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

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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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