Within music, there are certain live albums that are universally praised for mirroring the unrefined fervor of a concert. The Band’s “The Last Waltz,” The Who’s “Live at Leeds,” the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense,” Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison,” and Cheap Trick’s “At Budokan” come to mind immediately. However, hidden under the towering stature of the aforementioned albums lies Van Morrison’s first live album released in 1974 entitled, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” –- an effort that embodies the phrase “criminally underrated.”
The original album, which collected performances from Morrison’s fabled 1973 tour, found the Northern Irish singer-songwriter in his absolute prime backed by his most musically inclined band up to that point. Today, with the obsessive in mind, the vaults have been opened and the original has been expanded by three volumes to fit unreleased performances recorded at three different venues -– The Troubadour in LA, the Santa Monica Civic Center, and The Rainbow Theatre in London.
Notoriously difficult at times, Morrison’s intent for an unsullied live album (he infamously omitted “Moondance” from the original because of one wrong note played by his guitarist) resulted in “It’s Too Late” being free from the common practice of studio overdubbing inconsistencies. Mistakes were never a major threat, however, as Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra was one of the most precise backing bands in rock history. The eleven-piece group, boasting a string and brass section, proved itself as the sole interpreter of Morrison’s cultured brand of music spanning from R&B, jazz, and soul to folk, blues, and Celtic music. Augmenting the mythical reputation of the original, this expanded version allows for hours of retrospection and reminds us how great these performances actually were.
The sheer potency of these concerts trace back to the type of artist Morrison was in ‘73; after breaking off with garage rock pioneers Them, he embarked on a solo career that, up to 1973, spawned six brilliant albums for Warner Brothers, of which the most recent at that time -– “Tupelo Honey,” “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” and “Hard Nose the Highway” –- became the focal point of the tour. These albums acted as the portrait of a singer who was unaffected by the boisterous music of the era and, through paving his own musical path, was forced to accept that he was an outlier who preferred the small details to the big picture.
Along with flaunting his stream-of-consciousness prose over sinuous folk jazz compositions, Morrison pays tribute to his musical forebears with blue-eyed soul covers of hits originally performed by Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, and Sam Cooke among others. Deviating from the original, the expanded set highlights the oddities Morrison embraced in ‘73 including a blazing interpretation of “Buona Sera,” and poignant versions of Kermit the Frog’s lament “Bein’ Green” that are more inspired than Sinatra’s cover.
If you’re familiar with Morrison as a performer, you know that he performs under one of two varying dispositions: the lackluster curmudgeon or the powerhouse soul man. In simpler terms, if he starts bad, things turn worse, but when he’s good, he’s really good. Lucky for all, the performances here mirror the latter situation.
Morrison and his band were running like a well-oiled machine during these shows; if any other band at the time incorporated a string and horn section, failure would be its only destiny. The Caledonia Soul Orchestra embellishes and evolves upon Morrison’s sultry, meditative Celtic song structure, taking darker approaches to the oft-overlooked “Snow in San Anselmo” and “Wild Children.”
More importantly, Morrison’s voice is as opulent and evocative as ever, especially shining throughout the introspective “Listen to the Lion” and the dynamically renovated “Cyprus Avenue” that both ebb and flow like the Irish Sea itself. Notably in a jovial mood, Morrison seemed to reach his apex during these concerts because he effectively found a band that could carry his wide-reaching influence and idiosyncrasies with a learned ease.
If one album from Van the Man’s catalog could act as an introduction to the rest of his vast musical landscape, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” would be it. Digging through this expanded version of a classic reveals a man who, at his pinnacle, harbors a clear and concise vision for the direction of his music.