Van Morrison: It’s Too Late to Stop Now…Volumes II, III, IV & DVD Box Set (ALBUM REVIEWS)

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The announcement of the archiving of Van Morrison’s considerably lengthy discography through Legacy Music no doubt generated cautious optimism among his fans and music lovers in general. Previous reissue initiatives consisted of straight remastering with minimal bonus additions in any form, while the overt retrospective of unreleased recordings called The Philosopher’s Stone in 1998 seemed like a forced concession to the inevitable in the CD age.

But the late 2015 release of The Complete Them 1964-1967 augured well for future titles. Not only was it a truly comprehensive collection of the group’s recordings from every phase of their career, including the later period when Morrison was the only remaining member from the original lineup, Van even provided a liner-note essay of reflection.

No such content accompanies the second vault titles of Van Morrison, but it is worth arguing no historical material is necessary and might in fact be perfectly superfluous. Reissued (though apparently not remastered) as a two-CD set in digi-pak format, the live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now is supplemented by three more full-length cd’s from the same 1973 tour, plus a DVD with a performance from another concert at The Rainbow Theatre in London that year.  Herein lies the source of Van Morrison’s concert legend.

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It’s Too Late to Stop Now 2CD:  Little wonder this live album had none of the overdubbing of so many of its counterparts at the time of its original release: Van Morrison had never had a backing band equal to or superior to ‘The Caledonia Soul Orchestra.’ This eleven piece ensemble included both horns and strings arranged to provide the appropriate mood(s) for an exceptionally wide range of material, including covers like Etta James’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” And original songs of Morrison’s like “Warm Love” benefited to the extent the live takes are superior to the original studio versions. Still, as carefully charted as was the musicianship, it remained loose enough to accommodate the second-to-second spontaneity of Morrison himself: the second half of It’s Too Late to Stop to Stop Now in particular finds Van Morrison immersing himself as deeply as he ever did in his music via “Listen to the Lion” and “Cypress Avenue.” This set of performances absolutely riveting from start to finish on all fronts.

It’s Too Late to Stop Now Volume II: While there is some considerable overlap of material with the  original title as well as within this sequel itself, the repetition of songs not only gives insight into what material Van Morrison favors most (for instance, Sonny Boy Williamson, author of “Help Me”), but also renders more insightful the broad dispersion of selections from his albums of the Seventies, like “Snow in San Anselmo,” from Hard Nose the Highway. Meanwhile, each compact disc in the new set comes from the shows roughly a month apart at the three different venues (LA’s Troubadour, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and London’s Rainbow) that were the source of the original title, recordings from which have been remixed in order to do justice to the musicianship; to say there is practically as much nuance in the playing as in the singing is high compliment indeed, but fully warranted.

It’s Too Late to Stop Now Volume III: The Belfast Cowboy doesn’t overlook any phase of his career here, pulling not just from his earliest solo success (“Brown Eyed Girl”), but his commercial breakthrough in the Seventies (“Into The Mystic) and also culling from  the critically acclaimed Astral Weeks with selections apart from the tour-de-force that is the regular set-closer “Cypress Avenue:”  “Sweet Thing” and “Like Young Lovers Do” suggest how comfortable Morrison was with his past at this juncture of his career (perhaps comparable to this current point in time in terms of his catalog reissues). That said, some more factual text than appears in the twelve-page booklet would be  as welcome as historical perspective from knowledgeable sources: to wit, are each of these discs the complete performance on the designated nights?– the full-length CD playing time, as much as the inclusion of introductions, suggest that is indeed the case.

It’s Too Late to Stop Now Volume IV: The technical skill and sharp instincts of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra lend themselves tremendously to the performance of Van Morrison himself throughout It’s Too Late to Stop Now and not just in the spontaneity of his off-the-cuff singing as on “I Believe to My Soul.” The ensemble’s collective fluency allows for deft inclusion of Morrison’s own material like that number and sleepers like “Moonshine Whiskey” from Tupelo Honey, but also chestnuts that pepper all these setlists, not all of which anyone might readily associate with Van: given the Celtic iconography, “Purple Heather” makes perfect sense, but the likes of country icon Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” the torch-song “Since I Fell For You” and standards such as “Buono Sera” (in a rousing Dixieland arrangement) are curve-balls arguably as sharp as “Bein’ Green” from Sesame Street!?

 It’s Too Late to Stop Now DVD:  Recorded at the Roundhouse in London for the BBC, the fifty-minute video presentation is professional in the best sense of the word, shots from various angles moving in time to the music, highlighting keyboardist Jef Labes and drummer David Shaw’s dual propulsion of the arrangements as well as the more spontaneous interludes. The sound quality is something else again:  clearly mixed for a television broadcast, the audio levels are static to the point  background vocals and the charted horns often remain too far in the background. As for Morrison himself, despite his regular acknowledgments of the audience and intros of the band, it’s as if he’s trying to keep the audience from becoming a distraction to his complete immersion in the music, a removed demeanor that might be off-putting for some viewers. Regardless, though it’s somewhat difficult to correlate the depth of Van’s vocals with his stiff body language, it is nevertheless fascinating to witness how often he improvises in his singing, using his voice as simply another instrument at his disposal.

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