Sunday, June 12, 2016

Van Morrison's ‘It’s Too Late to Stop Now’ Review: Greatness in Its Prime

A remastered version of a seminal Van Morrison album is joined by a selection of previously unreleased recordings from the same time

June 7, 2016

Because their catalogs are so familiar, it’s not often that rock’s bygone greats can surprise music lovers. But that is what Van Morrison does with a series of live recordings from 1973 that will be released this Friday: “It’s Too Late to Stop Now,” a remastered version of the original 1974 album of the same name; and, separately, three previously unreleased albums and a concert film packaged together as “It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Volumes II, III, IV & DVD” (Sony Legacy). Revisiting the original album and spending a few hours with the fresh material serves as a reminder of what greatness is.

Supported by the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, a versatile 11-piece group that included a string section, the original “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” package presented Mr. Morrison singing, with focus and fire, a few of his hits, showcasing his two most recent albums—“Saint Dominic’s Preview” (1972) and “Hard Nose the Highway” (1973)—and covering songs made notable by Bobby Blue Bland, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson. The tracks on the new Volumes II, III and IV were culled from the same concerts as those included on the ’74 release, and rise to the same artistic caliber. The expanded “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” is a case where more is more.
The 45 previously unreleased performances on the albums present Mr. Morrison as an artist of significant achievement who was then still in search of new modes of expression and, perhaps more important from today’s perspective, willing and eager to illustrate where his kind of rock came from. Long before the current prosperous era in which singer-composers, be they in folk, hip-hop, R&B or rock, ignore convention by mixing forms and tapping into popular music’s past, Mr. Morrison was doing just that, tossing aside trends and rock’s already stodgy orthodoxy. The new albums reveal just how eclectic his influences were. He covers faithfully and with fitting humor “Buona Sera,” a 1956 hit for Louis Prima, and the oft-performed blues “Since I Fell for You.” There’s a reading of “Bein’ Green,” originally performed by the Muppets’ Kermit the Frog—Frank Sinatra covered it in ’71—which Mr. Morrison recorded for his “Hard Nose the Highway” collection.
These and other performances place Mr. Morrison and the orchestra in a jazz context, something the original “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” failed to do. Mr. Morrison’s “Moondance” swings loose and limber, propelled by Jeff Labes’s piano and David Hayes’s walking bass. (Mr. Morrison quotes “Fever,” introduced by Little Willie John in ’56, perhaps acknowledging its influence on his composition.) “The Way Young Lovers Do,” from Mr. Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece “Astral Weeks,” swings too, with the strings dancing around the melody and offering a thrilling, unexpected interlude that welcomes a piercing solo by trumpeter Bill Atwood, who excels on several numbers. A gorgeous reading of the ballad “Snow in San Anselmo” is punctuated by a mad bebop interval, and Hank Williams’s “Hey, Good Lookin’” emerges as a jump blues.
In those days, Mr. Morrison was a contradiction on stage. As the DVD confirms, he could appear diffident in performance, standing for the most part stationary at the microphone. And yet he churned with contained energy and a soul-deep connection to the emotional core of his music. On “I Paid the Price,” a song he co-composed in the early ’70s but didn’t release back then, Mr. Morrison seems about to implode as he repeats lines with increasing intensity. In “Sweet Thing,” also from “Astral Weeks,” the strings deliver Mr. Morrison to its aching two-word chorus. “Pick it!” the singer barks at guitarist John Platania, who responds with a terse solo before Mr. Morrison and the band leap into an improvised coda.
The three new volumes don’t skimp on Mr. Morrison’s late-’60s pop-and-rock hits; they include “Brown Eyed Girl” and different versions of “Here Comes the Night” and “Gloria”—the latter subdued here—than those that appeared on the original live album. Back then, Mr. Morrison gave the impression that he could compose a hit whenever he wanted to, but also that he had much more on his mind. Concerts like the ones that provide the material for the expanded “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” revealed he was, more so than any of his peers, at the crossroads of rock-and-pop’s past, the best of its then-present and the possibilities for its future. Thus, the new collection rises well above a mere historical artifact. “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” provides an essential listening experience.
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock

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