I like to support my local music shop if I can so on Friday morning still buzzing from Van’s great concert on the BBC the previous night I caught the bus over to Warminster where I picked up the CD of Van’s 36th solo album Keep Me Singing from Raves From The Graves record shop. Then I met my friend Sian in the Bath Arms pub and eagerly opened the package. The artwork is by Justin Helton who apparently designed the posters for some of Van’s shows in the USA earlier in the year. I was really pleased that the CD contained a booklet with all the lyrics because I like poring over the words to see what I can glean from them. Later that afternoon I played the album for the first time and immediately decided that this is Van’s best recorded work in 20 years. I have been guilty in the past of being over-enthusiastic on hearing a Van album for the first time so I waited till today before writing a review. I must say though after a few listens that I think it is possibly his best work since Down The Road in 2002. Let’s have a look at the songs.
Let It Rhyme is a great opening track. Van complained in an interview recently about the length of time it takes to do the mixing after the recording is complete but I think the wait has been worth it because Enda Walsh has done a great job in the mixing and adding Fiachra Trench’s strings. One thing that this album shows is that Van’s voice is as great or even greater than ever. Van plays some really nice blues harp and Paul Moran’s Hammond organ playing deserves a mention as well.
Every Time I See A River is a collaboration between Van and the famous lyricist Don Black and I think it is destined to be a Van classic and I can imagine it being part of his live repertoire for years to come. Dave Keary shows what a fine guitarist he is on this song.
The title track Keep Me Singing is next. Here we find Van on the corner where the homeboys welcome him back which is an image Van has conjured up before in his long and illustrious career and the great Sam Cooke gets another mention in a Van song. Watching boats from the hillside also reminds me a bit of previous Van songs such as So Quiet In Here. It’s nice to see some old faces from a previous Van era reappearing on this album such as Johnny Scott, Nicky Scott & Liam Bradley. Van plays more great harp on this track as well.
Out In The Cold Again is another great song. It only features one member of Van’s present band who is Paul Moran but really nice to see Kate St John return on the Cor Anglais. There is some very nice acoustic guitar played by Nigel Price. When I read the lyrics before hearing the song I thought the words were quite depressing but you don’t get the feeling of rage on this album but more like world weary resignation in the cold black night. I think this song will be great in concert.
Memory Lane is well named because it reminds me of Van songs from another time mentioning Autumn and leaves in all their splendour. I think it must have been recorded at the same session as the previous track because it features the same eight people. Another great song which the fans will love.
The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword is a complete change of mood and quite funky and you can have a dance to this one if you want. The lyrics are a bit repetitious but that doesn’t matter. Dave Keary and Van play some great guitar on this track.
Holy Guardian Angel might prove to be my favourite track from the album in time. It is very spiritual as you would imagine from the title. I think this song might have evolved from Van’s concert performances because in the past when stretching out In The Garden he has often referred to guardian angels and the witching hour. It is very nice to see that John Platania another of Van’s old friends from the past playing acoustic guitar on this song. In the lyrics van sings ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow’, this is taken from an old slave spiritual published in 1867 which has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke and many others which Van has cleverly worked into this song.
Share Your Love With Me is the only cover version on the album and was written by Alfred Braggs & Don Robey. Van originally recorded it for a Bobby Bland tribute album which never happened so he decided to include it here. Van’s admiration of Bobby Bland goes back a long way with his band Them recording Turn On Your Love light and Van’s live version of Ain’t Nothing You Can Do. This song is a nice rhythm & Blues song with a hint of country. No wonder Kenny Rogers had a hit with it.
In Tiburon is next and I loved the lyrics of this song when I first heard it because it mentions a lot of the Beat Generation writers who I admire such as Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It also mentions City Lights Bookshop and it was City Lights who published the American edition of Van’s book of lyrics ‘Lit Up Inside’. Ferlinghetti is still alive actually aged 97, I wonder if he knows that Van has mentioned him in a song. He read one of his poems at the Last Waltz concert where Van stole the show so they do know each other. This song is dripping with literary and music references. I think I noticed a typo error in the lyrics booklet. It mentions the ‘Hungry Eye’ club, I think it should read ‘The Hungry I’. Also the song mentions another of Van’s heroes Chet Baker playing at The Trident. It was outside the Trident that Chet Baker while trying to score some heroin got beaten up so badly that all his teeth got knocked out which ruined his embouchure so he couldn’t play his horn for a long while till he got his mouth sorted out. Cast Your Fate To The Wind by Vince Guaraldi which is also mentioned got to number 5 in the UK Charts in 1965 when recorded by Sounds Orchestral. Anyway, all that besides, this is a great song and one of my favourites from the album and has foghorns a plenty which Van also likes to mention occasionally.
Look Beyond The Hill I think is one of the lesser tracks on the album but I might change my mind after a few more listens.It was originally an instrumental called Yo and was a B-Side to one of Van's singles but he has revisited it and added lyrics.
Going Down To Bangor is the fun song with Van getting aboard a charabanc with his bucket and spade for a day at the seaside. I think his Northern Ireland fans will love all the local references to the Pickie Pool, Napoleons Nose, Cave Hill and Donaghadee.
Too Late is the token pop song and the first single from the album. I thought it was Dave Keary doing the backing vocals as he does live but he is not credited on this track so I think it must be Lance Ellington who sings backing vocals with Dana Masters.
Caledonia Swing is the instrumental track which brings this excellent album to an end. Van has had an obsession with the word Caledonia all his life even to the extent of it being his daughter Shana’s middle name. I think it is because he is proud of his Ulster/ Scots background and Caledonia is the old Roman word for Scotland. Anyway, it is quite a jolly romp and it’s nice to see his old fiddle player Tony Fitzgibbon make a welcome return.
I highly recommend this album which is a great addition to the finest body of work of any singer in the world. To make an album of this quality at the age of 71 after a career of over 55 years is quite an amazing achievement.