By their very nature, tribute albums can produce inconsistent results depending upon featured participants, chosen songs and of course, which artist is being honored. Walking the fine line between thoughtful homage and weak imitation is a formidable challenge, and many tribute compilations fall short of their mark despite the best intentions. Vanthology is one such example, although viewing it as a non-tribute recording actually enhances the quality of what it offers.
Comprised of 15 tracks, Vanthology highlights the accomplishments of Van Morrison with a diverse collection of covers. Featuring soul/blues heavyweights from Little Milton to Son Seals, the album contrasts Morrison’s biggest hits, (“Tupelo Honey” and “Brown Eyed Girl”) with lesser known favorites from the singer’s earlier days, (“My Lonely Sad Eyes”). Backed by a solid band including Jon and Sally Tiven, as well as former Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, the guest artists give fine efforts from start to finish.
The problem with Vanthology is that it honors a performer who is extremely difficult to do justice to. Morrison has enjoyed three decades of success based on his rich vocal stylings and introspective songwriting. For musicians and fans alike, Morrison is an icon whose recordings boast a powerful individuality. The distinctness of his sound, and dexterity employed to attain it, are the elements that have made Morrison the performer that he is. His songs have resonated so strongly over time that many have ingrained themselves into listeners’ collective sensibilities; at any given moment, who among us can’t hear Morrison crooning a few verses from “Moondance”? As a result, it is nearly impossible to appreciate the included tribute versions without comparing them to their original counterparts.
Ironically, one performer capable of bettering original versions of popular songs with his own rousing covers was the immortal Jimi Hendrix. Most notable from the Hendrix archive are Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and of course Morrison’s own “Gloria.” While Vanthology’s version of the G-L-O-R-I-A classic is faithfully rendered by Sir Mack Rice, it seems tame compared with the original, and pales against the fire and passion of the Hendrix gem.
Does the difficulty in paying adequate tribute to Morrison adversely affect Vanthology? Somewhat, but the album should be appreciated more for what it is, that for what it should be.
Essentially, Vanthology is a solid CD with an impressive list of featured performers. For aficionados of soul, blues and R&B the album will provide some fine moments of listening enjoyment. For fans of Van Morrison, the album may be a bit of a let down as the tracks lack the flair and familiarity of the original recordings. Fair comparison or not, paying tribute to someone like Morrison is not an easy task. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is not always the most effective. Vanthology however, is certainly a worthy attempt.