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May 10, 2018

Van Morrison - Resurgent in his 70's

Van Morrison (Sir Van Morrison, that is) is unquestionably one of the singular musical talents of the 20/21’st century. A master vocalist, singer songwriter and arranger, he’s recorded countless (ok, well 45) studio and live albums since the mid sixties.  As of 2008, he had albums on Billboard’s charts for a total of 787 weeks.  That’s over 15 years on the charts. 

But while Van has been making great albums for over fifty years, for me, his best stuff is from the 60’s and early 70’s.  Astral Weeks (1968), a groundbreaking fusion of folk, jazz and soul, is among the most critically revered albums of all time. The follow-up, Moondance, while more accessible, is no less awesome. It includes classic rock standards Moondance, Caravan, and Into The Mystic. His Band And His Street Choir followed.  That’s probably my fave as Van brings soul, blues and R&B heavily into the mix.  Domino and Blue Money were the hits. But I love rollicking Call Me Up In Dreamland, the beautiful folkie Virgo Clowns, the soulful If I Ever Needed Someone and the R&B rocker I’ve Been Working

Country flavored Tupelo Honey (my least favorite) followed and included the gorgeous ballad Tupelo HoneySaint Dominic’s Preview, the seriously underrated Hard Nose The Highway and the gorgeous Veedon Fleece were next. 

All of these albums are unique and a departure from the previous one.  For me, these seven albums are the best prolonged streak of rock and roll excellence.  I can see Beatles fans having a serious problem with that statement.  But hey, I said what I said and I’m sticking to it.

After that, for me at least, it’s just not as good.  There are still some highlights (1979’s Into The Music).  But he moved away from the soul, blues, R&B that I love.  I stopped following him closely.  I’d check in now and then.  But nothing really caught my attention.

Fast forward 40 years or so and Van is knocking me out again.  In 2015 he released an album of duets, aptly entitled Duets: Re-Working the Catalog.  This was a very pleasant surprise.  Highlights include If I Ever Needed Someone with an impassioned Mavis Staples, Whatever Happened to PJ Proby with, of all people, PJ Proby and Rough God Goes Rising with his daughter Shana Morrison.  At the age of 70, Van’s voice is deeper and doesn’t have quite the range that it did in his 30’s. But it’s as powerful as ever.  Duets had been my favorite Van album since the golden days.

Since last September (2017) Van has now released three albums. That’s three albums in seven months.  Roll With The Punches came first.  It’s a blues based affair that includes covers of blues and r&b classics. T Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday, Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home and Bo Diddley’s Ride On Josephine.  These, and the other covers, are all great.  Surprisingly though my favorites are the Van originals Fame, Too Much Trouble and Transformation.  Jeff Beck is also featured on the album.  He sounds awesome. Lots of bluesy sliding and bending.  Great stuff. 

Versatile is the follow-up. On Versatile, Van takes a jazzy stroll through the great American pop song book. Think Gershwin and Cole Porter.   Classics include I Get A Kick Out of You, Making Whoopee, Bye Bye Blackbird and I Left My Heart in San Francisco. Van sounds great throughout.  The album swings.  Standards and pop really isn’t my thing.  So if I had read a review beforehand, then I probably wouldn’t have expected to like this album.  But I didn’t and I do.  That said, Versatile seems like a warm-up for his for his more ambitious follow-up Your Diving Me Crazy.

On Your Driving Me Crazy, Van teams up with Jazz organist, composer and bandleader Joey DeFrancesco.  It’s really a great album.  Once again, Van covers jazz and blues standards as well as remaking some of his classics.  The playing is outstanding.  Joey DeFrancesco plays an insane Hammond B3.  His solos often sound like a lead guitarist.   It took me a while to warm up to the remake of The Way Young Lovers Do (from Van’s aforementioned masterpiece Astral Weeks).  Being used to the original, the melody just seemed a little off.  But Joey’s playing takes the song in a whole different direction and the solo is awesome. Another favorite is a remake of Guitar Slim’s blues classic, The Things I Used To Do which is used to showcase each of the band members, Dan Wilson on guitar, Joey on organ, and Troy Roberts on Tenor Sax (although that can actually be Van on Sax). 

It’s nearly impossible for Van, or anybody else for that matter, to equal Van’s early work.  The inspiration and creativity stand unequaled.  But these three new albums, released in a mere seven months, make for an awesome return to greatness for Van the Man.

Alan Likes Music