Van Morrison's had a pretty off decade -- or has he?
As the story goes, Van Morrison wanted nothing to do with his first greatest hits collection, The Best of Van Morrison, Vol. 1. He probably warmed up to the idea, though, after the sales figures started pouring in -- year after year after year. He personally selected the songs that went into the second volume, and does so again on his newest collection, Volume 3.
In Morrison's typically iconoclastic fashion, though, Volume 3 is a curious collection. Spanning his 1993-2005 output, it covers a stretch of Morrison's career marked by more than a few so-so albums. To his credit, he recognizes the best tracks -- songs like "Too Long in Exile", "Days Like This", "Ancient Highway", and "Precious Time" -- from those years. He also delves deep into his history of collaborations and live performances. So the listener is presented with the opportunity to evaluate Morrison as a total performer.
It's a canny move -- perhaps one necessitated by the overall quality of his recent studio output, but probably not. No one forced Van Morrison to make Volume 3 a two-disc, 31-song affair, so he obviously takes this new retrospective as an opportunity to frame the last decade-and-a half on his terms.
The live tracks remind us of what we've always known about Morrison -- that he's got soul and charisma to spare. The tracks here don't find him coasting, and as usual, he's backed by crack musicians. An uptempo version of "Help Me", featuring Junior Wells, simmers with a warm "Green Onions" vibe. Morrison's leisurely medley of "Lonely Avenue" and "4 O'Clock in the Morning" features a weary, groanin' late-night vocal courtesy of blues great Jimmy Witherspoon.
Collaborations and duets like that may be Volume 3's biggest revelation; pictures of Morrison with his partners even dominate the album cover. Morrison possesses an exhaustive knowledge of vintage R&B and jazz, and seems to jump at the chance to record with the greats. John Lee Hooker sits in for a run-through of "Gloria", while Georgie Fame joins in on "Moondance", "Centerpiece", and "Benediction". Lonnie Donegan (a skiffle-flavored "Lost John"), the Chieftains, Ray Charles (a gently swaying "Crazy Love") , Carl Perkins (a rockabilly-driven "Sitting on Top of the World"), Bobby Bland, BB King, and others also make appearances. Almost without fail, these meetings are high-quality stuff.
If you're skeptical of Van Morrison's recent output, Volume 3 wins you over. The studio tracks exhibit the smoothness that Morrison's always possessed, while the live tracks show his talent for going with a song's flow. On the duets, Morrison's clearly comfortable with artists who are either his heroes or his equals. True, it hides the fact that the last decade or so hasn't been Morrison's best -- or maybe it forces you to reevaluate that notion. Maybe his original material wasn't the right place to look, as he sounds like he's having a blast on the live cuts on the duets. Morrison's career still cries out for a comprehensive, career-spanning treatment, but Volume 3 succeeds in its goal of shining a new light on his recent work.