The year 1973 was a good time to be Van Morrison. After marking his territory on garage rock in the mid-‘60s with proto-punk pioneers Them, virtually inventing jazz folk with the utterly gorgeous and indescribable Astral Weeks in 1968, and releasing a string of infectious (if occasionally moody and inscrutable) Irish soul songs in the early ‘70s, the Belfast Cowboy was a fixture on mainstream and rock radio, playing to an eclectic fan base. He was essentially writing his own ticket, making music on his own terms that just happened to be appealing enough to please the masses and pay the bills.
In 1974, Morrison capped off this particularly fertile artistic period by releasing an album that entered the annals of rock history. Sitting alongside James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, the Who’s Live at Leeds and the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, the double live set It’s Too Late to Stop Now was (and is) considered by many to be one of the finest live rock albums of all time. It’s a fitting document of Morrison’s fiery live act, capturing an electrifying performer (and his band) at the absolute peak of his powers.
Composed of performances recorded in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and London between May and July 1973, It’s Too Late to Stop Now is roughly 90 minutes of rock, folk, soul and jazz with Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra (combining a standard four-piece rock band with small horn and string sections) backing the Celtic belter through a variety of original compositions and well-chosen covers.
For the legions of fans who felt that the original release was simply not enough (and were hardly satiated by the 2008 reissue’s mere inclusion of “Brown Eyed Girl”), the wait is over. Sony’s Legacy Recordings has created a sumptuous additional collection of those seminal gigs with It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Vol. II, III, IV & DVD, essentially digging deeper into those historic performances. Unlike standard “deluxe reissues”, this is a pure sequel in that none of the performances overlap from the original release (some of the songs are repeated from Vol. 1, but they’re different recordings from different gigs). There’s also a DVD with video footage – although not nearly enough for my liking – of the London shows. The DVD is simply gravy – the three discs of previously unreleased recordings are more than enough.
While Morrison, like many similarly mercurial artists, is known to throw plenty of curveballs into his set lists, the 1973 tour documented here presents plenty of both crowd-pleasing and left-field material. He trots out the usual suspects from his Them days (“Here Comes the Night”, “Gloria”), throws the pop fans a bone with the ubiquitous (yet irresistible) hits “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance”, and still manages to include a smattering of lesser-known selections from his growing and acclaimed discography. The results are startling, soulful, and they beg for loud volume.
The songs from his 1970 Moondance album are particularly revelatory. While that album always seemed relatively low-key to me, here, the songs are transformed with an electrifying urgency. “Come Running” and “These Dreams of You” don’t just kick off the set, they barrel out of the starting gate, with Morrison’s voice an intense and soulful shout. And anyone who has seen (and heard) Morrison’s performance in The Last Waltz knows that when “Caravan” makes it to the stage, it becomes a manic showstopper, full of soulful dynamics, tight horn charts and lilting strings.
Likewise, the Astral Weeks songs shift from moody pastoral jazz to beefy, electrifying swing: “The Way Young Lovers Do” becomes a rollicking, upbeat jazz standard that comes off as a close cousin of “Moondance”. “Sweet Thing” gets a rousing, transcendent makeover, thanks in large part to John Platania’s expert guitar soloing.
The entire band, in fact, is in top form throughout the entire set, a tight, well-oiled machine capable of both propulsive jamming and stopping on a dime. Morrison stretches the band as far as possible, and the audience eats it up. The incredible intimacy of the gigs is palpable – when the band downshifts during deadly quiet moments, you could hear a pin drop. Like an old-school bandleader, he often gives onstage props to the soloists (“Brother Jack Schroer on saxophone, ladies and gentlemen!”) and takes time for full band introductions during vamps of the more epic tracks.
Morrison also takes the opportunity to road-test material that would later end up on his next solo album, Hard Nose the Highway, including the minor-key mysticism of “Snow in San Anselmo,” the anthemic soul of the title track, and Morrison’s jazzy cover of Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green” (that’s right, Kermit the Frog’s theme song). There’s also a few original songs that never made it to any standard studio or live album, like “There There Child” (which ended up on his 1998 odds and rarities collection, The Philosopher’s Stone), “No Way” and “I Paid the Price”.
While always regarded as a songwriter of the highest caliber, the wide-ranging covers are many and varied, wonderfully executed, and show Morrison’s wide musical taste. Choosing to cover Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” is a no-brainer, considering how much Cooke influenced Morrison’s sound, but even as a somewhat predictable song choice, it soars. The same goes for his smoky, soulful take on Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul” and the horn spiked, gospel-flavored cover of Bobby Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do”.
Morrison released a few more live albums throughout his career (Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast, A Night in San Francisco), and they all distance themselves from standard live albums in that they never fail to elevate the material in exciting, unpredictable and exciting ways. But none of them top It’s Too Late to Stop Now — either the first volume or its sequel — in terms of sheer excitement or expert musicianship. I’m normally loathe to recommend a live album as an introduction to any artist, but Morrison has never sounded better than he did during this brief, historic concert tour. If you’re a fan, it’s probably already in your home or on your wish list. If you don’t own it, you’re missing out on a masterpiece and a valuable piece of rock history.