Album Reviews

Van Morrison

Roll with the Punches

Artist:     Van Morrison

Album:     Roll with the Punches

Label:     Exile/Caroline

Release Date:     09/22/2017

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The oft-controversial and unconventional Van Morrison caused a mild stir last week with his unceremonious two-word acceptance speech at the annual Americana Music Awards. Equally characteristically, the next night Morrison delivered what the top radio promoter in the genre called “one of the top ten shows” he had ever witnessed. Similar accolades followed Morrison’s Pennsylvania show four days prior. Yes, the Belfast Cowboy can still bring it! This, his 37th studio album, is even more proof. While it’s mostly a blues-driven cover project, one can’t help but marvel at the enthusiasm and sheer joy in Van’s singing.

Morrison produced and recorded with a top shelf team of British musicians including Chris Farlowe, Georgie Fame, Jeff Beck, Paul Jones and Jason Rebello. Van chose a selection of rhythm and blues classics (by the likes of Bo Diddley, Mose Allison, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Lightnin’ Hopkins, among others) alongside four new self-penned songs. The Morrison similarly grooved tunes blend in seamlessly with the blues covers. “From a very early age, I connected with the blues,” Van says. “The thing about the blues is you don’t dissect it—you just do it. I’ve never over-analysed what I do; I just do it. Music has to be about just doing it and that’s the way the blues works–it’s an attitude. I was lucky to have met people who were the real thing–people like John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bo Diddley, Little Walter & Mose Allison. I got to hang out with them and absorb what they did. They were people with no ego whatsoever and they helped me learn a lot.” “The songs –whether I’ve written them or not–they’re performance oriented,” Van adds. “Each song is like a story and I’m performing that story. That’s been forgotten over years because people over-analyze things. I was a performer before I started writing songs and I’ve always felt like that’s what I do.”

Some of these selections have appeared on live Van Morrison efforts such as “Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue” (A Night in San Francisco), “Bring It On Home to Me” (It’s Too Late to Stop Now) while “Ordinary People” first appeared on Philosopher’s Stone but the arrangements and contributions of the stellar players make for a different sound. In fact, the most engaging aspect of the album beyond Van’s passionate vocals are his shared vocals with Chris Farlowe, Georgie Fame, and Paul Jones as well as the creative, economical guitar solos from Jeff Beck who appears on seven tracks. Throughout it’s generally a tight combo augmented by female background singers on half of the fifteen tracks.

It seems that Van, like the Rolling Stones, always wanted to make a complete blues album. Unlike the Stones, who focused on Chicago blues, Van picked a diversity of styles. After all, he can sing almost anything; still sounding remarkably vital at age 72, an age where most of his contemporaries have lost much of their vocal chops, Van rolls on.

—Jim Hynes

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