Duets: Re-working the Catalogue

Van Morrison celebrates his 70th birthday with a committed, joyous collection of vocal collaborations featuring Michael Buble, Bobby Womack and a whole lot of soul

Van Morrison turns 70 in August 2015. With the arrival of that significant birthday, it seems likely that we can expect to see a lot of Van The Man-related activity occurring in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. There is, of course, that much-anticipated gig on Cyprus Avenue on August 31, and don’t be surprised if a few more tribute acts happen to spring up over the next few months.

With that in mind, it would be easy to dismiss Duets: Re-working the Catalogue, Morrison’s brand new studio album, as opportunisitc. On paper, the concept of a musical legend revisiting his back catalogue one more time does not sound so inspiring. Add to that a list of collaborators that includes Michael Buble and Joss Stone and it is understandable that some fans have feared the worst.

In the Belfast Cowboy’s hands, however, what could have been a soulless record company exercise in product milking turns out to be something that is, at times, quite magical and joyous.

The first thing to note is that this is no Junkie XL dance re-imagining of the canon; there are no surplus dance beats and ugly updates here. The sound remains grounded in the soul, blues and jazz that has always informed Morrison’s finest productions. Thankfully, it’s no Greatest Hits Revisited project either. 

Those hoping to hear re-imaginings of 'Brown Eyed Girl' and 'Moondance' will doubtless be disappointed. Instead, we have a considered attempt to shine a little light and bring a little love to the dustier corners of that gloriously soulful CV, a chance to delve into what American business types would call the 'deeper cuts' of a peerless back catalogue. 

That means selections from albums like the mostly unloved Keep It Simple (2006) – a live rendition of 'How Can A Poor Boy' with the great Taj Mahal recorded at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down – and feisty re-interpretations of less appreciated gems like 'Rough God Goes Riding', performed here with his daughter, Shana.

There is even an upbeat take on 'Born To Sing', the title track of Morrison's last studio album from 2012, which sees the singer swop lines with his old friend, Chris Farlowe, like a man having – wait for it – fun.

Indeed, there is a playful quality to that amazing voice throughout these re-interpretations; it swoops and soars with a silky sweep that belies its age. It is a truly remarkable instrument that has allowed Morrison to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of his true heroes in the past.

Classy collaborations with the likes of Ray Charles, Bobby Bland and John Lee Hooker have shown Morrison to be a master of the duet form in the past, and again he stands proud in some very impressive company here.

As is often the case, Morrison seems to work best when pushed a little by his contemporaries, or when in the company of soul singers he clearly admires. The obvious sense of delight that Morrison exudes as he sings with Bobby Womack, Mavis Staples and George Benson on the opening three songs here prove that point perfectly.

If Benson’s contribution to 'Higher Than The World' offers a satin smooth take on Morrison’s perception of soul, the Mavis Staples-enhanced rendition of 'If I Ever Needed Someone' – the oldest song on offer here, coming as it does from 1970 – throws us right back to the church with a raw and gritty gospel sensibility all its own.

The Womack tune, a straight reading of 'Some Peace Of Mind', is given an extra poignancy by the fact that Womack passed away last June, making this one of his very last recordings. That opening salvo of pure soul makes for a heady brew that suggests Morrison’s passion for the music remains undimmed despite the advancing years.

Surprises are plentiful. Simply Red front man Mick Hucknall gives a beautifully considered reading of 'Streets Of Arklow', a mystical Celtic soul ballad from the sublime and woefully undervalued Veedon Fleece album from 1974. Mark Knopfler imbues the wistful 'Irish Heartbeat' with a muscle and moodiness, and Steve Winwood – a rare Morrison contemporary who can still compete on the vocal front – tackles 'Fire In The Belly' with all the passion its title demands.

Even the aforementioned Buble track, a thumping reading of 'Real Real Gone', rattles along righteously.

Those who suggest Morrison lacks humour in his work are directed towards 'Whatever Happened To PJ Proby?', a remarkable song bemoaning a modern world where Screaming Lord Sutch and his Monster Raving Looney party no longer exist. Having PJ Proby himself singing alongside Morrison on a song ostensibly about the long lost 1960s crooner is a stroke of almost surrealistic genius.

While some contributions, such as Gregory Porter’s busy jazz interpretation of 'The Eternal Kansas City' and Natalie Cole’s slightly too saccharine 'These Are The Days', fare less well, Morrison remains fully on fire across all 16 tracks.

Morrison is a soul singer of the old school still flexing his muscles and making music he truly believes in. Five decades into his career, you could forgive him for phoning in a project like this. That he doesn’t, and still sings with the pure passion of a man who has got no choice in the matter, is remarkable indeed.

Duets: Re-working the Catalogue is out March 23 on RCA. Pre-order the album now.