Exploring The Catacombs With Van Morrison

Exploring The Catacombs With Van Morrison

During the summer of 1968,  I played drums with Van Morrison when he debuted at the Catacombs. Located at 1120 Boylston Street, the club was just down the way from Berklee (where I was a student) and, unlike all the other places we played that summer, such as the Boston Tea Party and The Psychedelic Supermarket, it was tiny, a sort of nightclub/coffeehouse where people sat quietly at tables and sipped hot drinks.

The Catacombs was in the subbasement of the building and had only been open about a year at the time Van played his first gig there. You entered from the street through a small door that was usually open and I remember feeling bad for the road crew who had to carry our equipment down the two flights of stairs. It was a dark space, with white lights strung along the shadowy walls like stars. Small tables were scattered around the floor and all of them were taken that night because Van was performing there for the first time.

It was the band’s first time performing at the venue, too, and we were all looking forward to it. We were an all-electric group used to filling large, noisy rooms and parks, playing at top decibel, so the Catacombs was a nice change of pace, a chance to showcase Van’s repertoire in a cozy, up-close-and-personal setting. It was a kind of “breakout club” where local bands came to hone their songs and sound while attracting attention. Groups like Orphan and artists like J. Geils got started there, and Van ended up playing there several more times that summer.

There were only three of us and Van on the stage, we had minimal equipment – my drums and two amps for the guitar and bass – and we used Van’s PA that night. The stage was on a low rise stuck in the corner, just big enough for the band, the PA and Van. There was an old tapestry behind the stage and a small dressing room behind the curtain. Van sequestered himself back there just before the set to get ready for the gig. Behind the tapestry was where the real catacombs were, tunnels, passages and underpasses weaving under the building. One supposedly went to Music Hall but I didn’t go back there. I was too interested in watching the Boston University girls who were waiting tables.

We’d been working in the top clubs in town, where some of the hottest groups on the scene had played, and the Catacombs was no different. People such as Richie Havens and Tom Rush played there, as did Blues Project. The famous jam session with The Doors and Universal Underpass took place there and local celebrities like Peter Wolf were in the audience the night we first appeared with Van.

They turned down the lights, put a couple spotlights on us and the show began. We ended up doing a jazzy, acoustical set since bassist Tom Kiebania had some trouble with his electric bass and amp that night and played his upright instead. Another Berklee student, John Payne, sat in on flute. We played a cool version of “Domino,” a song called “Lorna” and, of course, “Brown Eyed Girl,” among others. It was probably one of the most enjoyable gigs I did with Van that summer. Who knows, maybe that acoustical session had something to do with Van’s next album, Astral Weeks.

(by Joe Bebo)

Joe Bebo is the author of In The Back Of The Van: The Story of One Unforgettable Summer (J.W.M. Bebo Books, 2016).

Published On: June 18, 2024