Exile Productions/Caroline 2557718515
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Every few albums, Van Morrison releases something that stands out just a little from the rest of his 15 recordings of the last 20 years. Magic Time (2005) had a good batch of songs played by a terrific band, and Keep It Simple (2008) was stripped down and soulful, with a nod to Morrison’s blues side. Last year’s Keep Me Singing benefited from a Morrison who seemed more at ease, perhaps because his previous CD, Duets: Re-working the Catalogue (2015), included appearances by some of his contemporaries. He clearly enjoyed singing with P.J. Proby, Chris Farlowe, and Georgie Fame.
Farlowe and Fame are on hand for Roll with the Punches; the big surprise is the appearance of guitarist Jeff Beck on five of the album’s 15 tracks. Morrison wrote five of the songs on this blues-themed album; the rest are old tunes I can imagine him listening to when he was growing up in Belfast. His dad, an avid record collector, probably played a few of them for him.
The title track is Morrison’s, and he sounds tough and determined. His touring band backs him, Dave Keary’s slide guitar gliding around Morrison’s voice as Laurence Cottle’s bass thumps hard behind them. Stuart McIlroy’s barrelhouse piano plays well against Paul Moran’s Hammond organ to create a smoky blues-club atmosphere, and drummer Mez Clough is in the pocket, holding things down firmly.
Morrison’s “Transformation” leans more toward gospel than blues, with Farlowe shadowing the leader. Beck’s solo brings a heady focus to the arrangement, toughening it up and bringing forward the gospel undercurrent. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “How Far from God” is full-on gospel sung with growl and shout, Moran’s churchy Hammond announcing the altar call. McIlroy’s piano drives the tune, with help from Morrison’s lively tambourine playing.
Morrison is in fine, full voice on Bo Diddley’s “I Can Tell,” a good example of how he gives himself to these songs. Beck fires off a terrific solo, the band playing behind him with precision and grace. The backing singers, Dana Masters and Sumudu Jayatilaka, give the track a strong feel of Southern soul. Bo Diddley’s “Ride On Josephine” is a rollicking rockabilly track with some fine, spring-loaded reverb guitar by Ned Edwards.
Morrison merges T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” with Doc Pomus’s “Lonely Avenue,” trading verses with Farlowe as Beck plays burning riffs behind them. Little Walter’s “Mean Old World” gives Morrison a chance to play some smoldering blues harp, and his unique saxophone style gets an outing in Mose Allison’s “Benediction.” Roll with the Punches pays tribute to Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing with “Goin’ to Chicago,” a duet with Georgie Fame; to Lightnin’ Hopkins, in his “Automobile Blues”; and to Ruth Brown, in “Teardrops from My Eyes.”
These songs and many others helped form Morrison’s art. He inhabits them naturally, and his own songs here stand up well beside them, especially “Fame” and “Ordinary People.” The latter features a blistering solo by Jeff Beck, and it says something about Morrison’s strength of personality and vocal prowess that a player as powerful as Beck can enhance the five tracks on which he appears without ever dominating them. He and Morrison sound invigorated by this return to their roots.
These songs become Morrison’s because he finds new things to say in each one as he plays with them, scatting here and there, repeating a word or phrase, stretching and expanding the meter. The playing is impressive throughout, and the recording, for the most part by Tristan Powell and Matt Tait, is crisp and lively. Van Morrison sounds vital and engaged on Roll with the Punches -- only a third of the songs may be his, but it’s one of his most personal albums.
. . . Joseph Taylor