Recording of September 2016: . . It's Too Late to Stop Now . . . Volumes II, III, IV & DVD

Van Morrison: . . It's Too Late to Stop Now . . . Volumes II, III, IV & DVD
Exile/Columbia/Legacy 88875134742 (2 LPs, 3 CDs, 1 DVD). 2016. Van Morrison, Ted Templeton, orig. prods.; Donn Landee, orig. eng.; Myles Wiener, Biff Dawes, Jack Crymes, Gabby Garcia, asst. engs.; Guy Massey, new remix; Andrew Sandoval, compilation prod.; Vic Anesini, remastering. ADA/ADD? TT: 3:33:58
Performance *****
Sonics ****

In the otherwise silly 2002 film The Banger Sisters, one line has always stood out. When the children of a groupie turned suburban Phoenix housewife (Susan Sarandon) question Suzette (Goldie Hawn), who's still living the groupie lifestyle, about their mom's hidden past and how she knows about the Doors, there's this exchange:

Daughter: "How would she know about Van Morrison . . . all of a sudden?"

Hawn: "Jim Morrison, not Van Morrison. Jeez."

The inference is clear: even among older rock fans, Van Morrison is an uncool relic, a guy whose crusty elfin presence is today primarily about cranky, unsatisfying live performances and spotty, intermittent albums. But as shown by this very welcome expansion of his landmark live album, It's Too Late to Stop Now (1974), there was once another Morrison, whose voice and phrasing were absolute wonders. And whose 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra was one of the most elastic, talented, turn-on-a-dime, impossible-to-fool R&B bands outside Springsteen's equally powerful (at the same moment) E Street Band.

Morrison's 1973 tour is thought by many to be the peak of his long career. After it concluded, he cut Veedon Fleece—which, much to its detriment, was released right after the original It's Too Late to Stop Now—then began a three-year absence from the record stores. When he re-emerged, with the tentative and aptly titled A Period of Transition (coproduced by Dr. John) and then the oddly unfocused Wavelength, his artistic fire seemed reduced to embers. The former bluesy shouter now seemed satisfied with a more laid-back attitude and commitment.

The three new CDs here contain sets from the Troubadour, in Los Angeles; the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium; and the Rainbow, in London—and, happily, none of the performances overlaps with that of the original album. This is all-new material, heard until now only in muffled sound on bootlegged cassette recordings transferred to CD. In addition, nine songs from the Rainbow concert—including the heretofore absent "Brown Eyed Girl," which was simulcast on BBC—are presented on a DVD. Live albums are notorious for having been overdubbed and "fixed" in the studio, but here, in the accompanying materials, Sony stresses that the original 2", 16-track master tapes received neither treatment. The 24-bit remastering, by Guy Massey, sounds rich and full, if a little bottom-heavy. The music on . . It's Too Late to Stop Now . . . Volumes II, III, IV & DVD will also be available on vinyl and as high-resolution downloads from iTunes, HDtracks, and Pono Music.

It's tempting to give the bulk of the credit for why these performances are so great to the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. "I've Been Working," which opens Volume III, is the essence of funk. Tenor, alto, and baritone saxophonist Jack Schroer solos often, and is perpetually on fire. And the three violins, viola, and cello are one of the most effective uses of strings in an R&B band in the history of popular music. Their accents and full-on parts are unfailing spot on, and at times even sonically dominant, thanks to Massey's mix. Horns and strings that work? The band here is nothing short of a marvel. Like Sly and the Family Stone's recent Live at the Fillmore East, this set documents an incredible band at the height of its astonishing power.

In John Rogan's biography of Morrison, No Surrender, guitarist John Platania recalled Morrison on the 1973 tour: "With Caledonia, he really got off on performing. There was definitely joy getting onstage at that point. That was a wonderful time for everybody. It was really like a family. Ordinarily, with rock 'n' rollers, jazzers and classical musicians in the band, you'd think it was a three-headed serpent but everybody got along famously."

While the band is deeply engaged with Morrison's originals, adding its funky snap to the hits "Domino," "Moondance," and the killer closing couplet (of the Troubadour and Rainbow shows) of "Caravan" and "Cypress Avenue," it's in a pair of covers about halfway through the Troubadour show that they best show their easy mastery. In a run-through of Hank Williams's "Hey, Good Lookin'"—which by all rights should have been nothing but a lightweight diversion, almost filler—they dig in and use stop-time choruses and Schroer's soaring alto sax to make it a romp. Morrison then digs into Joe Raposo's Muppet anthem, "Bein' Green" (which Morrison had just recorded for Hard Nose the Highway, and which was also covered by Sinatra and Jackie McLean among others). Morrison's voice throughout is at the very pinnacle of its powers, often sounding like an extra drum or horn. He often seems to be singing in a language only tangentially English—a language not of words but of grunts, shouts, slurs, and purring. Most of all, it's jazz singing. His unerring instincts power every song, his visceral commitment gloriously afire throughout.—Robert Baird

COMMENTS
Allen Fant's picture

Very nice! RB.
to the uninitiated, this is "Van the Man" at his peak.
Happy Listening!

jim davis's picture

but best live Van remains Austin City Limits cd.

Grant M's picture

Are Volumes II, III, IV really coming out on vinyl? I've only seen the Vol.1 two record set.

galateawoodson's picture

I am 26 and I never thought of Van Morrison as an uncool relic! Only those who never heard his music could think he's almost nothing: think of Gloria! When I had to do my assignment on music I was surprised to discover he has country songs too.