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It's Too Late To Stop Now
Van Morrison

Warner Bros. 2BS 2670
Released: February 1974
Chart Peak: #53
Weeks Charted: 17

Van MorrisonLike the white middle class it entertains, rock music exhibits a certain rootlessness, a lack of living history. This is rock's greatest asset -- it is spontaneous and free, contemporary and temporary -- but it can also be a liability. The ever-recurrent rock revivals and our fondness for golden oldies express the absence of a past, the very word "revival" indicating that the past is dead. Many artists are exploring that past, but the then and the now are so disjunct that more often than not such efforts are camp, lifeless, effete and irrelevant, or crudely exploitative.

Van Morrison, one of the few (Roger McGuinn and the Band are others) for whom the American musical tradition is passionate and alive, loves this tradition with the insight and and fervor of a foreigner. There's no more zealous flag-waver than a citizen by adoption (it's significant that all but one member of the Band are Canadian). Morrison's ardor doesn't require him to imitate the past; his music is so suffused with it, that everything he writes and sings expresses and interprets the past in light of the present, and the present in light of the past.

Because Morrison's music continues an ongoing tradition, it is never diverted by faddish ephemera and never becomes dated. With noTheir Satanic Majesties Request to live down, It's Too Late to Stop Now, his 11th album including two he did with Them, celebrates the entirety of Morrison's career. And unlike Bob Dylan's recent tour, for example, these recordings are not a mere remembrance of things past. Even the album's title impels us forward and all the material, from "Gloria" to "Saint Dominic's Preview" is very much alive.

A third of the album, the standards, show where his music comes from: blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and soul. Note rock's omission: Morrison is closer to Bobby "Blue" Bland and Ray Charles (whose "I Believe to My Soul" he performs here) than he is to rock. The oldies and his own songs are of a piece equally vibrant, revealing Morrison as at once a great traditionalist because of his roots, original because he never stops growing -- It's Too Late to Stop Now.

Yet Morrison has never enjoyed the mass popularity he deserves. This is partly because he stands quite deliberately outside the pop/rock mainstream, but more importantly because of his relative indifference to lyrics.

On Astral Weeks he tried to write purposefully but ended up with poetastery and parodies. Recently he again tried to write purposefully, but with only intermittent success, most notably "Saint Dominic's Preview." Words seldom interest Morrison except as sounds, and without this in mind you'll be confused when he babbles "sodomysodomysodomy." He's just messing around with the words "inside of me." Having nothing to say, with only emotions to express, his songs must be felt, not thought about. What matter are the stops and starts, the twists and turns, the splutters, the scats and the yowls. Morrison battles with words, distending them, gutting them, forsaking them altogether, as if they blocked the pure sound and the pure feeling toward which he strains. Now even Mick Jagger, one of Morrison's early models, imitates him.

Yet Morrison is not a rock but a jazz singer, hooked on rhythm and sound. He swings and he improvises, which is more in the spirit of jazz than rock. Morrison's problem is that the pop audience demands more than a singer; it wants not just a voice, but a pop personality to fill up the gaps between albums and appearances, something which Morrison has never fabricated.

On It's Too Late Morrison's voice is in fine form, but much else is not. The lavish packaging is unnecessary, and the mix is quirky. Bill Atwood's trumpet should be prominent on "Wild Children," for example, but it's scarcely audible. On several tracks the guitar is under recorded. And a string quintet which accompanies some of the numbers is often thin and rather shabbily genteel. Occasionally they sparkle (the string arrangement of "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" is witty), but generally they're superfluous.

The other musicians, most of whom have played with Morrison many times before, never detract, but Morrison could be better served. I wish, for instance, that pianist Jeff Labes's left hand would occasionally stray below middle C and give the music more bottom. Guitarist John Platania is perfectly competent but a little stiff -- the ideal guitarist would be limber and fluent, like Morrison's vocals. Jack Schroer's saxophone is stalwart but unexceptional. These shortcomings, however, are nothing new; Morrison has usually preferred to play with comfortable friends rather than with comparably talented musicians.

But the power of Morrison's vocals overcomes these drawbacks. He attacks "Warm Love" (which on Hard Nose the Highway seemed sweet and innocuous) so fiercely that it becomes an altogether new and far more impressive song. By double-timing the verses he similarly transforms "Here Comes the Night." His version of "I Believe to My Soul," if it misses the haunting gloom of the original, has a stunning dramatic force. Through three sides of the album Morrison's energy never lags, not even during the long and arduous "Saint Dominic's Preview" and "Listen to the Lion." Only on the fourth side does the intensity dissipate as he overindulges in protracted fooling around. But more than an hour's music is crammed into the preceding sides, and it would be churlish to demand more. The man has given so much.

- Ken Emerson, Rolling Stone, 4/25/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Possibly the best example of Morrison's command of soul-oriented pop tunes, this double set, in-person concert smacks with guts and emotion. "These Dreams of You" and "I Believe To My Soul" capture Morrison's powerfully distinctive voice, surrounded by the horns and strings of what he calls the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. "In the Mystic" is a well-known work of his which sounds refreshing today. Morrison's inflections carry the splitting of sounds, the arches and peaks, the sadness inherent in someone feeling the sorry of a sad song. "Wild Children" is a powerful transformation, a meaningful change of pace ballad (with a jazzy instrumental feeling). In trying a deep blues by Sam Cooke ("Bring It On Home"), he shares his searing vocal quality and the gesture is superb.

- Billboard, 1974.

Songs that wore poorly or were just lame in the first place have more force and rightness on this exemplary live album than in their studio versions, and "Here Comes the Night" sounds fresher than it did in 1965. In addition, Morrison documents his debt to blues and r&b definitively -- you can hear Bobby Bland all over the record, and cover tributes are paid as well to Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Sam Cooke. A

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Hearing this live Morrison recording, it's difficult to accept the common perception that he is an erratic, generally uncomfortable, live performer. When he's right, as he was on the three shows from which this live set is drawn, it's damn near sanctified. The eighteen included tracks are mostly gems from Morrison's songbook -- "Into the Mystic," "Listen to the Lion," "Cyprus Avenue," "Gloria," "St. Dominic's Preview," "Wild Children," "Caravan" and "Domino"; he also uses occasion to revisit the blues, soul, and R&B roots that originally shaped his music. Backed by the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which could hold its own on a Saturday night in a South Chicago blues joint, Morrison cooks with conviction throughout. In this heady environment, the originals take on new, immediate textures, and the covers confirm Morrison's stature as one of the greatest blues/soul/R&B singers of his era. To top it all off, someone spent a fair amount of time with digital conversion from the master tapes, resulting in an excellent improvement over the vinyl -- it is one of the best-sounding concert recordings around, obviously live, but with a full, nicely balanced sound. A+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

This dynamic double-disc set finds Morrison covering everything from his early work with Them, through Astral Weeks, to his early-'70s Warner hits and album tracks. Morrison is in great vocal form, and the band, the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, is exceptionally hot. Any fan of Morrison's should own this one. * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

After spending much of the earlier 1970s making a series of studio albums, Morrison toured with his ten-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Shows were recorded in both California and London, resulting in this stunning double set, one of the greatest live albums of all time and one acknowledged by Morrison as a career peak.

Guitarist John Platania, horn player Jack Schroer, drummer David Shaw, and keyboardist Jeff Labes are familiar names among Morrison's sidemen. The addition of a string section provided extra magic, especially on "Here Comes The Night," which became an almost entirely different song to Them's 1965 original.

Several tracks are versions of songs associated with Morrison's favorite soul stars -- Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Unsurprisingly, many of the original songs had appeared on Morrison's recent albums (Moondance, His Band And Street Choir, Saint Dominic's Preview, and Hard Nose The Highway), but by all accounts, the reason for the lack of material from Tupelo Honey was that Morrison insisted that this should be a genuinely live album without studio overdubs (hence the omission of the title track from Moondance -- the live take included a bum note). The lengthy but wonderful final track here was the only item from Astral Weeks, arguably the album that launched Morrison's career as a truly great solo artist.

The album did not chart in the UK, though it made No. 53 in the United States. Sadly, this Olympian backing group started to disband after Veedon Fleece, Morrison's next studio album, but no one who saw one of these shows will ever be able to forget it.

- John Tobler, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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