It’s that Van again!

.. It’s Too Late to Stop Now .. in all its glory

Vol I: the original 2-CD set
Vol II, III, IV & DVD; previously unreleased material (4 disk set)

The early 1970s was an incredible time for Van Morrison; not a period of transition but one of great fulfilment.

Following his breakthrough with Moondance (1970) – Astral Weeks was a whole other thing – he produced a series of albums that together amount to the highpoint of his creative life: His band and the street choir (also 1970), Tupelo Honey (1971), Saint Dominic’s preview (1972), Hard nose the highway (1973), culminating in the live double album .. It’s too late to stop now .. (released January 1974).

In the summer of 1973 he set off on a three-month long tour of North America and Europe with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Warner Brothers recorded eight sets on that tour – at The Troubadour (23 May) in Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Civic (29 June), and The Rainbow in London (23 & 24 July).  The eleven-strong Caledonia Soul Orchestra was perhaps his greatest band; it included a five person string section, sax and trumpet, guitar, bass and drums, all led by Jeff Labes on piano and organ.  Many of these musicians had been with him since Moondance, and stayed with him through the first half of the 70s.

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That live recording – long-regarded as one of the greatest live albums ever – has now been revisited. The original has been re-mastered and re-issued as .. It’s too late to stop now .. Vol I; this is accompanied by .. It’s too late to stop now .. Vol II, III, and IV & DVD: previously unreleased selections from the gigs in The Troubadour, the Santa Monica Civic, and The Rainbow respectively.  The Rainbow gig on 24 July was filmed by the BBC for a TV special, but never broadcast.  Part of this concert is issued for the first time on the DVD.

So what have we got?

Each night on that tour he paid due tribute to his R’n’B mentors: Ray Charles (‘I believe to my soul’), Bobby Bland (‘Ain’t nothing you can do’), Sam Cooke (‘Bring it on home to me’), Sonny Boy Williamson (‘Help me’ and ‘Take your hand out of my pocket’) and Muddy Waters (‘I just want to make love to you’).  He included the Them-era classics ‘Gloria’ and ‘Here comes the night’ and his first solo hit ‘Brown eyed girl’.   At the heart of these recordings, however, are selections from his early 70s albums; we get a total of 18 of these songs from his six solo studio albums (including 6 of the 8 tracks on Hard nose the highway recorded that spring but not released until later in 1973).  We get two or even three versions of some songs, such as ‘Caravan’, ‘Into the mystic’ and ‘Cyprus Avenue’.

There are surprising covers as well: ‘Being green’ was written for Kermit the Frog on Sesame Street!, he does a version of ‘Purple heather’ that Francis McPeake – his fellow Belfast man who gave us the best-known rendering of that song – would struggle to recognize; both of them had been recorded for Hard nose the highway. As well as that he does Hank Williams’ ‘Hey good looking’ and a punk cha-cha version of that old chestnut ‘Buona sera’.

Five disks to listen to, one DVD 50 minutes long: is it worth it?

The tour was reaching its end when the Caledonia Soul Orchestra pitched up at The Rainbow in North London on 23 and 24 July 1973. Whether it was because Van and his band had got as tight as could be after a great tour, or they were looking forward to the finish, this is the set (volume IV) with the most verve and excitement.  Morrison has returned to ‘Listen to the Lion’ – first recorded for St. Dominic’s Preview – many times, but he and his band nailed a version here that would be hard to better.  Similarly with the versions on this CD of ‘Domino’, ‘Caravan’, ‘Into the mystic’ and ‘Cyprus Avenue’, ‘I believe to my soul’ . . .

The Santa Monica set is more restrained, somehow feels a little flat in comparison. The Troubadour gig, while still good, is maybe not as essential as the Rainbow CD.  The entire package, though, is a must for anyone with more than a passing interest in Van Morrison.

Everything his fans have loved for four decades can be found here: the unique way Van blends gutbucket blues and breath-taking soul with his romantic mystical longings, his unmistakeable voice, all backed by a fantastic collection of musicians, every one of them fully bought into Van’s way of making music.

Liam Ronayne

Liam Ronayne

 

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Header photo: Art Siegel, Wikipedia Commons

Roaming in the Gloaming

The Gloaming and The Gloaming 2

The late George Martin was one time quoted as saying

“can you tell me what music is? It’s completely intangible. It grips you, gets into your soul”.

That quote came to mind when listening to Martin Hayes leading his Gloaming comrades out of their own composition ‘Fáinleog’ and into the first few bars of the traditional jig ‘The Holly Bush’. I wish I could describe the feelings that the transition and Hayes’s fiddle-playing create, but all I can say is, go listen to it.

The Gloaming first got together almost five years ago – a fantastic concert in Triskel Christchurch in December 2012 was one of their early gigs. Since then they have often been referred to in the media as a ‘trad supergroup’. Whatever about that there is no doubting their standing in the world of roots music – Iarla Ó Lionáird (voice and keys) is the leading exponent of the Muscraí singing tradition, and Martin Hayes is the king of east Clare fiddle-playing. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is a wonderful fiddler as well, playing the Hardanger d’amore, his own creation, Thomas Bartlett, from Connecticut is on piano (and organizer / producer in the studio), and Irish–American Denis Cahill, on guitar, is Hayes’s long-standing music partner.

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The Gloaming

That difficult second album! One of the hoariest old chestnuts in music. The Gloaming have got around it with their second, by creating a companion for their first. Not really a continuation, not the same as the first, but together they form a whole, greater than the sum of the parts. The feeling that the two CDs are a pair is reinforced by the visual presentation of the records by the Real World label — beautiful packaging it has to be said. Both have striking but elusive sepia images on the cover, photos by Robert and Shana ParkerHarrison. The back covers and the inside spreads are also very similar, encouraging us to see them as a pair.

Centrepiece of the first CD was ‘The Opening Set’, track 8 on the album! This is a 16-minute masterpiece in its own right, starting with a traditional song from the Muscraí tradition, and building, layer by layer, through six tunes and airs to a cathartic climax.

There is nothing resembling this on The Gloaming 2, and rightly so. It would have been impossible to equal it. But what we have on both are group compositions using Gaelic poetry, the earliest from the Fiannaíocht or Fenian Cycle, and a 16th-century poem, but most are recent — Sean Ó Ríordáin’s ‘Saoirse’, and Michael Hartnett’s ‘An Muince Dreoilíní’ on the first album; The Gloaming 2 begins with two poems from Ó Ríordáin’s Eireaball Spideoige.

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The Gloaming 2

Their versions of ‘Samhraidh, Samhraidh’ (on the first album) and ‘Slán le Maighe (on Gloaming 2) are worth the price of entry alone. These take their place among the jigs, hornpipes, reels, hop jigs, and slides.

The music on The Gloaming 2 might not be created for dancing, but I would challenge anyone to stay sitting quietly when listening to tunes like ‘The Rolling Wave’, ‘Music in the Glen’ and ‘The Holy Bush’. Iarla sings the old lullaby ‘Cucanandy’ which he learnt from the singing of Bess Cronin from his home parish of Baile Bhúirne. The Gloaming’s version wanders off mid-way but returns to finish with a credo that would apply to any musician:

“Piper sell your pipes, buy your wife a gown

Piper sell your pipes, buy your wife a gown

Yerra I wouldn’t sell me pipes for all the wives in town”.

The Gloaming last played Cork at a sold-out show in the Opera House last year. The way they’re going they will fill the proposed Events Centre, and still leave disappointed fans outside.

Liam Ronayne
Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian

Gibbons lives in a Perfectamundo!

William Frederick Gibbons, or Billy Gibbons, as he prefers to be called, waited until his sixty sixth year to release his first solo record – Perfectamundo. With about forty years worth of ZZ Top under his belt, and iconic status in the world of blues/rock guitar already copper-fastened, there was a fair amount of excitement mixed with trepidation as to what kind of sermon the Reverend would deliver. Would this album consist of nothing more than a collection of ZZ Top out-takes, or maybe it would just serve as a vehicle for some self-indulgent fret board noodling? …. Or maybe something else?

Photo: Antti Salonen, Finland 2010
Photo: Antti Salonen, Finland 2010
‘Got Love if You Want it’ kicks off the record with a bombastic, staccato intro and before you get a chance to wonder where this is all going, it settles into a sultry, Latin groove with Billy’s guitar cutting through like a hot knife through butter. No creamy, suave ‘Santanaesque’ style licks to be heard here though, just Gibbons’ trademark gritty, edgy, tone sprinkled with enough dust from a Texas desert to remind you of just who’s in charge. The song pretty much sets the tone for what’s to follow; a mix of blues, rock and Latin jazz set to a backdrop of Cuban rhythm with Billy Gibbons’ gravelly voice box and cutting guitar taking centre stage.

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Request from our catalogue!
There’s a real natural flow to the music and it doesn’t sound contrived or forced in any way  – BG really pulls it off, but then again why wouldn’t he? As a kid, Billy began his musical career as a percussionist and was sent by his father to study with the great Tito Puente in New York. There’s always been a shot of Havana in the ZZ Top cocktail – album titles such as Deguello or Tres Hombres for example. Their minimalistic style of blues rock always relied heavily on a solid beat, and odd percussive breaks are littered throughout. To Billy the beat has always been king and I think making this record really gave him a chance to bring that part of his musical persona to the fore.

Photo: Craig O'Neal from Wikipedia Commons
Photo: Craig O’Neal from Wikipedia Commons
Gibbons has always shown himself to be wide open to influences from outside of his comfort zone and this record is no exception. There are even echoes of the type of sonic experimentation which characterised classic ZZ Top albums such as Afterburner or Eliminator, especially evident on the title track ‘Perfectamundo.’

The guitar work on the album is superb. Gibbons isn’t trying to break new ground here. He’s just doing what he does best, and he’s the best at what he does. His understated, relaxed, almost lazy style of pentatonic based blues guitar has sustained him through an era where neo-classical, super-sonic shredding was standard fare and it sustains him still. He’s got that rare gift among guitarists in that he can cut you in half with three notes. Also, when you hear him play, you know it’s him.

This album is the product of a musician who in recent years has really been on top of his game. The 2012 Rick Rubin produced ZZ Top album, ‘La Futura’ is arguably one of the finest in the band’s catalogue and with his first solo album Billy Gibbons is showing no signs of slowing down.

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Astral Weak?

Van Morrison’s 2015 rerelease of the classic Astral Weeks — hit or miss?  Liam Ronayne explores:

Astral Weeks was acknowledged as one of the best reissues of 2015 in many end-of-year lists.  This reissue is, nevertheless, a peculiar thing.  The sound is definitely better – warmer, richer – than the first time it was issued on CD, and one can appreciate  Richard Davis’s bass-playing even more.  Plus, there are four additional tracks.

But it could have been so much more, with little effort and just a bit of imagination from the record company.

Unlike the Moondance ‘expanded edition’ of 2013, which gave us a second CD of earlier takes and alternative versions and thus adding to our enjoyment of the record, there is nothing like that here.  In fact the strongest reaction is that of an opportunity missed.

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Log in and request a copy!

Order of songs

When Morrison played the entire set of Astral Weeks live in November 2008 (40 years after its original release) he made it clear that he had wanted the order of the songs to be different to how they were on the original.  He had wanted the album to reflect the thematic and emotional development of the songs, culminating in ‘Madame Joy’.

Lewis Merenstein was the man chosen by Warner Brothers to produce the album.  Merenstein brought his own vision to it, and saw that the songs needed jazz musicians rather than R’n’B sessionmen.  There is no reason to believe that Merenstein wanted to sabotage Morrison’s vision; it was just that the time limits imposed by vinyl meant that he had to change Morrison’s order.  Morrison’s preference would have meant the first side was 19 mins 40 sec but the second 26 mins 25 sec.

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Full length versions and ‘bonus’ tracks

There has been some (not much, to be honest) controversy about whether there was extra music in the Warner Brothers vaults from the Astral Weeks sessions of Sept–Oct 1968.  Morrison alluded to there being two songs but, in his usual elliptical way, Merenstein was always clear that there was nothing.

The two previously unheard takes included on the reissue – ‘Beside You’ and ‘Madame George’ – do not add much.  The rough versions of these two, recorded when Morrison was under contract to Bert Berns, are more interesting, as we can hear how much the songs developed over 12 months.  These versions were included in a ragbag compilation called This is where I came in, released in 1977 by Bang, which collected the eight tracks issued on Blowin’ your mind with the less awful tracks Morrison had to cut to satisfy his contract obligations with Berns.

The long version of ‘Ballerina’ is welcome, but the ‘full’ version of ‘Slim Slow Slider’ is a bit of a mystery.  Apparently those who played on the session remembered that the song developed into a long jazz improvisation, but we only get a hint of that here.

Madame Joy’ or ‘Madame George’?

When this classic song was first recorded it was known as ‘Madame Joy’, and it was under this title that Morrison played it at the Hollywood Bowl in November 2008.  Maybe you’d need to be an expert on the East Belfast accent to be absolutely sure, but to these ears it sounds like he’s singing ‘Joy’ more often than ‘George’.

So how might it have been better?

Simple:  A two-disc reissue, with the ‘original’ Merenstein album as Disc 1, and with Disc 2 using Morrison’s preferred order, the original title ‘Madame Joy’, and the (slightly) longer takes of ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Slim Slow Slider’.

Then let the public decide which is better.

Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian
Liam Ronayne
Cork City Librarian

Credit: Photo used in header image of Van Morrison at Notodden Blues Festival 2013 by Jarvin. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Joy of Ewan

The Joy of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl – Various Artists

Fifty years ago, at the height of Ireland’s so-called ‘ballad boom’, The Johnstons had a number one hit with Ewan McColl’s ‘The Travelling People’.  The following year Paul Brady joined the group, which had started out as three Johnston siblings.  So it’s a pleasure to hear Brady’s hearty version of the song – here called ‘Freeborn Man’ – on the double CD album issued in autumn 2015 to mark the centenary of Ewan MacColl’s birth.

Brady’s is one of four songs from MacColl’s 1964 BBC Radio Ballads ‘The Travelling People’ set.  Of these Karine Polwart’s ‘The Terror Time’ is the strongest, and indeed it is the standout track from an excellent album.

She is one of the younger artists featured.  As well as Paul Brady, the album features long-established singers like Christy Moore, English folk veterans Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson (and their daughter Eliza Carty), plus Scottish legend Dick Gaughan (a typically fiery and passionate ‘Jamie Foyers’, one of MacColl’s earliest compositions, about a Scot who died in the Spanish Civil War).

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Find this CD in our catalogue. Click here!

It is the younger artists who, surprisingly perhaps, bring most to the set.  Rufus and Martha Wainwright and their half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche do a fabulous version of ‘Sweet Thames, Flow Softly’, for example.  It would surely have pleased MacColl to see the tradition being carried on.

MacColl was a master of the simple direct lyric.  He did not believe in art for art’s sake, rather that songs, theatre and other artforms must aid the cause.  In ‘The Moving On Song’ he contrasts the lot of a traveller baby with the Christ child

“Born at the back of a blackthorn hedge
When the white hoarfrost lay all around
No wise men came bearing gifts
Instead the order came to shift . . .”

and

“The wise men came so stern and strict
And brought the order to evict”

Other highlights here are two of MacColl’s lesser-known songs:
‘The Father’s Song’, in a great version by Martin Simpson, is both
a lullaby for a son, and a no-punches-pulled indictment of the social order that son will soon encounter.

“Stop crying now, let daddy dry your tears
There’s no bogeyman to get you, never fear
There’s no ogres, wicked witches
Only greedy sons of bitches”

Kathryn Williams’ ‘Alone’, written after MacColl met a teenage girl on the streets of Salford in the 1960s, is hauntingly beautiful.

Liam Ronayne
Liam Ronayne, Cork City Librarian

Bob Dylan’s Cutting Edge!

Random thoughts on Bootleg Series 12

I didn’t recognize most of the songs, why doesn’t he do them like the records?” is a common complaint of people who attend occasional Bob Dylan gigs.  Listening to the three versions of ‘Just Like a Woman’ on the recently released The Cutting Edge: Bootleg Series vol. 12 might make such people think again.  We hear Dylan and his band of Nashville studio musicians try three very different versions of the song: different tempos, different lyrics, until they get close to the version that was released on Blonde on Blonde.  But was that the ‘definitive’ version?  Some years after, when he went back on the road with The Band, he sang the song solo (available on the live album Before the Flood), a version more passionate and pointed in its delivery than the studio version.

It’s a similar story with ‘Visions of Johanna’, one of Dylan’s great songs of that or any era.  For Dylan fans it is an article of faith that Levon & The Hawks, the group of four Canadians and one Arkansan (Levon Helm) that became The Band, were his best collaborators.  Despite his rapport with them, so evident on The Basement Tapes: Bootleg Series vol. 11, he just can’t get them to give him what he wants here.  It is ironic then that it was “the flawless musicality of Nashville’s session players”, to quote the liner notes (with the vital addition of Al Kooper on organ), that delivered the sound and dynamic he wanted for that quintessential New York song ‘Visions of Johanna’.  He made at least 14 takes with the Hawks in New York, but, for whatever reason, they couldn’t nail it.  Two months later in Nashville he had what he wanted, after a couple of false starts and just one full take.

Bob Dylan Studio Portraits Side Light: 1965-330-007-082 Manhattan, New York, USA 1965

But less than six months later, on the 1966 European tour, Dylan was singing ‘Visions of Johanna’, solo — just his voice, guitar, and harmonica.  The version recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (the same gig that has the infamous ‘Judas’ shout) is equally as strong as the Blonde on Blonde version, and allows us to digest and understand things we don’t get from the studio version with backing musicians.

Maybe it’s best to just listen to, and accept, whatever version Dylan is in the mood to give us?

With this release, as with many box sets, it could be said that it’s for people with more money than sense.  And indeed in a throwaway culture why should anyone be buying music laid down almost five decades ago?  Except that it is so wonderful to listen to, so wonderful to immerse yourself in.  That a good enough reason?

Liam Ronayne

 

Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian
Liam Ronayne
Cork City Librarian

 

Rory Gallagher Music Library Logo

A Treasure Trove of Taste!

Liam Ronayne, Cork City Librarian — as those who know him are aware — is a huge music fan and is always happy to spend a coffee break chatting about the latest goings-on in the music world or about revered legends of the past. It isn’t often, however, that Liam would have the time to put pen to paper on the subject, but considering that this is Rory Gallagher & Taste and that Liam himself is a fan, he’s gone that extra mile: 

The Taste Box Set, I’ll Remember — recently released by UMG / Polydor — is a four-disk treasure trove.

On disk 3, the five numbers culled from a 1970 BBC Radio 1 live set are introduced by John Peel, so laid-back he’s virtually horizontal. Peel remarks that, “Taste are one of those bands . . . who need to be seen and heard live to be fully appreciated”. That’s a view that most would agree with, borne out here by pillars of Taste’s live set, like ‘Catfish’, ‘Gamblin Blues’ and ‘Sugar Mama’, and by the version of ‘What’s Going On’ captured live in Stockholm not long before the band split up, which breathes so much more into the song than the studio version. Gallagher’s legendary energy, fantastic technique, and joy in the music are all to be found in the many live cuts over the four disks, and especially on the Stockholm set.

But it would be very wrong to overlook the beautifully crafted songs that make up ‘On the Boards’, Taste’s second studio album. This is a very special artefact in itself, and much more than a keepsake of the live sets. In the title track, the band, all three of them, stretch out to great effect: the dynamic, the groove, the bluesy sound all remind us what was lost when they did split up.

Another rare Taste postcard

Another unmissable aspect of the Box Set for Rory fans from this part of the world is having a full 56 minutes of the original line-up from 1968, with Eric Kitteringham on bass and Norman ‘Sticks’ D’Amery on drums. Seven numbers were recorded in the Maritime Hotel, Belfast (Van Morrison & Them’s old stomping ground) as a demo to interest record labels; there are versions of ‘Blister on the Moon’ and ‘Born on the Wrong Side of Time’, recorded as singles for the Major Minor label (run by Belfast promoter Phil Solomon), songs that were re-recorded with Wilson and McCracken for Taste’s debut album on Polydor the following year. The four tracks recorded at the Woburn Abbey Festival in England in the summer of 1968 showcase a lively, powerful band, with a great sense of fun.

Liam Ronayne Cork City Librarian
Liam Ronayne
Cork City Librarian