force Gale (1979)
Gloria (1964)
I Can’t Stop Loving You (1991)
Into the Mystic (1970)
Madame Joy (<1998)
Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1997)
Real Real Gone (1990)
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (1987)
The Beauty of the Days Gone By (2002)

Bob Dylan Wish List

Dreaming up a playlist for Bob Dylan is a different sort of exercise. As much as I would love to hear To Ramona, Girl from the North Country, or Desolation Row, I must admit that he just doesn’t have the voice to deliver them anymore. As his voice has declined to a raspy growl, he has adopted a swampy blues style that suits it very well. Here’s a dozen songs that I think would be well served by his present limited capacities. They’re still great songs.

All Along the Watchtower (1967)
Blind Willie McTell (1983)
High Water (2001)
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Hurricane (1976)
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (1966)
Man in the Long Black Coat (1989)
Nettie Moore (2006)
Not Dark Yet (1997)
Series of Dreams (1989)
Tangled up in Blue (1975)
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (1997)