Thursday, October 5, 2017

Van Morrison Roll With The Punches 2017

I did a career overview of Van Morrison back in 2011. I guess I thought he was probably pretty close to done. I was wrong on that one. Since then he has released Born To Sing: No Plan B 2012, Duets: Reworking The Catalog 2015, Keep Me Singing 2016, and now this one.

Born To Sing: No Plan B was about as weak as Morrison records get. Lackluster would be gilding the lily.

Duets: Reworking The Catalog 2015 is the first Van Morrison record in almost 50 years that I didn't buy. I listened to it, and it was all the things wrong with those dreadful duets records that Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles have embarrassed themselves with in their later years (Morrison himself was on the Ray Charles duets recording).

Keep Me Singing 2016 was a pretty good outing for Van. Solid backing band, mostly good songs, Van invested in the vocals. Maybe not perfect, but darn good.

And now only a year later comes Roll With The Punches. This time out Van writes only five of the fifteen tracks. Most of the rest are blues and R&B chestnuts. And when Van gets simple and bluesy, things usually go pretty well. Add to that a number of famous guests, including four Chris Farlowe vocals, five Jeff Beck blues guitar triumphs, and two visitations by old pal Georgie Fame on the Hammond B-3 and vocals, and it's hard for at least some of it not to be inspired. Most of the star action is front-loaded, but the record maintains relatively high standards even when "just the backing band" is there with Van.

Because the backing band is stellar. The core rhythm section of Mez Clough or Colin Griffin on drums, Lawence Cottle or Pete Hurley on bass, Jason Rebello or Stuart McIlroy on piano, and Dave Kearny or Ned Edwards on guitar offer excellent support, and several great solos.

Roll With The Punches is an ancient blues riff that Van appropriates and gives a fine lyric and solid vocal. Transformation is typical mid-tempo Morrison, but it gets a sublime Jeff Beck solo that takes it up several notches. The walking blues of I Can Tell from Bo Diddley's pen gets another fine Beck blues solo, and a choice Van vocal. Beck rips another blues lead on Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue, and Chris Farlowe singing with Morrison seems to incite Van to try harder.

Georgie Fame sings and plays the B-3 on Count Basie's Goin' To Chicago, a slinky, laid back blues done small combo style. Morrison whines about being famous (again!) on Fame, but the song is saved by vocals and especially harmonica from Paul Jones. Too Much Trouble is a jazzy little number from Morrison's pen that features piano and horns from Paul Moran and Cottle. Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me finds Morrison singing with perfect soul restraint, and Jeff Beck smokes the lead guitar break. Beck and Farlowe return once more on to shine on Ordinary People.

The last six songs are all covers ranging from Bo Diddley (Ride On Josephine) to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (How Far From God) to Mose Allison (Benediction). Georgie Fame helps keep Teardrops From My Eyes from becoming filler and core band members Stuart McIlroy (piano), and Ned Edward (harmonica and guitar) juice up the rest and keep the last leg of the record from stagnation, but the last third isn't really up to the first half's high bar.

Some might see this as Van generating product for it's own sake. Only five originals, and three of the covers (Bring It On Home, Stormy Monday/Lonely Avenue, Benediction) have appeared on previous releases. But this sounds to me like Van doing a blues record, and mostly getting the best of it. At age 72, Van Morrison can still sing, play and write. It is no surprise that he can build a sturdy band and attract a few stars to help out. Even if you're a choosy Van Morrison fan, I'd be surprised if you don't like this one.