By Jeff Burger
The latest installment of Legacy Recordings’ Van Morrison reissue project finds the label turning its attention to 1997’s The Healing Game, which followed a pair of jazz-oriented side trips. When originally released, the album garnered some lukewarm reviews and made it to only number 32 on the U.S. Billboard chart. This three-CD deluxe edition, which features remastered sound and a host of related material, may prompt a well-deserved assessment, however. The album isn’t quite on a par with such masterworks as Astral Weeks, Tupelo Honey, and Into the Music, but those are high bars indeed, and I’d rank The Healing Game just a notch below them. In other words, this is great stuff.
The first disc opens with the original album, a collection of 10 well-crafted Morrison compositions that mine his tried-and-true recipe: tasty blues vocals, jazzy horn charts, and appealing mid-tempo melodies. There’s not a weak track on the list but standouts include “Rough God Goes Riding,” “Waiting Game,” the doo-wop–influenced “If You Love Me,” and the title cut, all of which exude spirituality and emotional intensity. Among the five bonus tracks are “At the End of the Day,” the B side of the “Rough God Goes Riding” single; alternate versions of Into the Music’s “Full Force Gale” and St. Dominic’s Preview’s title track; the single edit of The Healing Game; and a number called “Look What the Good People Done,” which first appeared on that single.
Morrison’s trademark grumpiness comes through in songs like “This Weight” (“In the neighborhood people watching me / Got to move on to protect my sanity…And this Hollywood ain’t no good”) and “It Once Was My Life” (“Trials and tribulations and stupidity rules / Sometimes it looks like I’m on a ship of fools”). But as the title suggests, this is mostly an album about healing: Morrison sings largely about love and about getting back to the music that first moved his soul. He seems to do that here—perhaps especially on some of the bonus tracks that find him collaborating with a few of his heroes (see below).
Throughout, he sings as well as ever. And the instrumentation is terrific—especially the prominently featured tenor, baritone, and soprano sax work by Leo Green and Pee Wee Ellis, the latter a veteran of James Brown’s band. Also here on Hammond organ: British R&B artist Georgie Fame, who first appeared on record with Morrison on 1989’s Avalon Sunset.
Disc two includes alternate versions of songs on the original album, such as a jazz-inflected reading of the title cut and an extended rendition of “Sometimes We Cry.” Also featured is a previously unreleased recording of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” the Louis Armstrong favorite. There are some satisfying collaborations, too, among them a pair of tracks with John Lee Hooker (Morrison’s “Healing Game” and Hooker’s “Don’t Look Back,” both from a Morrison-produced, Grammy-winning Hooker album that came out the same day as The Healing Game); a number with skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan (Jimmie Rodgers’s “Mule Skinner Blues”); and five selections with early rocker Carl Perkins (Perkins’s “Matchbox” and “Boppin’ the Blues,” plus “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” a Morrison/Perkins cowrite called “My Angel,” and Fats Domino’s “All By Myself”).
Ten of the 15 tracks on disc two have not previously been released, and disc three—a 14-song 1997 concert from Montreux, Switzerland—consists entirely of recordings that have been widely bootlegged but have not been officially available until now. Among them are versions of seven of The Healing Game’s 10 tracks plus readings of such catalog standouts as “Tupelo Honey” and “Tore Down a la Rimbaud” and several covers: Ray Charles’s “Fool for You,” Anthony Newley’s “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me),” and Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin).”
Just as Bob Dylan’s Another Self-Portrait prompted a fresh assessment of an overlooked period in his career, this deluxe edition of The Healing Game may lead fans to re-examine what Morrison was up to in the late 90s. They’re bound to like what they hear.
The Honey Dewdrops, Anyone Can See. I recently called Abigail Lapell’s latest album a candidate for the list of best folk CDs of the year. Well, it’s only March and here’s another contender. There’s not a weak cut on this acoustic latest set from the Honey Dewdrops, an Americana duo consisting of Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, both of whom are compelling vocalists. Their harmonies recall Everything But the Girl while the guitar work and potent melodies remind me of Aztec Two-Step. The duo and their producer wisely eschewed any temptation to add layers of instrumentation or overdubs; the result is an album that keeps vocals and acoustic guitar front and center and makes you feel as if you’re right there in the room with the couple. The pensive material—which conveys tenderness and, at times, will make you smile—is all original aside from an excellent cover of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man.” Much of it is introspective and personal, but there’s also social commentary, such as “For One More,” an apparent response to anti-immigration rhetoric; and “Going Rate,” about Baltimore in the wake of the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray.
Tylor & the Train Robbers, Best of the Worst Kind. If Charlie Daniels’s music focused a bit more on melody and contained more folk elements, it might sound a good deal like that of Tylor & the Train Robbers, an Idaho-based quartet whose appealing blend of country rock and Americana also recalls New Riders of the Purple Sage. You will encounter the occasional awkward rhyme on this 12-track sophomore release (“There’s construction upon this road / I gotta get home, my grass needs mowed”); but for the most part, the lyrics in these folksy first-person tales about being on the road or down on your luck are as strong as the music.
Bee Gees, Spick and Span. The Bee Gees produced some truly wonderful pop music in the late 1960s, including “To Love Somebody,” “Holiday,” and “Massachusetts,” all of which were written and superbly sung by the brothers Gibb and all of which are featured on this recording of a March 1968 concert from Bern, Switzerland. On the program are six tracks (the liner notes erroneously say three) from the group’s first massively successful studio album; two from Horizontal, the followup, three numbers from the Bee Gees’ early days in Australia; and “Words,” one of their best singles. But the recording isn’t nearly as good as the track list: though it ostensibly comes from a radio broadcast, it sounds like an audience tape. The group—which on this tour included a lead guitarist and a drummer in addition to the Gibbs—are not well miked, resulting in sound that is frequently weak and distorted. It is interesting to get a taste of how the Bee Gees sounded live in this period—especially when they go way off script, such as on “In My Own Time,” where, believe it or not, they incorporate a hard-rock version of Cream’s “Strange Brew.” (It’s also interesting to hear the ecstatic audience—a reminder that the group were once subjected to something very much like Beatlemania.) The sound quality, though, is a deal breaker. Unless you’re a Bee Gees completist, you’ll likely want to pass this by.
The Campfire Flies, Sparks Like Tiny Stars. This self-produced acoustic folk debut from New Jersey’s Campfire Flies boasts an endearingly gentle and homespun quality that recalls vintage groups like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band as well as Belle and Sebastian. The four-man, two-woman outfit have a big bag of tricks, since four members of the group are songwriters, all of them sing well, and all of them play multiple instruments—everything from accordion, recorder, and harmonica to banjo, flute, and mandolin. Songs like “If Your Eyes Are Closed,” “I’m Not Changing My Mind,” and “Deep Water” deliver strong melodies, layered harmonies, and emotional depth.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.