Sunday, September 18, 2016

CD Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon Live (2016)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon Live
In the course of my lengthy and glorious career as a critic of rock ‘n’ roll music, I’ve been privileged to have seen, literally, hundreds of live performances by some of my favorite musicians. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, I was lucky enough to witness awe-inspiring shows by some of the true legends of rock ‘n’ soul music – the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger – while during the latter half of the ‘80s I covered artists as diverse and talented as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Living Colour, and R.E.M. among many others. My overly-belabored point is that I’ve seen a lot of live music and, via my tenure as a writer for a bootleg-oriented publication during the ‘90s, I’ve also heard live albums by lot of bands that I never got to see perform.

Among the literally hundreds of shows I’ve enjoyed (and a few that I didn’t), I’d place Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers in the top three, easily, alongside Springsteen and SRV for pure energy, entertainment, and an earnest joy in the simple act of making music. You may not be familiar with Grushecky – the talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist fronted the acclaimed Iron City Houserockers in the mid-to-late ‘70s and, after that band broke up, he carried on as a solo act with the Houserockers behind him. A ‘Rust Belt’ rocker with molten steel in his veins, Grushecky has continued to pursue the promise of rock ‘n’ roll long after the average man would have given up the dream and become a banker or a CPA. Working a day job and rockin’ at night and on weekends, Grushecky long ago accepted that he’d never be a star, but the fire within still burns hot and he’s made a lot of great music while most of his contemporaries have faded away.   

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon: Live At The Stone Pony


Grushecky has released live albums before – 1999’s excellent Down The Road Apiece Live and 2011’s equally esteemed We’re Not Dead Yet come to mind – but American Babylon: Live At The Stony Pony is something special, indeed. Widely considered to be Grushecky’s career milestone, 1995’s American Babylon was produced by Joe’s pal Bruce Springsteen, who also added guitar and co-wrote a pair of the album’s songs. Given the trend of rockers performing their best (or their favorite) album in its entirety, Grushecky & the Houserockers decamped to Springsteen’s backyard to perform American Babylon song for song at the legendary Asbury Park, New Jersey club The Stone Pony in October 2015.

This live recording of American Babylon adds to the vitality and creative zen of the studio album with a crackling energy and barely-concealed menace that revels in a cacophony of galloping drumbeats, steely bass lines, and clashing guitars. The powerful “Dark and Bloody Ground” opens the show, the song capturing the plight of the Native American both in its muscular instrumental arrangement but also in Grushecky’s strong but nuanced vocals and lyrical poetry. Grushecky’s acoustic guitar strum opens the lovely “Never Be Enough Time” before the band kicks in with an explosion of sound and fury that swirls around the twangy, Duane Eddy-styled fretwork of Joe and his son Johnny. The song’s gorgeous instrumentation magnifies the romantic emotion of the lyrics while Grushecky’s solos channel the history of rock ‘n’ roll heartbreak into a flurry of impactful notes.

Only Lovers Left Alive


Grushecky wrote “American Babylon” as a response to the anarchy and malaise that gripped Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and his hometown of Pittsburgh. A powerful social statement matched nicely by a clamorous soundtrack, the performance here amplifies that of the studio album tenfold, screeching guitars and mortar-fire drumbeats sadly reinforcing the truth that America’s decline has only gotten worse in the past 20+ years. “What Did You Do In The War” is a sly story-song with a strong political statement and bullying instrumentation. Harking back to the apex of the war in Viet Nam circa 1969, the lyrics cleverly allude to John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” as lyrics name-check Jimi Hendrix and the moon landing above the stunning fretwork and chaotic percussive rhythm.

By contrast, the mid-tempo “Homestead” is the sort of working class ballad that Grushecky excels at writing and performing, the singer at his most Springsteen-esque here with a wonderful story song that is lyrically and musically rich with blasts of harmonica, rhythmic percussion, harmony vocals, and waves of mesmerizing twin guitars. An unbridled rocker, “No Strings Attached” spotlights Grushecky’s conversational songwriting skills with a tale of the chance meeting of two former lovers that’s delivered above blustery drumbeats, ambitious melodic changes, and Grushecky’s underrated, imaginative fretwork. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is the mournful end to American Babylon, a romantic dirge with staggered rhythms, razor-sharp guitars, and raw emotional vocals that display the slightest glimmer of hope amidst the darkness. Grushecky’s fiery guitar solos here are a thing of fragile beauty, soaring above his insightful, elegant lyrics with phoenix-like grace.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Familiarizing myself again with American Babylon, an album that I admittedly haven’t listened to in a couple of years, I’m reminded of why I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll as a young teenager in the first place. Noticed mostly for its Springsteen connection when it was originally released, Grushecky and gang – including longtime Houserockers Art Nardini (bass), Joffo Simmons (drums), and Joe Pelesky (keyboards) – created a near-perfect rock ‘n’ roll album in American Babylon. The album offered a social and political statement that is sadly appropriate to this day and, as performed live, shorn of the constraints of the studio, Grushecky and his talented band roar with the heat and fire of a blast furnace, delivering a magnificent rock ‘n’ roll tour de force that demands your attention. Grade: A+ (Schoolhouse Records, released July 25, 2016)

Buy the CD direct: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon Live

CD Review: Leon Alvarado’s The Future Left Behind (2016)

Leon Alvarado’s The Future Left Behind
Lest one thinks that rock ‘n’ roll left behind the glorious ‘concept album’ when the clock struck midnight on January 31st, 1979 then look no further than Leon Alvarado’s magnificent The Future Left Behind to refute that misbegotten theory! A fourteen-song concept album with narration interspersed between the gorgeous instrumentation, Alvarado spins a dystopian sci-fi tale of a barren Earth and subsequent emigration to new planets not unlike the European exodus of the late 1700s. A visionary songwriter and keyboardist and a wizard with a synthesizer, Alvarado also has good-enough-for-rockin’ percussion skills that he puts to good use.

Leon Alvarado’s The Future Left Behind


For The Future Left Behind, the follow-up to his 2014 album Music From An Expanded Universe, Alvarado enlisted the help of a couple of Yes alumni and prog-rock fellow travelers in guitarist Billy Sherwood and keyboardist Rick Wakeman. While the musical brilliance that runs like a river throughout the songs on The Future Left Behind display more than a little Yes and Genesis influence, as well as a healthy dose of Wakeman’s epic Journey To The Centre of The Earth, there’s also a little 1970s-style jazz-fusion creeping in around the edges as every influential key-basher from Keith Emerson to Chick Corea is thrown into the musical gumbo pot.

Although Steve Thamer brings an undeniable gravitas to his succinct narration and his role as the story’s protagonist, Alvarado lets the music do the talking on this mostly instrumental song-cycle. “Launch Overture” is reminiscent of Keith Emerson’s early ELP flights of fancy, the music full of hope and brightness, guest Rick Wakeman’s synth solo whizzing and humming like stream-of-consciousness throughout the performance. “Journey Into Space” finds Alvarado and his cohorts in pure ‘70s-era prog-rock mode, soaring synths and blustery drumbeats providing the backbone for an exhilarating instrumental flight through the cosmos worthy of obscure, albeit talented space music composers like Tony Gerber and Giles Reaves.

By contrast, “The Ones Left Behind” is darker, more strident, haunting synthesizer runs and tumbling percussion echoing the emotion and reality of those too impoverished to make the journey to a new life. Sherwood’s piercing fretwork battles with Alvarado’s sonic tsunami to create a powerful, provocative musical moment. The new worlds are no utopia, though, and “Among The Stars” reflects both the promise and the hardship of starting life anew with swells of instrumentation overwhelming the senses while sporadic drumbeats march at a lonely place. The Future Left Behind reasserts the narrator’s belief in the fundamental ability to triumph over adversity, “The Star Seekers” ending the album on as similarly an upbeat note as it began. With hints of ELP and King Crimson lying beneath the surface, Alvarado’s synth-driven score mimics the energy and vitality of mankind’s future saviors...those of us left behind.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


If it sounds like the ol’ Reverend is quite smitten with Leon Alvarado’s The Future Left Behind, well, it’s because I am. Seldom have these ears heard as fresh and creative a concept as Alvarado unfolds in his song cycle here, a dreamlike tale obviously inspired by the modern world but daring to take us, as humans, to the next level of evolution. It’s an ambitious album, with fantastical instrumentation and although dominated by Alvarado’s keyboards and synthesizers, never gets tedious or falls to the level of the mundane. I know that a lot of you don’t like any music without a lot of shredding guitars, but fans of prog-rock, jazz fusion and/or avant-garde electronic music will find a lot to love about The Future Left Behind. Grade: A- (Melodic Revolution Records, released July 30, 2016)

Buy the CD from CD Baby: Leon Alvarado's The Future Left Behind

CD Preview: Otis Redding’s Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings

Otis Redding’s Live At The Whisky A Go Go
In April 1966, R&B legend Otis Redding delivered three nights of near-mythical performances at the revered Whisky A Go Go club in Los Angeles. The singer was already a soul superstar by this time, his acclaimed third album – Otis Blue – a commercial and critical success that would launch Redding to greater heights. Although portions of Redding’s historic 1966 Whisky performances have been parceled out through the years on a number of albums, beginning with 1968’s In Person at the Whisky A Go Go and most recently with 2010’s Live On The Sunset Strip, the shows have never been collected in their entirety.

On October 21st, 2016 Stax Records will release the massive six-disc box set Otis Redding – Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings. Documenting all seven sets from the singer’s three-night stand in chronological order, Redding’s performances have been remixed and re-mastered from the original four-track analog tapes. The set captures every show in its entirety, including Redding’s between-song banter, exactly as the singer performed each night. The box set includes a cool poster that mimics the album artwork, and features new liner notes by Los Angeles-based journalist Lynell George and co-producer Bill Bentley.

Although Redding, at the time, had enjoyed a number of R&B chart hits in songs like “Mr. Pitiful,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Pain In My Heart,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” the singer had yet to breakthrough to a mainstream (i.e. white) audience. Performing with his nine-piece band for the first time at the Whisky A Go Go – a rock ‘n’ roll club that was instrumental in introducing audiences to bands like the Doors, the Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield – Redding was the first major soul artist to perform on the Whisky stage, opening up an entirely new market for the up-and-coming superstar. A year after his appearance, Redding would be headlining the Monterey Pop Festival, his performance there launching his career into the stratosphere, a trajectory tragically cut short by the singer’s untimely death in December 1967.

Otis Redding – Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings features all of the above-mentioned hits and more, including great performances like Redding’s spirited cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” his original take on “Respect,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” and “Chained and Bound.” Although there’s obviously a lot of overlap between sets, there are some unexpected gems here, too, like Redding’s covers of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” Arguably the greatest soul singer of all time, Otis Redding’s legacy is secure, but the release of these 1966 performances in their entirety is a milestone nonetheless.

Buy the CD box set from Amazon.com: Otis Redding's Live At The Whisky A Go Go

Thursday, September 15, 2016

CD Review: Klaus Schulze's Picture Music (1975)

Klaus Schulze's Picture Music
One of the godfathers of contemporary "space music," composer, musician and visionary Klaus Schulze was experimenting with electronic tones, synthesized music and ambient sounds while Eno was still playing the role of rock star. One of the leading lights of the late '60s/early '70s "krautrock" movement, Schulze was a member of the seminal German outfit Tangerine Dream, playing drums on the band's influential debut album, Electronic Meditations. Schulze went on to form the psych-rock collective Ash Ra Tempel with Manuel Göttsching, recording a single album with that band before striking out on a successful solo career that is now in its fourth decade.

Recorded in 1973, but not released until 1975, Picture Music was actually the third album recorded by Schulze, although it would be the fourth solo album to be released. Some have said that this is Schulze's first true "synthesizer" album and I would have to concur. While Schulze's contemporary Walter/Wendy Carlos used Robert Moog's pioneering technology to dabble in pop music and film scores, Schulze's muse took him down an entirely different path. Schulze envisioned sounds as an expression of emotion and thought, using a battery of synthesizers – along with whatever studio wizardry was available in 1973 – to rewrite the rules of musical composition with Picture Music.

While others were content to remain earthbound and chase after traditional musical forms, Schulze had his eyes on the stars with Picture Music. Predicting Brian Eno's ambitious experimentation in ambient music by a half-decade, and furthering the trailblazing work of his sophomore effort Cyborg, Schulze would tinker with tone, rhythm and the concept of spaciousness on Picture Music. The album opens with the almost twenty-four minute piece "Totem," a subdued meditative piece that shows Schulze tentatively incorporating the abilities of the synthesizer into his work. Fragments of rhythm and melody swirl in and out of the piece, lost beneath bubbling electronics and a fragile painting of distance.

"Totem" acts as 'ying' to its companion song's 'yang,' the twenty-three minute "Mental Door" a more aggressive, percussive piece. The composition starts out dark and quiet, before building to a crescendo of Baroque keyboard riffing, clashing cymbals and jazzy, often tribal drumming. It is a breathtaking piece, as invigorating and energetic as "Totem" is contemplative and introspective.

Due to Schulze's importance in the field of electronic music, Picture Music has been reissued countless times, mostly by various European labels and often with different cover art and song indexing. This American reissue, by the exemplary prog-rock label Inside Out Music, offers deluxe packaging, rare photos, informative liner notes and best of all, a thirty-three minute, previously unreleased bonus track.

"C'est Pas La Meme Chose," according to Schulze, is actually an extended, more involved reading of "Totem," taking the original song's meditative theme and extending it towards a new horizon. It is a fitting bookend to Picture Music, punctuating Schulze's influence in the genre and providing a fitting coda to this important and often overlooked entry in the canon of electronic music. (Inside Out Music, reissued 2005)

Related content: Klaus Schulze's Mirage CD review

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Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005 

CD Review: Klaus Schulze's Mirage (1977)

Klaus Schulze's Mirage
Twenty-eight years ago, they didn't really even have a name for this stuff. "Space Music" wouldn't enter into the shared consciousness of the music world until the mid-to-late '80s and although it has since branched out into various sub-genres of the electronic music tree, it remains a decidedly cult phenomenon. Although musician and producer Brian Eno is often mistakenly considered the father of space music due to his tonal experimentation in "ambient" music, the truth is that electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk, Cluster, Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream, and Faust cleared the path for Eno years before.

Of the many musicians whose work would further the evolution of electronic music, perhaps none were as adventuresome or tireless as Germany's Klaus Schulze. Schulze recorded with both the seminal Tangerine Dream and the psych-rock collective Ash Ra Tempel before abandoning the band format in favor of a solo career in 1971. To say that his subsequent output was prolific would be understating the truth – Schulze released an amazing fourteen albums in the first ten years of his solo career. Even more incredible is that Schulze has released over 80 albums in the thirty years since he broke from his previous bands, each one a significant work of composition and style.

Released in 1977, Mirage was Schulze's eighth album and what many critics and fans consider to be his best. Schulze had mastered the possibilities provided by synthesizers and studio technology with a trio of early '70s albums – Cyborg, Picture Music, and Blackdance – and would go on to experiment more with tone and emotion on future releases. With Mirage, Schulze attempted to create a "winter landscape," recreating the bleak white and gray tones of the season with the instruments at hand. The resulting album is sparse, eerie, meditative and a masterpiece of form and performance in every aspect.

The original 1977 release of Mirage, restricted by the vinyl LP format, featured two extended cuts, one on either side of the album. Each composition consists of several passages, which often change the direction of the piece. The first, "Velvet Voyage," is a hypnotic twenty-eight minute essay, subdued in nature and playing to the listener's sub-conscious. It is minimalist and quite beautiful, if challenging. The second track, "Crystal Lake," clocks in at slightly more than twenty-nine minutes. Embellishing the basic underlying track with chimes, synth washes and other electronic wizardry, Schulze creates a breathtaking musical soundscape that is both ambitious and thought provoking.

The Inside Out Music reissue of Mirage includes deluxe packaging, liner notes, photos and an additional bonus track, "In Cosa Crede Chi Non Crede?" The nineteen-minute coda extends the sonic soundtrack of the first two tracks, its subdued electronic instrumentation causing one to strain to take it all in. With a myriad of colors and sounds, however, it is well worth the effort. A journey, of sorts, inspired by Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, the song's title translates, roughly, as "in what it believes who does not believe?" The composition is every bit as daunting as its title; Schulze composing music much the same way as Eco composes literature.

For music fans inquisitive enough to want to discover more about electronic music, the work of Klaus Schulze is essential. Although I personally would not recommend Mirage as a starting point – Picture Music may be less challenging an introduction – I would heartily recommend it as your second or third dalliance with Schulze, if only to experience what can be done by a master painting with notes instead of colors. (Inside Out Music, reissued 2005)

Related content: Klaus Schulze's Picture Music CD review

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Klaus Schulze's Mirage

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2005

Monday, September 12, 2016

CD Review: Jerry Goodman's Violin Fantasy (2016)

Jerry Goodman's Violin Fantasy
Violinist Jerry Goodman was the best part of late ‘60s/early ‘70s sonic experimenters the Flock, the talented instrumentalist wailing away on the catgut, long locks flying wildly. Goodman went on to an acclaimed solo career, as well as abundant session work with folks like Joe Cocker, Nektar, Dream Theater and many others after serving ground-breaking stints with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Dixie Dregs.  

Violin Fantasy is Goodman’s first solo effort since 1987’s It’s Alive, the album a fine collection of twelve instrumental tone poems, mostly well-worn rock ‘n’ roll covers, with his imaginative playing at the eye of the hurricane.

Goodman’s extraordinary chops breathe new life into songs like Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” (pure magic recorded with prog-rock pals Nektar); the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is provided a lush soundtrack that reveals the wistful yearning beneath the lyrics; while “The Laws of Nature,” with guests Tony Levin (King Crimson) and Billy Sherwood (Yes), is a fluid, funky, proggish joy ride. Europe’s “The Final Countdown” is provided an epic grandeur that even the original couldn’t muster while Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” takes on a dark majesty when surrounded by Goodman’s supple orchestration.

The violinist’s original title track is simply hauntingly beautiful. Mixing elements of classic rock, prog-rock, and jazz-fusion, Goodman has delivered in Violin Fantasy an exhilarating, breathtaking showcase for his unique artistic vision. Grade: A (Purple Pyramid Records, released July 1, 2016)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Jerry Goodman's Violin Fantasy

CD Review: Martin Turner's New Live Dates (2016)

Martin Turner's New Live Dates
For better than a decade now, singer, songwriter, and bass player Martin Turner has made a living reminding people that he was a founding member of legendary British rockers Wishbone Ash which, by the way, are still touring and recording under the aegis of longtime bandleader Andy Powell. Turner really should just let it go – it’s been over 30 years since he left that band, and most of us no longer care why – and concentrate on what he does best, which is sing (and quite well, I might add).

Martin Turner’s New Live Dates: The Complete Set


Turner’s New Live Dates: The Complete Set is a two-disc reissue of the two separate New Live Dates albums from the mid-2000s, which documented the 2005 and 2006 tours of Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, a name he subsequently lost in a court battle with Powell. No matter which side of the great Wishbone divide you fall on (and make no mistake, Turner has developed a well-deserved cult of personality through the years), there’s a lot of great music among the two-dozen tracks on New Live Dates, which isn’t surprising ‘cause they’re mostly classic old Wishbone Ash songs. Guitarists Ray Hatfield and Keith Buck are a real find, both men talented string-benders that provide ample support (and that gorgeous Wishbone twin-guitar sound) behind Turner’s supple vocals.

“Blind Eye” in particular displays a healthy dose of fiery fretwork that sets off sparks alongside Rob Hewins’ exciting, jazzy drumming. Turner’s “Walking The Reeperbahn” features awe-inspiring and mesmerizing guitars and gorgeous vocal harmonies to rival Crosby, Stills & Nash. The raging instrumental “Outward Bound” displays the band’s impressive musical chemistry (and includes some flamethrower guitarplay). The Wishbone gem “Front Page News” showcases the extent of Turner’s vocal gymnastics as he dances atop scorching guitar licks. Turner’s “Cosmic Jazz” reminds of Bob Welch’s solo work in its delicious melodies, but the wiry, choogling guitars and driving rhythms aspire to higher ground than mere soft-rock heartbreak.

Disc two, with performances drawn from the 2006 tour, includes such firestarters as “Diamond Jack,” which offers up more of Hatfield and Buck’s stunning intertwined guitarplay alongside an inspired Turner vocal performance. The sly, funky “Master of Disguise” is pure throwback joy with a ‘70s vibe and the breathtaking instrumental “F.U.B.B.” is nine-plus-minutes and soaring guitars, throbbing bass lines, and pulse-quickening percussion. “Blowin’ Free,” one of Wishbone’s better-known and well-constructed tunes is acquitted nicely here with lovely vocal harmonies and shimmering guitars, and former Wishbone Ash bandmate Ted Turner drops in for “Flesh and Steel,” contributing some tasty steel guitar to the up-tempo Southern fried instrumental.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


New Live Dates: The Complete Set is a fine, rockin’ collection of tunes with stellar fretwork and Turner’s undeniable charisma and talent. If you have the original releases from 2006 and ’07, you won’t need this set, but if you’re a fan of classic 1970s-era Wishbone Ash (and what bona fide rocker isn’t?), it would be well worth your time and effort to track down a copy of this inspired set of live performances. Grade: B (Dirty Dog Discs, released April 15, 2016)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Martin Turner's New Live Dates

Friday, September 9, 2016

CD Review: Van Morrison's It's Too Late To Stop Now (1974/2016)

Van Morrison's It's Too Late To Stop Now
Guest Review by Steve Morley

Not every rock artist in the early ‘70s stood open-shirted amidst Marshall stacks and Guinness Book decibel levels – it was a diverse period, with a menu that included everything from roots-meisters the Band and folk-poet balladeers like Jackson Browne to the Allman Brothers Band’s simmering Southern fusion. But it’s hard to think of anyone who was defying rock’s increasingly over-amped norms more vehemently than Van Morrison. In 1973, he took the versatile and impressively well-oiled 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra on a three-month tour of the USA and Europe, summarized the following year on the double-disc live set It’s Too Late to Stop Now.

Evidently, it’s not too late to stop releasing additional evidence of that historic jaunt, thought by many to have yielded one of the most dynamic live recordings in rock history. And, in fact, Sony/Legacy’s recently issued multi-disc-and-DVD package, which expands the original by three volumes, benefits from the four-decade-plus distance since the original’s debut. For one, it serves both as a primer for the not-fully-initiated and a time capsule compiling a near-perfect overview of Morrison’s most creatively fertile and enduring period as a recording artist.

Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now


The five-album salvo of Morrison releases between 1969’s Astral Weeks and ‘72’s Saint Dominic’s Preview traces a high-peaking artistic incline and represents the foundation of his entire career since. To be offered three discs’ worth of classic-era live performances centered around this prime period of Morrison’s work is not a gift his appreciators are likely to receive with a halfhearted shrug. The faithful, of course, require no additional background info about how this particular time period found the notoriously temperamental Morrison in unusually genial mood onstage, and it’s doubtful they’ll need to be convinced to pony up for Holy-Grail-esque extras from the tour (and in some cases, the same shows) that produced his definitive live recordings.

Sure, they’ll wish the DVD contained the entire London show that was originally broadcast on BBC TV, but they’ll settle for the truncated version, which contains a few performances (like the greasy “Green Onions”-like version of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Help Me”) not featured elsewhere on the currently available set of live discs. But for the benefit of newcomers, latecomers, and the random Van fan sitting on the fence pondering the price tag, let the record show that the deluxe set is a generously stuffed, meaty burrito divided more or less evenly between titles that did not appear on the 1974 Too Late collection and alternate performances of tracks that did. In combination with the original release (it seems reasonable to assume that the majority of interested parties would already own it), there are more than a dozen duplicate tracks and an additional seven that appear a total of three times.

Among the previously unreleased from this period are Van’s delightfully jaunty, jazzy reworking of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” a trio of tracks from the unimpeachable Moondance album, a wacky cover of Louis Prima’s tango-tinged “Buona Sera” (see, he does have a sense of humor lurking in there somewhere), and a spirited sneak preview of the then-fresh “There There Child,” a worthy number that wouldn’t see release in original form until 25 years later on the rarities compilation The Philosopher’s Stone.

Hard Nose the Highway


The new sets also feature the lion’s share of the then-current Hard Nose the Highway album, one that’s gotten drastically mixed reviews over the years. (In hindsight, this album may well have inspired the then-highly-uncommon decision to add two violinists, a viola player and a cellist to the touring lineup, as it was heavily enhanced with strings; in fact, three members of the touring quartet had appeared on several of its tracks.) The Highway material, while generally more down-tempo, proves compatible enough with Morrison’s previous catalog and offers occasional highlights.

One, “Snow in San Anselmo,” departs from its rigid and slightly ostentatious studio version to feature a bebop-flavored excursion in mid-song. Stunningly, it turns on a dime, transitioning from its swinging, trumpet-led interlude into an almost weightless segment built upon swelling strings that elicit a spontaneous grunt of surprise and approval from Van himself. The same sudden horns-and-strings contrast is played to great effect in a pastoral section of the Sesame Street standard “Bein’ Green,” which Morrison invests with an impressive emotional heft, particularly considering he’s reinterpreting Kermit the Frog.
 
As for the anchoring and set-closing numbers that show up in multiples, you could probably live contentedly enough without three separate live versions of “Cyprus Avenue,” “Caravan,” “Listen to the Lion,” “Domino” and Van’s covers of Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul” and Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” But while it’s initially more enticing to hear performances of newly issued songs from these historic sets spanning May, June, and July of 1973, the alternates make for a fascinating study in the onstage dynamics and unplanned interplay between Van and his core band. While this is a crack section that’s clearly well-rehearsed, it’s comprised of skilled, creative players who balance tight execution with an in-the-moment looseness heard in a myriad of deviations distinguishing each performance of any one particular song.

A Fearless Approach


Small and usually subtle flaws can be heard (which Morrison refused to fix in the studio in the interest of authenticity), but nothing you wouldn’t expect from musicians who are more interested in walking the tightrope than playing it safe. It’s precisely this fearless approach, which itself is in perfect keeping with Morrison’s modus operandi, that injects so many of these performances with their bracing vitality. For his part, Morrison endlessly explores minute variations in his vocal phrasing and delivery, never singing a song exactly the same twice. His ad libs spur the musicians to their own spontaneous responses and put their ability to anticipate him to the test. The London Rainbow rendition of “Listen to the Lion” on Volume IV poses a challenge to drummer David Shaw in particular; as it reaches its climax, Morrison unleashes a series of syncopated guttural punctuations that Shaw links up with just in time for a hilarious game of rope-a-dope in which his boss suddenly, perhaps capriciously, alternates the pattern.

There’s an additional factor to consider – the sometimes audible difference in the energy from venue to venue, presumably owing to variations in each audience’s and theater’s vibe and the resulting effect on the artist and musicians. The particularly responsive crowd at the Santa Monica show heard on Volume III, in fact, may be the reason why the set reveals a few more rough edges and features more wild cards in the song list. Evidently, the rapt London crowds later helped Van conjure particularly affecting mojo, as the original Too Late set drew heavily from them, as does the DVD footage; Volume IV, from the same venue and pair of July performances, may well be the most inspired and cohesive of the three new volumes. However much Morrison was enjoying the concert stage and acknowledging the ticketholders during this fleeting season, though, make no mistake: he wasn’t there to entertain as much as to stoke his emotional fire before a host of witnesses, and he’s far less focused on commanding a crowd than in commanding his band, perhaps even his own voice, to bend to his artistic will.

This is a rare thing to behold in rock, and it was hardly the norm in 1973, when arena rockers like the Rolling Stones were expertly milking crowds for response and the trend toward sensational theatrics found such acts as Alice Cooper and David Bowie employing alluring artifice and relying on steady, predictable musical backing to support them. Conversely, Morrison’s natural idiosyncrasies and eyes-closed intensity, coupled with an experienced band closely bonded to his impulses, were in themselves sufficient to compel his audiences.

Steve’s Bottom Line


Morrison disciples such as Bruce Springsteen and Bono may have since carried pieces of his sound and style to rockdom’s highest heights – and on their good days are nearly as hard to classify – but not even the likes of them breathe the rarefied artistic air that makes Morrison such an anomaly in rock ‘n’ roll. It must be said that “Gloria” is a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll classic, but this nugget from his pre-solo days as frontman of the Irish band Them is the one song that never quite settles comfortably into the rest of Morrison’s masterful musical mosaic (Them’s oddly bipolar 1965 hit “Here Comes the Night,” with the string section taking the instrumental interlude, fares better here).

By this point in his career, Morrison had surpassed rock’s basic forms, as pretty much everything else on these discs demonstrates. While they function as more than mere documents, It’s Too Late to Stop Now’s four volumes stand as affirmation of a sometimes-overlooked fact: Van Morrison was an island unto himself in the world of rock music. This fiery furnace fueled by jazz, R&B, country, folk, gospel, and blues can still claim temporary citizenship there because his fusion of those elements circa the early ‘70s was simply too potent and far-reaching to find a home anywhere else. (Sony Music Group, released June 10, 2016)

Buy the CD from Amazon.com: Van Morrison's It's Too Late to Stop Now

Get You Some O' This: Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ Portable Turntables

Rock 'N' Rolla turntables

Yeah, a lot of ink and pixels have been spilled yammering on about the “return of vinyl” as if the beloved format actually went anywhere. The Reverend predicted this trend almost a decade ago with a pithy rant titled “Back To Mono,” so it’s no surprise to ‘moi’ that a new generation of music-lovin’ droogs has discovered the sound and tactile enjoyment of a vinyl record album and accompanying (large) color artwork.

As somebody who’s been buying vinyl for nearly a half-century now, I can attest to the need for a quality turntable to play one’s precious records on. I’ve owned several ‘tables through the years, with plans to add a Pro-Ject spinner from my buddy Mark at the Hi-Fi Lounge (gratuitous commercial plug!) when finances allow. I gotta admit, though, that these Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ Portable Briefcase Turntables seem like they’d be a heck of a lot of fun!

Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ turntables come in three distinct flavors (and price points), and are brought to you by a partnership between Marshall Bronstein, President of the Audio Fidelity record label that provides audio fanatics with high-quality vinyl and CD reissues, and Jonathan Kendrick, Chairman of the ROK Group, which includes U.S. wireless pioneer Rok Mobile – two wealthy guys trying to capitalize on the increased popularity of vinyl with some nifty lil’ boxes. I got no problems with that...

The turntables will be available in October, and include the Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ Jr, the Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ Premium, and the Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ XL models. The Jr. is the starter kit with two full-range dynamic speakers built into the unit; headphone and external speaker outputs; three-speed playback (33/45/78); three digital inputs including USB; and you can back up vinyl directly from the turntable to an SD memory card. The Jr. includes an AC power cord, is iOS and Android compatible, and comes in four colors – red, black, white, and teal blue – and sells for a staggeringly cheap-o $69.99 MSRP.

The Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ Premium includes all the aforementioned features of the Jr. as well as a rechargeable lithium battery pack, four digital inputs instead of three, Bluetooth, and will be available in several fashionable hues, including white with red straps and handle or with white straps and handle in hot pink, teal, or black with a suggested price of $99.99. The King Kong(™) of the Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ line is the XL model, which includes all of the above features plus a CD player tucked away in some hidey place. It includes an LCD display, and comes in basic black, white, cream, or red and can be yours for the low, LOW price of $149.99.

Retail being what it is, you can probably find one of these wax spinners for a good $10 - $15 below MSRP, and all models come with a twelve-month warranty. The Rock ‘N’ Rolla website isn’t up and running as of this writing, but you’ll eventually be able to grab one of these portable beauties from them, and probably a few other online retailers. The Rock ‘N’ Rolla™ isn’t meant to replace whatever medium-to-high end shaker box you have hooked up to your stereo, but as a portable option for spinning your 45s and a cool gadget to boot, it could be cool to add one to your musical arsenal.