Lessons In Keeping On

by Peter Stone Brown

 

One of the more interesting things about getting older is watching how my musical heroes confront their own mortality. In the case of both Willie Nelson and Van Morrison (who will be touring together later this year), their attitude clearly is I’m going to keep on going as long as I can, and I’m gonna have as much fun as I can doing it.

 

Last Man Standing (Legacy) is Willie Nelson’s second album in a row to confront the fact that he’s not going to be around forever. But where his last album, God’s Problem Child, explored this topic with a mixture of covers and originals, this time around it’s all originals, co-written with producer Buddy Cannon. And while mortality hovers around just about every song on this disc, the songs are never downhearted or downbeat. In fact, Last Man Standing may well be the most rocking album he has yet put out, which is somewhat astounding considering he’s 84, and the overall attitude is one of defiance.

It is clear from the start that Nelson’s vocal and guitar skills remain intact. The songs are written in Nelson’s matter of fact writing style where he says what he has to say in the most direct way possible, but he’s long known how to make it work.

The album begins with the title track with starts with the lines: I don’t want to be the last man standing/But wait a minute maybe I do – over a beat that’s just short of Bo Diddley. The next song “Don’t Tell Noah” rocks just as hard, with a bunch of humorous and sarcastic lines, before moving into straight funky country with “Bad Breath” which is a song about exactly that with the key line, “Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” 
 

“Me And You” is a moderate paced rocker about dealing with friendship in light of the current American situation as well as a world gone mad. It starts with the lines:

 

I turned the sound down on my TV

I just can’t listen anymore

It’s like I’m in some foreign country

That I’ve never seen before

 

Things slow down for the saddest song on the album, “Something You Get Through,” possibly the best song written about going on, following the death of a loved one. The chorus says it all with the lines: It’s not something you get over/But it’s something you get through.

 

Next, it’s Western Swing Time with “I’m Ready To Roar,” a song that’s pretty much right out of the Bob Wills playbook. Then it’s back to straight country with “Heaven Is Closed,” which melodically references as earlier Nelson song, “Heaven And Hell,” from his Phases And Stages album, though this time around Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded/So I think I’ll just stay where I am.

 

Most of the remaining songs deal with an apparent breakup. The chorus to the bluesy “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ ” goes: It’s a lonesome old night and memories linger/Of when I gave you a ring/

Then you gave me the finger, while the swingy “She Made My Day” starts with Well, she made my day/But she ruined my life. The closer, “Very Far To Crawl” has a feel similar to Dylan’s “Most Of The Time,” in the ambiance created by the guitars, which combined with Nelson’s vocal make the song a bit spookier than the lyrics reveal, if you were to read them without hearing it.

Throughout the album Nelson is backed by an excellent crew of studio musicians along with longtime harp player Mickey Raphael and Alison Kraus on fiddle. He may be the last man standing, but he is also downright inspirational.  

 

In the past eight months, Van Morrison has released three new albums of covers mixed with originals, some re-workings of older tunes. Versatile (Exile/Legacy), which came late last year, a few months after the blues infused Roll With The Punches is primarily jazz and pop standards. Morrison’s approach is different from that of Bob Dylan who tends to dwell on ballads of longing and regret, transposing existing arrangements to fit his band. Morrison has been diving into jazz on and off throughout his career, and his attitude on most of these songs is let’s swing, which he makes quite clear on the opening “Broken Record.”  These aren’t albums about homages to the great poets, or misty gardens in the rain. Nor are these songs into the mystic, but they are deep into the music. As usual, he’s backed by a superb group of musicians, and several songs feature Morrison soloing on alto saxophone. The songs that sneak their way into blues are the standouts here whether originals or covers.

Not everything makes it. “I Forgot That Love Existed,” one of the best songs on Poetic Champions Compose loses the intensity it had on that album in the jazzed up arrangement, and “Unchained Melody” doesn’t reach the heights it should have. More successful is “Start All Over Again,” originally on Enlightenment. It basically comes down to, if you like the jazzy side of Van Morrison, you’ll like this album. 

As swinging as Versatile is, Morrison’s brand new collaboration with organist/trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco and his ace group, You’re Driving Me Crazy (Exile/Legacy), takes the energy level much higher. Recorded live in the studio and the first Morrison album in several decades to be recorded in the United States, the musician are simply having a blast creating music and that feeling comes through, consistently.

 

The album starts with a low key rendition of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” with Morrison half growling the vocals exploring his lower register. The pace picks up on “Hold It Right There” which combines jazz and blues, and when DeFrancesco lets loose on the organ you realize this is a perfect pairing. This energy is continued on “All Saints Day” (originally on Hymns To The Silence) and maintained on a new version of “Young Lovers Do.”  This song is one of the highlights of Morrison’s masterpiece Astral Weeks, but while the instrumentation is different with DeFrancesco taking an extended organ solo, the arrangement really isn’t all that different and this version more than holds up on its own.

 

“The Things I Used To Do” takes things back to blues land and allows the members of DeFrancesco’s band to show their stuff with a fine tenor sax solo from Troy Roberts followed by an equally good guitar solo by Dan Wilson, with Van filling out the next break with an extended harmonica solo.

Other previously recorded Morrison songs revisited include “Goldfish Bowl” (from What’s Wrong With This Picture) and “Evening Shadows” (from Down The Road), but the song that’s the most fun is a speeded up arrangement of the hit, “Have I Told You Lately” with Van’s daughter Shana Morrison singing backup. She appears on a few other tracks.

 

Every track on this album is loaded with expert soloing from masters, and drummer Michael Ode makes you notice him without ever being obtrusive. Morrison’s alto sax solos fit right in with what the band is doing.

 

Even though this album was recorded in the studio, the feeling is one of walking into a small nightclub or even a corner bar that has a small stage, and a cool little jazz combo is wailing, and they’re so good you end up staying all night.