Looking back over Van Morrison’s stellar career in the music business, it seems somewhat incongruous for the great man to have taken all of fifty years to green-light a project so demonstrably well -suited to his talents as Duets: Reworking the Catalogue evidently is. Given that he was raised on a strict, post-war musical diet consisting largely of Rhythm and Blues, Country, Gospel and Jazz, it was entirely predictable that The Belfast Cowboy would develop a deep-rooted need for artistic collaboration of the sort often found at the heart of these great American art forms.
Right from his earliest teenage recordings, with Belfast combo, Them, Morrison has peppered his lyrics with tributes to the work of his childhood heroes. He’s even been known to close out his songs with a roll-call of those he is so keen to emulate, as on ‘Real Real Gone’ (re-visited here to fine effect with Michael Buble), a soul stomper from 1990, where he not only name checks Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, James Brown and Gene Chandler, but quotes lovingly from their songs too.
During the second-half of his lengthy career Morrison has taken every opportunity to collaborate with others, releasing albums with The Chieftans – Irish Heartbeat; Georgie Fame – How Long Has This Been Going On; Linda Gail Lewis – You Win Again; and Lonnie Donnegan – The Skiffle Sessions, as well as appearing alongside the likes of Mose Allison, Chet Baker, Tom Jones and The Band on their own studio albums. Throughout the mid-nineties, fellow Irishman Brian ‘Bap’ Kennedy was often co-opted into sharing vocal duties on tour, featuring heavily on the Morrison’s 1994 live album A Night in San Francisco. For someone who is often depicted as a belligerent, disgruntled, loner Morrison has repeatedly shown himself to be at home in the company of other artists, both in the studio and on stage, and challenged, too, by the prospect of re-interpreting their work.
This predilection for music as a communal pastime, which must date back to those Saturday night Hank Williams parties he often attended while growing up on Hyndford Street, has also proved an effective way of penetrating the hard to crack UK chart. It still rankles with Morrison devotees, though, that despite penning some of the most gorgeous love songs of the last century, his only top twenty hit remains a tragicomic duet with Cliff Richard on the mercilessly bad ‘Whenever God Shines His light’.
Duets: Re-working the Catalogue is, also, a form of tribute album. Van’s been part way down this road before, but he remained resolutely in the producer’s booth for 1994’s No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison. This time around he’s happy to cede control, on paper at least, to Don Was and Bob Rock and take his rightful place behind the microphone. The success of such a project depends almost entirely on selecting the right material from the singer’s oeuvre and then matching those songs with truly ‘sympathetic’ artists. It’s here, though, that the doubts about Duets start to creep in.
The Van Morrison songbook is the equal of anything in the pop canon, Lennon and McCartney, not withstanding, and it’s therefore a disappointment to see so many uninspired choices making the final cut. Seven of the albums’ 16 tracks come from the last two decades, including such mediocre fare as ‘Whatever Happened to P. J Proby’ and ‘Get On with the Show’, leaving the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, a period when Morrison was at his undoubted peak, starkly under-represented.
His very best compositions, not necessarily his most celebrated, seem to have been perversely overlooked in favour of lesser known material. Morrison, though, has a practical explanation – ‘It’s not like the old days where you had a publisher that was going to work your songs, no-one else is working them.’ Even with the admirable intention of rescuing some of his less familiar songs from the dustbin of history, there can’t have been much of a clamour from Morrison aficionados for the likes of ‘Higher than the World’ and ‘Whatever Happened to P.J.Proby’ to be dusted down and given another airing. And, whilst it can be argued that this approach helps keep the album fresh, the definite lack of ‘classic’ Morrison moments threatens to undermine the project as a whole.
Similar reservations spring to mind, when it comes to examining the cast list put together. There are certainly some A-list names on hand, in the shape of the saintly Mavis Staples, the modern-day phenomenon that is Michael Buble and the late, great, Bobby Womack; but the heart sinks at the prospect of Georgie Fame and Morrison’s own daughter, Shana, popping out of the woodwork, yet again.
Morrison gets his big hitters in to bat early, kicking off the album with ‘Some Peace of Mind’, a slice of stately, supper-club soul, to which Bobby Womack adds a vigorous, gospel-tinged vocal that at first shadows then supplants Morrison’s own voice at the heart of the song and follows that up with a blissful duet with the unimpeachable Mavis Staples. A lifetime of struggle, of bearing witness and of joyous devotion to the Church can all be heard in Staples seasoned vocal, which elevates the humble gospel of ‘If I Ever Needed Someone’ to soulful, celestial heights. It’s the highpoint of a somewhat uneven album.
George Benson and his MOR funk band are given a difficult task, in having to make something of the rather lightweight ‘Higher than the World’, the opening track from Morrison’s 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which is mellow to the point of indifference, and in truth, they barely get off the runway. Joss Stone, though, fares slightly better on the sedentary ‘Wild Honey’, delivering a nuanced, understated vocal that fits the requirements of the song perfectly. However, dredging up P.J. Proby from the depths of obscurity to sing ‘Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby’ is an idea which doesn’t even look good on paper. To be fair, he makes a decent fist of it, but the track remains an oddity and an inexplicable inclusion on an album of this kind.
‘Carrying a Torch’ was one of four Morrison contributions to the Tom Jones album of the same name and the song itself went on to be a minor chart hit for the Welshman, reaching no 57 in 1991. The fact that he also included the track on his own double album Hymns to the Silence, in the same year, and has included it again on Duets, suggests Morrison thinks highly of this romantic ballad. I’m not quite sure that the song justifies the regard in which it is so obviously held by its composer, but there’s no doubting the fine job jazz singer Claire Teal does with it here. Teal claimed recently, in an interview with the LA Times, to have never done a show, in her fifteen year career, without including a Morrison composition, and that respect is evident again in her crystal clear reading of this, now definitive, version of the song.
‘The Eternal Kansas City’, taken from Morrison’s 1977 ‘comeback’ album, A Period of Transition is just the sort of left-field selection Duets would have benefited from more of. Gregory Porter, Morrison and his ‘house’ band (mostly carried over from Born to Sing: No Plan B ), are certainly enjoying the craic on this sprawling jazz-funk workout, which is little more than an excuse for Van to name check a succession of jazz greats from Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker to Count Basie and Jay McShann. My only beef with this sprightly version is that the song has been shorn of the startling Pinteresque pauses found on the intro to the original. A further highlight comes in the shape of ‘Streets of Arklow’. Mick Hucknall piles on the celtic mysticism schtick so thickly that Morrison is obliged to lay down his best vocal performance in response.
Morrison and his next guest, Georgie Fame, go back a long way, but they are simply re-tracing their steps with a pedestrian version of ‘Get on with the Show’, while Natalie Cole might have done better with Avalon Sunset’s ‘These are the Days’ but turns in a rather tepid take of an unexceptional song. Things pick up, somewhat, on ‘Rough God Goes Riding’ with Shana Morrison’s country burr being used to good effect on a song which is, in truth, better than I’d remembered it, before Duets finishes strongly with a nap hand of purposeful and powerful collaborations.
Steve Winwood has been out of the limelight for some time, the former Spencer Davis Group and Traffic front-man having not released a studio album since 2008’s Nine Lives, but he clearly arrived fresh and focused from supporting Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on their American tour and his weather-beaten vocal, on the aptly titled, ‘Fire in the Belly’, is good enough to prompt Morrison into a confirmatory ‘right on’, in a raucously enjoyable six and a half minute bluesy set-piece. Chris Farlowe, a Morrison sparring partner of old, excels too on ‘Born to Sing: No Plan B’ and his driven vocal makes the song’s title more than an empty cliché.
Mark Knopfler’s voice seems to have gained in character as the years have gone by and he sings with authority on a plaintive, moving version of ‘Irish Heartbeat’; perhaps the strongest composition on the album. Michael Buble’s admiration for Morrison is well-documented, as his recent declaration about ‘taking Morrison over Sinatra’ confirms, and he gives it everything he has on ‘Real, Real Gone’, a feisty, brassy number, cut from the same cloth as Morrison’s seventies classics ‘Domino’ and ‘Jackie Wilson Said’.
The album’s concluding track is, quite simply, a tour de force. Over more than six mesmerizing minutes, Morrison and blues legend Taj Mahal growl, stutter and scat-sing their way through ‘How Can a Poor Boy?’ a hitherto undistinguished song in the Morrison canon, until it reaches an ecstatic conclusion. A little thing, like the song ending at 6 minutes 18 seconds, doesn’t stop the veteran bluesman as he continues to testify at the top of his voice. Morrison can be heard, loudly chuckling to himself, before exclaiming in a startled Belfast brogue, ‘it doesn’t need a second take’.
Morrison finishes Duets on a high, then, but there’s no denying that the great, God-given voice of his glory days is long gone. The endless yarrrrragh that Greil Marcus famously identified has been scaled back, his phrasing, over recent years, has alternated between curt, cramped and indifferent. However, like a prize fighter whose knockout punch has lost its potency, Morrison can still get by on ring-craft alone. No one on Duets trades blows with him and comes out on top, save for Mavis Staples and Taj Mahal and that’s largely because Morrison is more than content to step back and play the straight man, allowing his peers the space they need to work their venerable magic. It’s no coincidence then, that, amidst the fevered soul-searching both Mavis Staples and Taj Mahal rejoice in on Duets that they can both be heard, laughing out loud, amidst the tears.
The fact that Morrison has only penned two albums of original material in the past eight years suggests, perhaps, that the writer’s block he’s battled with throughout his career is here to stay. You know that he’s experiencing a real song-writing drought listening to his last release Born to Sing: No Plan B, which amounts to little more than a idiosyncratic critique of capitalism. As far as Marxist sleepers in the music industry goes, Morrison must have set some sort of record, having kept his revolutionary instincts under wraps for half a century. Duets, then, may simply be a way of postponing the inevitable, just a while longer. If this, his 40th studio album, is to be the end of a hallowed career, then it’s a heartfelt farewell from an instinctive, impassioned artist, who ranks second only to Bob Dylan in popular music’s post-Elvis pecking order.