Live Classics from Van Morrison's Vaults
Though only 27 years old in the spring of 1973, Van Morrison had already compiled an astonishing catalog of music. He had made great records—including “Gloria,” a “B” side now regarded as a classic—with his Irish garage-rock band Them; entered the Top 10 as a soloist with “Brown Eyed Girl,” one of the most lovable singles of the entire rock era; and issued the hypnotic Astral Weeks, which I and many other critics rank among the most important records of the last half century. And he had followed that LP with such additional masterpieces as Moondance (1970), Tupelo Honey (1971), and Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972). Then, in 1973, he embarked on a tour that would produce one of the finest live rock albums of all time, It’s Too Late to Stop Now.
That two-LP, 18-track package, which came out the following January, contains a generous hour and a half of concert material, but it turns out to be just a hint of what was preserved from the tour. More than 40 years later, along comes a 45-track, three-CD set that delivers another three hours of equally fine music, all of it newly mixed and mastered. Like the earlier album, the 2016 package garners its selections from the Santa Monica [California] Auditorium, the Troubadour in West Hollywood, and London’s Rainbow Theatre.
The package also features a 50-minute video of the singer and his band in performance at the Rainbow that aired on the BBC but has never previously been available on disc. Not surprisingly given the age of the recording, the DVD features mono sound and a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it nevertheless represents an essential companion to the CDs; its performances are wonderful, and with video, you can see just how well the band interacts.
Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which profits immensely from its string and horn sections, is in peak form throughout these sets, and so is its leader. At times, he appears so mesmerized by the music that he almost seems to be speaking in tongues. As Morrison watchers know, he can be as stony-faced as Dylan, but on the video, you can even see him smile. You’ll surely be smiling too as you listen to this heady, inventive music, which draws on Stax, blues, pop, Irish folk, and James Brown.
As I’ve noted, none of the recordings have been previously released, but the program does include some songs that appeared on the original It’s Too Late to Stop Now, and some of them show up here more than once. However, Morrison tends to perform spontaneously rather than stick to a script, and the readings here of numbers like Moondance’s “Into the Mystic,” Astral Weeks’ “Cyprus Avenue,” and Saint Dominic’s Preview’s “Listen to the Lion” are all sufficiently different from the ones on the 1974 release to justify their inclusion. Moreover, quite a few of the tunes here do not appear on the earlier record, including the aforementioned “Brown Eyed Girl”; “Come Running,” from Moondance; “Sweet Thing” and “The Way Young Lovers Do,” from Astral Weeks; and “Wild Night,” from Tupelo Honey. There are also previously unavailable covers—such as Hank Williams’s “Hey Good Lookin’” and the Lenny Welch hit “Since I Fell for You”—that show the range of the performer’s influences and interpretive skills.
Van Morrison has issued dozens of albums and periodically done stellar work in the decades since he delivered these concerts but he has never sounded better or more inspired. Buy this collection, turn up the sound, and listen to the lion roar.
Jeff Burger’s books include Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, which is due out Nov. 1, 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.