Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: Roll With The Punches by Van Morrison.

When I first heard a few months ago that Van Morrison’s next release would be a Blues album I was a bit wary because I have sometimes been disappointed in the past when Van has made albums in only one genre of music. What drew me to Van’s music in the first place was that it was a melting pot of jazz, blues, soul, gospel, folk, country, rock, with a large helping of Celtic mysticism and spirituality stirred in to make something that was uniquely Van Morrison. However, when I saw Van at the Eden Sessions in Cornwall in July and he played four of the songs live I thought, “Hey, this isn’t bad”. I was particularly taken with one song called Transformation and I thought if there were a few more songs as good as that on the album then it would be fine. Last Friday I picked up the album Roll With The Punches at my local record store and the first thing to say is that I don’t like the cover design all that much. It is a bit brutal and not the sort of image I conjure up when listen to Van’s music. It is a photo by Richard Wade and depicts a boxing match between Phil Townley and Willie Mitchell that took place on 29th April 2016. If you are interested, Mitchell won after six rounds. I expect I’ll get used to the cover and it is the music that is important after all. It’s Wednesday now and I haven’t written a review until today because sometimes in the past I have written glowing reviews of albums and then got quickly bored with them. With this album the reverse is true. I like the album more with every play. Let’s have a look at the songs.
Roll With The Punches.
I really like the opening track, ever since I first heard it down in Cornwall. The name that immediately came into my head on hearing it was Muddy Waters. I think Muddy would have enjoyed singing this song. Van wrote it in collaboration with Don Black which is quite amazing because Don Black is usually associated with James Bond themes and that sort of thing. There is some wonderful guitar on this track by Jeff Beck who plays on several tracks on this album.
I love this song and it has lots of airplay in Britain. When I first heard it I thought, “That’s not blues”. Some fans have said that it is very derivative of earlier Van songs such as Why Must I Always Explain but I don’t think that matters. Lots of his songs remind you of earlier work. Tupelo Honey sounds a bit like this song to me as well. The lyrics are very spiritual which made me think that the song might have been inspired by Krishnamurti who was quite an influence on Van in the mid-80’s. Van also visited the Krishnamurti headquarters in California on a recent trip ( See picture) Krishnamurti was always going on about Transformation. However, Van even more recently has been visiting a centre called Agape so that might have inspired the song as well. Anyway, I think it’s one of the best Van songs of recent years. Great guitar play by Jeff Beck. Does it fit in with the rest of the album though?. Maybe it could have been saved for a more typical Van album.

I Can Tell.
This is a Bo Diddley song that I first heard at Nell’s club in London back in February. Chris Farlowe features on backing vocals. I don’t know why though, the two times I have seen the song performed live Van seems to have managed quite adequately on his own. Dana & Sumudu are all the backing singers I need. The song drives along at a frenetic pace with great guitar, harmonica and piano.
Stormy Monday / Lonely Avenue.
A medley of two songs that Van has visited before in his career. Chris Farlowe guests on this track as well and has a major share of the vocals. He actually recorded this song himself in the mid-60’s under the name Little Joe Cook. I think that Jeff Beck’s guitar playing is the salvation of the track. In my opinion this album has the best guitar sound since the days when Mick Green used to grace Van’s albums.
Goin’ To Chicago.
This Count Basie number begins with some tasteful bass playing by Chris Hill and Van’s harmonica before Georgie Fame’s vocals. The song has a very rich warm sound, ideal for late night listening with a nice glass of wine.
This song was previously on Van’s What’s Wrong With This Picture album and has never been a favourite with the fans. Van must have decided we weren’t listening properly and has re-visited it as a duet with Paul Jones. I must say I prefer this version to the original and I like the harmonica playing. Also, I see the song in a new light now after Van discussed the meaning of the song with Paul on the Paul Jones radio show on BBC Radio 2 on Monday night. Van elaborated on the dangers of fame and how it can destroy people and gave Amy Winehouse as an example. I see James Powell is credited on drums. He is Georgie Fame’s son. Georgie’s real name is Clive Powell. Also I see that this is the only track featuring Van’s regular bass player Paul Moore. I wonder why that was. I wonder if Van is aware that David Bowie and John Lennon also recorded a duet called Fame on Bowie’s Young Americans album. I expect he is.

Too Much Trouble.
Van told Paul Jones on his show that he found the lyrics to this song in his car one day and thought he ought to finish the song. There is some nice piano playing by Jason Rebello. He was a regular in Jeff Beck’s band for a number of years so maybe Van discovered him through the connection with Jeff. I’m glad Van did finish the song because I really like it.
Bring It On Home To Me.
One of the stand out tracks on the album. Van recorded a stunning version of this Sam Cooke classic on his Too Late To Stop Now album which I rate as the greatest live album of all time. This new version doesn’t improve on that but is still very enjoyable. It has a very live feel to it with Van clearly enjoying himself, ad-libbing and encouraging Jeff to extend his guitar solo. I love the sound of Dana & Sumudu on backing vocals as well, they are like a heavenly choir. I hope this song becomes a staple of Van’s live setlists in the future.
Ordinary People.
This song was originally recorded by Van way back in 1971 but not released until 1998 on the Philosopher’s Stone album. I don’t know why Van has revisited it now. The subject matter is similar to Fame so I wonder if he is trying to tell us something. I see Stuart McIlroy plays some great piano on this track. I first saw him play with the band at the Eden Sessions. Chris Farlowe also features on this song but I don’t think he adds much to it. Jeff’s guitar figures large as well. Laurence Cottle plays electric bass on this and most of the tracks. Maybe Van preferred him to Paul Moore because he also plays trombone, a talent Van put to good use on some other tracks.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe

How Far From God.
A song by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The 'godmother' of rock n roll. I must admit that It is only recently I have become aware of how great she was after seeing some videos on youtube. Stuart McIlroy makes his presence felt again with his piano playing. A very lively enjoyable song.
Teardrops From My Eyes.
This is a great song written by Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Toombs. It was also a big hit record for Ruth Brown. I see Pete Hurley plays bass on this track. He is a member of The Red Hot Pokers who used to play with Van back in the early 2000's. There are also other members of the Pokers on this album. At first I found it hard to think that Van had got back together with them after all these years which made me think that some of the basic tracks of some songs had been in the can for a long while and Van had taken them off the shelf, dusted them off and reworked them for this album. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I have changed my mind though. It seems that Van really has gone back in the studio with his old Poker friends. I think Start McIlroy and Elizabeth Jane Williams who sings on one track might come from the Cardiff area as well.
Automobile Blues.
A song originally by Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins. This is very much a Red Hot Pokers song with Ned Edwards playing some neat harmonica. Ned & Pete Hurley are still Pokers to this very day. Colin Griffin on drums isn’t though, which made me think that this track apart from Van’s vocals was recorded a long time ago. I don't think that any more. It's a brand new song.

We all know how much Van admires Mose Allison even to the point of recording a whole album Tell Me Something of Mose’s songs. This is a song that Van has returned to his repertoire in recent years. I love Van’s sax playing and the humorous lyrics ‘Thank god for self-love’.
Mean Old World.
This song was written by somebody else who Van really admires as well, namely Little Walter. He actually befriended Van when they were both in London in the early 60’s and showed Van a few tricks on the harmonica. Another song that I thought had come down off the shelf but I have changed my mind about that.
Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley.

Ride On Josephine.
Originally recorded on the album Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger in 1960. A great song to end the album on. I see Ned plays guitar on this song and to his credit does a really great job. Dave Keary plays this really well in the present day when Van performs it live. If Van had released this song with Them back in the 60’s I’m sure it would have been a top ten hit.
Well, that is the end of my review. I think it is a very enjoyable satisfying album indeed. It shows that Van is still in good voice and fine form even at the age of 72. There aren’t many other singers of his age who can say that. It also shows Van having some fun which he told Paul Jones was the idea of the album and he has certainly achieved that. A big hand for Sir Van Morrison !
Me Rolling With The Punches !



Kazooboy said...

Another great review. Surprisingly, haven't bought it yet but will go out and get it tomorrow. Would you say you enjoy it as much as "Keep Me Singing", which I happen to think is a really great album?

Pat said...

Thanks for the comment.
I think Keep Me Singing and Roll With The Punches are both great albums. Van is on really top form at the moment. I don't think there is any other singer of Van's age group still producing music of this quality.

All the best,