Back in 1974, there was a small review published in a short-lived UK music magazine, possibly called Music Star?, that I cut out and stuck on my bedroom wall. It was two paragraphs long and it was describing Van Morrison’s then just released live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now.
It finished with a lamentation that the album, whilst containing definitive proof of Morrison’s claim to live performance genius, was doomed to be heard only by a small number of people. The last line went something to the effect of, ‘But then, quite often, it’s true that the best of everything is only ever accessed by the privileged few.’
I remember being quite pleased to consider myself amongst that small group.
For a while this prophetic prediction of the album’s fate seemed destined to be true. For instance, it failed to crack the Top 50 in the U.S. But time has its way of addressing old mistakes, and the album has since, over the years, made it onto numerous retrospective lists of the greatest live albums of the rock era. Deservedly so too.
Now, in 2016, Morrison has finally allowed more of the exceptional 1973 tour that was highlighted on that original release to officially see the light of day.
And It’s Too Late To Stop Now…Volumes II, III, IV & DVD proves to be an absolute revelation from start to finish.
The Caledonia Soul Orchestra, his touring band of the time, an 11-member ensemble who perfectly compliment Morrison’s transcendent vocal performances, never sound less than fantastic throughout, and are always totally ‘in the moment’.
They are certainly kept on their toes as Morrison works his way through each of three full sets that, by then, were already heavy with a classic back catalogue of his own songs as well as a number of key standards that had turned him on to music in his formative years.
Van’s singing is a thing of unique beauty on this set. Ken Emerson, writing in Rolling Stone magazine when the original album was first released, described the Morrison vocal phenomenon thus:
What matters are the stops and starts, the twists and turns, the splutters, the scats and the yowls. [He] 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.
And this newly released material provides a relentless stream of ‘pure sound & feeling’. The audience at The Troubadour on disc one, riding every note and scream, are captured transported in their rapture gasping in delight time and again. I have to admit that, at the end of ‘Cyprus Avenue’, I actually found myself standing and applauding in my own living room!
Why has it taken so long to release something they have had in the vaults all along when it sounds this good?
How good is it? Rock critic, Marco Berio, who was in The Troubadour audience that night, was moved to write:
[Van] was exceptional. The mood was right, the audience was receptive, and the music left no comparisons to be made. It was the finest opening night performance by a consummate musician that I ever witnessed.
And he is underselling it there.
The Troubadour set includes many of the songs that would appear on the then soon to be released Hard Nose The Highway, and these were, quite probably being played for the first time. A beautiful version of ‘Snow In San Anselmo’, a sublime ‘Purple Heather’, an extended workout through Muppet Kermit The Frog’s ‘Bein’ Green’ and an awesome interpretation of the title track, ‘Hard Nose The Highway’ are all here – great new inclusions into the official aural record of this important tour.
The second disc here, recorded at the Santa Monica Civic, is a little less intimate but the band are more powerful to accommodate the larger venue. Again, the sound is magnificent. The band open up with the punch of ‘I’ve Been Working’, which is a little rawer and more frenetic than the version that appeared on the original live album release. New technology has really allowed every instrument to shine in the mix here.
Imagine the best sounding concert you have ever attended – I’m confident in saying that this has probably got that trumped…
Interesting additions to the second set here include a version of Louis Prima’s ‘Buona Sera’ and a rarely heard take on ‘I Paid The Price’, both of which also get a run on the final set included here recorded over two nights at The Rainbow in London a month later.
As always, the concluding pairing of ‘Caravan’ & ‘Cyprus Avenue’ leaves you breathless and all but completely emotionally drained. The interplay with the crowd in these performances, such an important part of the original release, gives these ‘new’ versions a different dimension. Interjections are worked into Van’s vocal patter and give the recording an edginess conveying the synergy created at each performance between the singer and his fans.
Every disc in this essential collection is packed with such moments of dynamism, energy and tension. No overdubs or technical trickery here – just unadulterated genius and power. Van Morrison at his best.
The DVD included in the package is not essential viewing – but it is certainly essential listening.
Van has never been a visual performer. He tends to stand and deliver from the one spot – but the joy the band feels playing with the great man is clearly evident, and as such, it is an important historic document of one of rock’s most under-rated bands playing at their best.
The experience of listening to these shows in 2016 set me to time travelling.
The recordings are a marvel. Every shiver of delight I experienced on first hearing him with this band, I relived again.
Forget about the Van-by-the-numbers of later years. This is a record of the man at the pinnacle of his ability. This is why he is considered to be one of the great artists of the modern era.
These live recordings are a reminder of what it sounds like when a performer actually believes in the transformative power of music, and lets his audience in on the secret.
I defy anyone not to be emotionally affected by this music.
Reviewed by Ken Grady