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Music

Gator by the Bay singer Shana Morrison balances solo career, Pilates and legendary musician father

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Shana Morrison will perform with her band Thursday at the 2018 Gator by the Bay festival in San Diego.
(Photo by Andra Rowan)

Pursuing a career in music was the last thing on Shana Morrison’s mind after she graduated from Pepperdine University in late 1993 with a degree in business administration. But before she could even land her first day job, her father — legendary singer-songwriter Van Morrison — invited Shana to join him and an all-star lineup on a world concert tour.

She accepted, although it was not her first time on the road with him.

In 1973, when she was barely 3, Shana joined her then-recently divorced dad for part of the tour that produced his classic live double-album, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now.” Twenty years later, she accepted his post-graduation invitation. (At the time, Van famously asked his daughter: “Why do you want to do business? Business people are a--holes’.”) Her life would never quite be the same again.

“It was a three-hour revue, with tons of great guest stars — John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Junior Wells,” Shana recalled, speaking from her home in Mill Valley, where she is a Pilates teacher by day.

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“When I came back to San Francisco from that tour, I said: ‘If it is ever time for me to play my own songs in public, I will now.’ So I got a day job, sang jazz and blues standards at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel’s Starlight Room on weekends, and wrote enough songs for an album.”

That album, the eight-song “Caledonia,” was released in 1999. Her major label debut, 2002’s “7 Wishes,” featured a vocal and harmonica cameo by her father on Shana’s version of his 1997 song, “Sometimes We Cry.”

By coincidence, her recording of “Sometimes We Cry” also features a solo by Louisiana slide-guitar master Sonny Landreth. On Thursday night, at Spanish Landing Park, the two will share the bill with their respective bands at the opening concert of the 2018 edition of Gator by the Bay.

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Attendees parade at the 2017 edition of Gator by the Bay.
(Photo by K.C. Alfred / Union-Tribune )

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Mardi Gras on the bay in San Diego

The four-day music and food marathon, which bills itself as “San Diego’s Zydeco, Blues & Crawfish Festival,” will feature nearly 100 musical acts on seven stages between today and Sunday.

The lineup showcases an array of styles — from blues, rock, swing and Latin to rockabilly, funk, Cajun and Celtic. A number of the performers are based in Louisiana, including Horace Trahan & The Ossun Express, Dexter Ardoin and The Pine Leaf Boys, who to date have earned four Grammy Award nominations.

“The Gator lineup has so many great artists,” Shana said. “I wish I could hang out for the whole weekend.”

She laughed when informed that, each year, Gator trucks in 10,000 pounds of freshly caught crawfish from the southern Louisiana town of Opelousas.

“One year at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, I ate too much Crawfish Monica. I hope I don’t do that again!” said the slender singer-songwriter.

Shana has released five solo albums that feature her versatile, full-bodied vocals. She has at least 17 songs ready for her next release, which will be a stripped-down, blues-drenched affair. She may preview a number or two from it when here Thursday.

“I change my sets, depending on where we’re playing,” she said. “At a festival, like Gator, we’ll be more rhythm-and-blues, soul and dance-oriented. I’ll do songs by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Teddy Pendergrass and some of my own songs that fit in that category.”

Does Shana, who teaches Pilates both privately and to classes, ever get any songwriting ideas while doing a curl or roll-up?

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“No,” she said. “But people often tell me that — when I’m teaching — I don’t speak words, I speak in (musical) notes. They say: ‘It’s like you’re singing when you’re speaking,’ and I don’t realize I do that.”

Shana credits her deep musical roots not just to her dad, but to his parents and to her mother, Janet, who was known in the 1960s and early ’70s as Janet Planet. She was Van Morrison’s muse for such classic albums as “Moondance,” “Astral Weeks” and “Tupelo Honey,” which features a cover photo of the then-married couple, with Janet riding a horse being led by Van.

“My mom plays a little piano, like me, but is more of a lyricist, like me,” Shana said. “She was in L.A. for 20 years, writing songs for different artists and for TV and movie soundtracks. Growing up in the 1980s, I had my mom’s home recording studio next to my bedroom, so a lot of music came into me by osmosis.

“I’ve never written with my father. But I wrote a song with my mother, ‘Angel On My Shoulder,’ for a direct-to-video movie called ‘Ricochet River,’ which I think was the first movie Kate Hudson was in.”

Why did Shana shun music to get a business degree? And why does she now teach Pilates during the week and sing on weekends — except in summer, when she goes on tour?

“All the people in my family had creative jobs in the music business and I saw it was very unstable, financially,” she replied. “So, instead of studying literature, poetry or music — which would have appealed to my family — I studied business. I like the stability of having a day job. Music is still cathartic for me, although people expect a lot when you have a big name to live up to. Fortunately, I’m female and I don’t sound like my dad, the way Ziggy Marley or Julian Lennon sound just like their fathers.”

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Brazil’s Igor Prado (left) and San Diego’s Whitney Shay will perform multiple times at Gator by the Bay this weekend.
(Photo by Fernando Yokoto / Courtesy of Gator by the Bay )

Music with bite at Gator by the Bay

Friday — The Pine Leaf Boys: Hailing from Lafayette, this seasoned Louisiana quintet injects fresh energy into the Cajun-music songs it celebrates. (6:30 p.m.)

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Saturday — Igor Prado Band, with Whitney Shay: Singer-guitarist Igor Prado and his blues-rocking band hail from Sao Paulo, Brazil, but sound like they came out of a Mississippi Delta juke joint. San Diego dynamo Whitney Shay will sing with them for their first and third shows Saturday. (12:20, 2:30 and 4:20 p.m.)

Sunday — Plantation Gospel According to Earl Thomas: This award-winning San Diego blues and soul singer will explore his musical roots. (12:20 p.m.)

17th annual Gator by the Bay festival

When: 6-10:30 p.m. Thursday; 3:30-10:30 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday

With: Sonny Landreth and Shana Morrison (Thursday); Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers, Horace Trahan & The Ossun Express, and more (Friday); Johnny Vernazza, The Sleepwalkers, and more (Saturday); Gregory Page, Vaud & The Villains, and more (Sunday)

Where: Spanish Landing Park, 3900 North Harbor Drive (across from San Diego International Airport)

Tickets: Kids 18 and under are admitted free with a paying adult. $40 per day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; $115 three-day pass (Friday-Sunday); $150 four-day pass (Thursday-Sunday). Patron passes are $120 for Saturday or Sunday, and $200 for both days; youth patron passes (ages 7-17) are $40 for Saturday or Sunday, and $75 for both days. Tickets for the Saturday night dance concert at the adjacent Sheraton Harbor Island Ballroom are $20. Tickets for Thursday’s kick-off concert by Shana Morrison and Sonny Landreth range from $35 (general admission) to $90 (includes table service). Admission is free Friday through Sunday for active-duty military members.

Phone: (619) 234-8612

Online: gatorbythebay.com

george.varga@sduniontribune.com

Twitter @georgevarga


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