Van rediscovers joy the of skiffle
After two albums full of conspiracy theories, the old rocker lightens up
VAN MORRISON: Moving On Skiffle (Exile)
Verdict: Van goes back to his roots ★★★★✩
WARD THOMAS: Music In The Madness (WTW)
Verdict: UK country comes of age ★★★✩✩
BEFORE the great British pop explosion of the 1960s, a generation of post-war teenagers were being enthused by another music craze. The late 1950s skiffle movement, which saw singers such as Lonnie Donegan trying their hands at American folk, blues and country, might have lasted only a few years, but it left a significant legacy. The Beatles emerged from John Lennon’s skiffle group The Quarrymen, and the origins of the Bee Gees lay in Barry Gibb’s homespun Manchester band The Rattlesnakes.
Across the Irish Sea, Van Morrison heard Donegan’s Rock Island Line in his local Belfast vinyl shop, Atlantic Records, and started a skiffle group with some schoolmates.
He returns to his first musical love on Moving On Skiffle, a double album that puts an affectionate spin on songs connected with the skiffle era. Unlike his 2000 live album The Skiffle Sessions — which featured Donegan and jazzman Chris Barber — this isn’t one for the purists. There are detours into country and blue-eyed soul, and Van stamps his personality on the material.
He’s a rich, commanding presence on songs cut with a live feel and a backing band that includes guitarist Dave Keary, violinist Seth Lakeman and washboard player Alan ‘Sticky’ Wicket. Moving On Skiffle isn’t short — 23 tracks; 95 minutes — but it flows with an ease and immediacy that recalls Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome, a 2006 tribute to folk singer Pete Seeger.
It’s a change of tack from his two previous LPs ( Latest Record Project: Volume 1, and What’s It Gonna Take?), which were loudly critical of government-imposed Covid restrictions, the media and the evils of the music business. Whatever your take on his lockdown scepticism, the sprawling records were heavy going.
Moving On Skiffle is brighter and breezier. Elizabeth Cotten’s Freight Train is rearranged as a rollicking jazz piece, complete with a train whistle. It’s one of several tracks that use railroad images as metaphors for moving on. Another is Streamline Train, written in the 1930s by bluesman Red Nelson and a 1950s UK hit for The Vipers Skiffle Group.
Other highlights include No Other Baby — on which Van plays harmonica, guitar and sax — and This Loving Light Of Mine, an adaptation of gospel standard This Little Light Of Mine.
Of the other old-time songs, Careless Love is given a jaunty bluegrass makeover at odds with its murderous themes, while Lakeman’s fiddle adds a Celtic flavour to Gypsy Davy.
The album’s later stages transport Van The Man to Nashville. Country songwriter Don Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me is adorned with four-part harmonies and there are two Hank Williams covers: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is a weepie ballad, with Keary on mandolin and lap steel guitar; Cold Cold Heart becomes a jumping jazz number. Morrison gives vent to his lockdown frustrations just once, changing jazz song Mama Don’t Allow to Gov Don’t Allow, and dealing with a pet subject in a more playful and succinct manner than on either quarantine album.
‘Gov don’t allow no washboard playing in here,’ he sings.
‘We don’t care what the gov allow, we’re gonna play our washboard anyhow.’
The album finishes, on Green Rocky Road, with a folktinged homage to wanderlust that sees Van softly stretching his voice in the style of his classic 1968 album Astral Weeks. It’s a tender finale to a refreshingly upbeat return.
At 77, he’s still capable of interpreting well- worn songs in a wonderfully distinctive fashion.
■ COUNTRY-POP stalwarts Ward Thomas made two trips to Nashville in 2022 to dream up ideas for their fifth album, Music In The Madness. But the record’s spirit was nailed closer to home when twins Catherine and an Lizzy, 28, worked with produc producer Ed Harcourt court to finesse their thei new songs with catchy choruses, choruses earthy guitars tars and atmospheric synths.
‘ New- age classic, old- school magic,’ they sing on Next N To You, pithily summing up their blend of contemporary sounds and traditional country storytelling.
Harcourt accentuates the Hampshire duo’s bright hooks, but he also cloaks their gentler tunes in electronic washes that recall Taylor Swift’s lockdown albums Folklore and Evermore.
SIBLING harmonies are to the fore, with Catherine’s sultry tones balanced by Lizzy’s higher pitch. Some of the love songs verge on the saccharine (‘The finest diamonds lose their light in your shadow’) but there’s also a new-found maturity on Flower Crowns, with Catherine singing of how her relationship with her sister has changed. And there is welcome lyrical bite on I Think I Hate You: ‘If we never met again, it would be too soon.’
Some of the best moments occur when they turn their gaze away from the personal. The title track and Justice & Mercy, the latter driven by heavy percussion, were inspired partly by the war in Ukraine. And, in the tradition of their previous Killers and Fleetwood Mac cover versions, there’s a surprisingly satisfying rendition of Razorlight’s America.
■ Van Morrison starts a UK tour at The stables, Milton Keynes, on Monday, (vanmorrison.com). Ward Thomas start their tour on March 30 at the old Fruitmarket, Glasgow (ticketmaster.co.uk).