Van the Man. Legend. Gloria. Here Comes The Night. Astral Weeks. Caledonian Soul. St.Dominic's Preview. The Voice. The Mysticism. The Grumpiness. The Genius. What needs to be said? If the only artist from the sixties blues-beat boom whose post-sixties work not only does not make you wince but actually enhances his reputation (and who happens to possess one of a handful of truly distinctive white blues vocal styles) wants to make a pub singalong rock 'n' roll/country album, why shouldnt he?
Because it’s not very good, that’s why. It’s not terrible but it is a bit naff, both conceptually and in its execution. It is one of those albums that people who go on about the loss of “real” music and bemoan the inability of young bands to cut it live will like as it is as real, live and full of integrity as you could wish for. The sleevenotes are written by Jools Holland and the set is like one of those on his BBC2 show Later. Get two legends, use the fact that one of them is the sister of Jerry Lee Lewis (not Van)—hey why don’t we do some good ol’ country-rock classics?—We’ll have a ball and show these young uns what great music is all about. Backing band? This lot will do. How can we fail with Van’s voice, Linda Gail’s genetic connections and Jools blessings? Well, you can. The results sometimes work as a live event but you wouldn’t want to keep a record of what is essentially superstar karaoke.
The songs are all wonderful, historically significant and foreground Hank Williams (three numbers) as songwriter or Jerry Lee as interpreter (“Let’s Talk About Us”, “Ol Black Joe”). For the rest “Cadillac”, “Shot of Rhythm and Blues”, “Real Gone Lover” etc. all remind us what a rich seam of Americana was mined in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s. But what is the point unless something is added or the versions are so stunning you are transported back in time?
I love Van Morrison and understand the evident pleasure he gets from projects such as these but I am disappointed by any venture with his name attached that does not at some point send shivers down my spine. The highlights of this collection are Linda Gail’s piano playing-stylistically similar to her brother’s—and the re-working of Boogie Chillen which, given Van’s long relationship with Hooker’s music, can hardly ever be devoid of interest. The rest is lacking in inventiveness and emotional depth—two qualities Van has in the past rather made his own.
A big part of the problem is the band. The Red Hot Pokers (great name, guys) are the band you come across playing the free sessions of blues or country music festivals. They played progressive rock in the ‘70s, hated punk, split up and got mortgages in the eighties but got together again at a christening and play an R&B set every Wednesday at The Old Bullock, Suburbia. Perhaps not, but that’s who they sound like. Run of the Mill, music lovers. And, by the way, isn’t country/rock bass and drumming hopeless? I had forgotten.
Next, some of the songs are just too familiar. I might just prick up my ears at an undiscovered John Coltrane take on “Jambalaya”. Short of that I need a lifetime or two break from it—ditto one or two of the other tracks. Also, am I alone in feeling a bit queasy about non-ironic versions of “Ol’ Black Joe” in the 21st century? In fairness, that is the track where Lewis produces some astonishing honky-tonk piano dynamics and lifts things above the humdrum.
I am also unconvinced by the duets. Lewis gets rather pushed out and Morrison sounds reined in by the format. I think it would have been wiser to divide the material between the singers and let their different styles flower more freely. On the best track, the aforementioned “Boogie Chillen”, things work because Van takes the guitar part, Lewis belts hell out of the keyboards and lets Van do his Hookerish thing on vocals. This is the one cut with real energy and will remind some of Van way back in the day with Them doing “Schoolgirl” or some other blues classic. It is raw, rough and almost falls apart but it does have a real kick. Apart from that , whether up or downtempo, the results are never more than competent. There is one original composition, Morrison’s “No Way Pedro”. It is rubbish.
I realise that I am being very negative about an album a lot of country, rock and rock ‘n’ roll fans will love. My advice to them is to seek out the original tracks, catch Morrison and Lewis live by all means but buy a different album (any different album) by each artist respectively.