By Bob Price


For the New Jersey Herald


Anyone still in a St. Patrick’s Day mood could do a lot worse than to take in a live show featuring the music of one of Ireland’s most iconic native sons — Van Morrison.


Into the Mystic, a Van Morrison tribute band featuring vocalist Justin Panigutti, was supposed to make its Newton Theatre debut March 28, in a slightly belated celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, but that show was sidelined by the coronavirus. The show has been rescheduled for Aug. 1, as a slightly early “halfway to St. Patrick’s Day” event.


And speaking of celebrations, according to Panigutti, there’s a chance the group might play “Moondance” in its entirety to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Morrison’s seminal 1970 album.


“I believe we have covered all of them before except maybe one or two songs. Now that you mention it I think we might have time to rehearse it and play it for our Newton show,” Panigutti said.


“Moondance” includes such enduring radio hits as “And It Stoned Me,” “Come Running,” “Into the Mystic,” “Crazy Love” and the title track. It is No. 66 on Rolling Stone magazine’s Best 500 Albums of All Time.


Panigutti, 37, based in Vermont, formerly played with a group called Bearquarium, and currently fronts his own Justin Panigutti Band, playing his soul-based original music, in addition to Into the Mystic.


Van Morrison’s music comes naturally to Panigutti. For one thing, listeners have often told him he sounds like Morrison. Perhaps more importantly, he feels the music so deeply that he takes the audience on a journey with him, much like Morrison did in ‘60s and ‘70s and still does today.


“With Van it is somewhat effortless to hit most of the notes in a similar fashion, as our timbre's are very similar. I do borrow from how he phrases and inflects certain notes to try and produce an authentic sound, but by and large, I let my natural singing voice lead. So to be succinct, I would say it is pretty organic for me,” Panigutti said.


“I have learned I cannot only lose myself and go to some far-out ethereal places, but also take my audiences along with me,” he continued. “It's pretty profound, I think. It really is spiritual as a performer and a listener. I know from feedback that the audiences feel the same way. It has been felt during my performances that we are on the journey together. Van's writing alludes to the fact that he knows much more than he lets on.”


Into the Mystic is comprised of some of New England’s finest musicians and portrayers, coming together to produce an evening of Van Morrison’s finest work and promising to be a musical experience not to disappoint. The band is comprised of Micah Carbonneau on drums, Chris Doncaster on bass, Dan Rahilly on lead guitar, Shane Hardiman on keyboards, Matt Dolliver on tenor saxophone, and Avery Cooper, on alto saxophone and flute. Panigutti contributes rhythm guitar and harmonica, in addition to the vocals.


Panigutti, primarily a blues and soul artist, has been performing for more than a decade, and has been covering Morrison to some degree from the beginning, especially when he has played with funk bands. One of the first Morrison songs he covered was “Caravan,” from “Moondance.”


"It has always been a favorite of mine and fits in well with the larger bands,” Panigutti said. “Over the course of the years audience members would always comment on how I sounded like Van Morrison, which I think really just relates to our timbre being very similar, and on that same note, I think we both have a similar love for soul and blues artists. I have never made a conscious effort, outside of Into the Mystic, to try at all to sound like him.”


Panigutti said he was raised on classic rock radio, and his original music is defined by southern rock.


“I’m a big fan of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, etc. That's really my favorite style of music to perform other than Van’s,” he said.


Spanning over five decades, the musical catalog and work of Van Morrison has been a steady stream of inspiration for musicians and countless others who choose to include them in the soundtracks of our their lives.


Morrison rose to prominence in the mid-1960s in Northern Ireland with the band Them. The short-lived group had a few hits, including “Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night” and “Mystic Eyes.”


Still his signature song, “Brown Eyed Girl” came out in 1967 on Morrison’s debut solo album. His second solo album was “Astral Weeks” in 1968, a masterpiece, ahead of its time, which corresponded musically to Morrison’s idiosyncratic personality with a hypnotic blend of folk, blues, jazz and classical.


“Moondance” established Morrison as a major artist, but he never rested on his laurels. He continues to record and tour, producing albums and live performances that sell well and are generally warmly received. He has received two Grammy Awards, the 1994 Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, the 2017 Americana Music Lifetimes Achievement Award for Songwriting and has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2016, he was knighted for services to the music industry and to tourism in Northern Ireland.


Morrison’s early albums, like “Tupelo Honey” and “St. Dominic’s Preview,” hold up well against more recent albums “Down the Road” (2002) and “Magic Time” (2005). And he has released four more studio albums since 2017, raising his career total to 41.


Panigutti believes Morrison’s music endures because of its depth and spirituality.


“Music for me is spiritual, it is not just stringing words or chords together. It is much much deeper than that,” Panigutti said. “I think Van and I write and perform on the same wavelength. Perhaps it is something I have unconsciously borrowed having performed his songs but also as a lover of soul and blues music. You’re really letting people have a look at what it is that is inside of you when performing.


“As Van wrote, ‘listen to the lion inside of you.’ I think that is why it has endured. Not many artists write on such a deep level. For most it's just pop and cleverness.… I think Van puts way more of his heart and soul into what he produces. It’s something I don't think is very common today. People are attracted to that. It is very real, unlike most contrived music today.”


Panigutti, who’s been listening to Morrison’s “The Common One” and “Wavelength” lately, says he doesn’t have a favorite album or song.


“I really love all of them. There are many different eras and they all have something different to say,” he said.


Panigutti says he likes to dig deep into the Morrison catalog, but also has to be aware of what the audience wants.


“I don't think Van ever wants to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ ever again; he just does it for his fans,” Panigutti said. “Most, not all, don't really want to hear the deep cuts as I want to play. They come to hear the hits, so I pepper in the deeper cuts in between to satisfy my own desires.”


Panigutti has never met Morrison, but he has seen him live in concert. He says while he is inspired by Morrison, he also has his own musical persona (his first solo album is due out soon).


“I think we could get along pretty well knowing who he is through his music, I think we speak a similar language. So long as he's not mad at me for riding his coattails,” Panigutti said.


“I’m curious what he would think of me and If I was doing a good enough job. Those are some pretty large and unique shoes to fill. He built his own career and I am taking advantage of that to a large degree. I don't plan to pretend to be Van forever, but right now I am having a lot of fun doing it and learning a lot from my shadow mentor.”