Well, the last thing anyone would ever accuse Van Morrison of is predictability, so seeing his name and his new album on this particular website shouldn’t surprise as much as it actually does. The famously taciturn Belfast crooner is known, after all, for his own compositions, and he has built up a vast legacy of work over his 60 years of prodigious activity. But every so often, usually to demonstrate his love for the songs he heard in his youth, good Sir Ivan will cobble together a set of standards, usually performed in his own idiosyncratic style, and leave everyone gasping. One such was Irish Heartbeat, a set of trad Irish folk that he made with the Chieftains in 1988; another, 2006’s Pay The Devil, looked (if less memorably) at the country and western songbook. Furthermore, he has dedicated an album to the music of Mose Allison (who appeared with him for that) and made collaborations with bluesman John Lee Hooker and, more recently, jazz organist Joey Francesco.
Indeed, neither is this the first time he has embraced skiffle, that delightfully do-it-yourself style of the late 1950s, wherein UK musicians played an amalgam of trad jazz, blues, folk, gospel and swing, often on homemade instruments. Arguably, it was the punk of its day, with Lonnie Donegan the king of the movement, and other players, like jazz trombonist, Chris Barber, drawn along and into its wake. Those two, along with Morrison, produced a terrific live set, The Skiffle Sessions–Live in Belfast, recorded in 1998 and released two years later. Could this be part two, one might wonder, this time without those elder statesmen, both since deceased? We’ll get to that.
It is true Morrison has been confounding his fan base of late; lockdown saw him never more prolific, with a flurry of albums, some doubles, indulging in a hitherto seldom seen angry commentary of the day. An ardent anti-vaxxer, anti-lockdown and seemingly anti-science, his lyrics chockful of diatribes against those who would restrict his freedoms, bitter polemics of bile, and many erstwhile followers were bemused and bedeviled. Some began to consider him out of touch and out of line, stuck in a rose-tinted past. I know. I was one, writing him off as someone I used to love. And now, fer chrissakes, this!
Moving on Skiffle is terrific. There, I have said it, something I never thought I would say of Morrison again. With a crack band, here are 23 songs, spread over two discs, and, unlike his other “covers” albums, nary a sight of any of his own songs being snuck in to make up the baggage. Likewise, no repeats from the aforementioned album. Songs well known, songs less well known, but all played and sung with an obvious pleasure and joy, the enjoyment leaking out the grooves to infect even the most critical of his once-loyal listeners. The band is largely his current ensemble, with the limelight mostly taken by keyboard man, Richard Dunn, and Dave Keary on guitar, Morrison, as ever supplying his typically blowy and raspy saxophone notes and some typically salty mouth harp. The rhythm section, Pete Hurley and Colin Griffin, are content to play fairly safe, Hurley’s bass walking the notes up and down with aplomb. Whilst the arrangements are scarcely as rudimentary as back then, there is often a pleasing simplicity to the arrangements, and, in a nod to authenticity, Donegan’s right hand man, washboard player Alan “Sticky” Wicket, is on hand to ply his trade.
Moving on Skiffle kicks off with Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” one of a whole engine shed of trains featured here, choogling down the tracks on a bed of organ and clanging guitar. Once Van gets the first verse dusted, in suddenly chime a whole team of retro backing vocals, in full harmony, with an authentically old timey “old man ribber” basso profundo mixed high. Morrison and his singers scat and improvise away with abandon, all of them having a hoot, and it is a great start to the album, train whistle at the end and all.
“Careless Love,” a cheerful ditty about a wayward love not being able to escape her lovers ’38, introduces the trio of, now female backing singers. More country blues than skiffle, Keary gets his first opportunity to shine. Morrison’s voice is in strong fine fettle and I’m forgetting the sourpuss curmudgeon already. A typically Van sax solo further enhances the good feeling, as does Stuart McIlroy’s piano.
A whole host of styles get shoehorned into this definition of skiffle. “Sail Away Ladies” is a country hoedown, with no less than Seth Wakeman adding some fiddle, jousting with Morrison’s harmonica, whereas “Streamline Train” is pure rockabilly. “Take This Hammer” has glorious barrelhouse piano before “No Other Baby” echoes the streetwise sharp of Mink DeVille, with some more great blowing on that harp. A song maybe more familiar to UK audiences will be “Gypsy Davy,” if here far removed from the Fotheringay version, Morrison giving it a loping and lively swagger, transforming it, Lakeman’s fiddle slotting in superbly against Dunn’s B3. It is an instant classic.
Gospel tropes emerge for “This Loving Light Of Mine,” a woozy and spiritual version, the three female backing singers hitting a sweet spot, the bluesier of “In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down” giving them further opportunity to sashay. Another great bit of Keary guitar in this one. “Yonder Comes A Sucker” is a Jim Reeves song I don’t recall from my mother’s love of Gentleman Jim, not least the disconcerting lyric, capable of being alarmingly misheard, as Morrison and the male singers croon together, in call and response, about “other suckers…”
“Travellin’ Blues” may or may not be the same song that Van did with John Lee Hooker back in 1997, it is hard to tell, Secondhandsongs suggesting so. Irrespective, it is unrecognizable. To be fair, at this stage, about halfway through the album, there is a slight risk of overload. Carefully this is avoided, by the frolicsome and mischievous “Gov Don’t Allow,” a rewrite from “Mama Don’t Allow.” OK, this is used, in part, for Morrison’s conspiracy theories to get an airing, but gets onto safer ground, as skiffle, rock and roll and rhythm and blues are also successively disallowed, forgiving the freedom-of-speech moment. (To be fair, freedom of speech is no bad thing, it is just his track record as to what he means thereby.) There is a neat little washboard solo from Wicket and a terrific piano break from McIlroy.
The upbeat mood leaks into “Come On In,” another highlight, the band cooking. Wakeman adds a flamboyant gypsy jazz fiddle part, before Keary returns the gauntlet with a Django-esque acoustic solo. Suddenly, this is my new favorite. Even if the wonderful fiddle and organ pairing in “Streamlined Cannonball” doesn’t then vie for place, the tinkling mandolin an extra glory, with the song also revealing what a fine Louisiana singer Morrison could have been, his atonal yowl here adding a Cajun vibe to the host of influences on parade.
“Greenback Dollar” is one of several songs on the subject, and has some slightly odd Jordanaires-type backing vocals. A slight song, it risks again over-egging the balance of the project, a cracking saxophone solo a then needed injection of credibility, ahead another Keary model of guitar economy. “Oh Lonesome Me” is the first of two Hank Williams deconstructions. Sounding not unlike the Band in their prime, Keary channels Robbie Robertson’s slightly wah-wah style, and Morrison isn’t a mile off the timbre of Levon Helm. OK, the Band never joined up with the Jordanaires (again), but never mind. And it’s worth it, just to hear the singers instruction: “take it to the bridge,” in time-honored fashion. “I Wish I Was An Apple On A Tree” provides a mandolin lead and bonkers lyrics, as well as Keary’s best solo yet. So, Van wants to be a mole down in the ground? Hmmm, hi ho, fiddly dee, as the lyric then goes.
Some congas and keyboard then give a slight tropical feel to “I’m Movin’ On,” with the steel going all Hawaiian. A bit Mink DeVille, even. Am I allowed to say the backing singers are beginning to get on my wick? If not, then “Cold, Cold Heart” follows and is, frankly, just entirely odd, the mood of the arrangement at odds with the lyrical intent. Morrison seems to make it seem an objective assessment of events, rather than a subjective cry of woes. Decent enough steel guitar, again, tho’, even if Hank never done it this way. “Worried Man Blues” is another train arriving song, and is a good ol’ bit of boogie, that begins to forgive, once more, any lapse from the otherwise overall consistency.
So, “Cotton Fields,” then. Could this version expunge the vileness of the Beach Boys version, during which they effortlessly shucked off the vestiges of the coolness they had been working on so hard after Pet Sounds? In a word, no, this being beyond the Ulsterman’s gift. Which, considering he had rendered “Marie’s Wedding” palatable all those years ago, is saying something. It is ghastly, but then alchemy aligns once more, and the closing track, “Green Rocky Road,” is near a masterpiece. This is thanks in no small part to Lakeman’s shimmering fiddle textures; very Fairport 1969, they transport this song, last heard as part of the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, to new heights, and it is a great way to finish this mammoth piece of work.
A long review for a long album, but the myriad textures of Moving on Skiffle warrant that attention. Is it enough to shake off the ennui about Morrison? I don’t know, but it seems promising, with recent live reviews reporting a revived spring in his step, as he renews his acquaintance with the music he grew up with. I’m all for that. At 77, and despite any and all suggestions to the contrary, Van is still the man.
Moving on Skiffle tracklist:
(Note that, in many cases, the songs were either traditional or written by artists other than those first recording the song, often with variations in the title and lyric along the way)
1. Freight Train (Elizabeth Cotten cover)
2. Careless Love (Noble Sissle & His Sizzling Syncopators cover)
3. Sail Away Ladies (Uncle Bunt Stephens cover)
4. Streamline Train (Red Nelson cover)
5. Take This Hammer (Lead Belly cover)
6. No Other Baby (Dickie Bishop & The Sidekicks cover)
7. Gypsy Davy (John Jacob Niles cover)
8. This Loving Light of Mine (St. Paul Baptist Choir cover)
9. In The Evening When the Sun Goes Down (Leroy Carr cover)
10. Yonder Comes A Sucker (Jim Reeves cover)
11. Travellin’ Blues (Jimmie Rodgers cover)
12. Gov Don’t Allow (adapted from Cow Cow Davenport cover)
13. Come On In (Harum Scarums cover)
14. Streamlined Cannonball (Roy Acuff cover)
15. Greenback Dollar (Ashley & Foster cover)
16. Oh Lonesome Me (Don Gibson cover)
17. I Wish Was An Apple On A Tree (Traditional)
18. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)
19. I’m Movin’ On (Hank Snow cover)
20. Cold Cold Heart (Hank Williams cover)
21. Worried Man Blues (The Carter Family cover)
22. Cotton Fields (Lead Belly cover)
23. Green Rocky Road (Dave Van Ronk cover)