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 start 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 performances 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 Rainbow Theatre crowds later helped Van conjure particularly affecting mojo, as the original Too Late set drew heavily from those London shows, 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)
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