How Van Morrison Broke Free on ‘It’s Too Late to Stop Now’
By the early 1970s, Van Morrison had already earned a reputation as one of the more unpredictably mercurial live performers in rock. As rough as his gigs could get, though, Morrison was just as capable of leading his audiences to unparalleled heights – an experience unforgettably captured on his classic double live LP It's Too Late to Stop Now.
Released in February 1974, It's Too Late found Morrison working with a massive band he'd dubbed "The Caledonia Soul Orchestra," featuring strings, brass and woodwinds in addition to the standard keyboards, guitar and bass. With so many moving parts, the potential for disaster was always high, but these performances – recorded during the Los Angeles and London stops on Morrison's Summer 1973 tour – were the work of a band that benefited from not only having a legendary taskmaster at the forefront, but a long period of time in the trenches bonding the players to the music.
"I figured that we'd done that show so much that it should be captured," Morrison told Blank Space's John Tobler in 1979. "We were using the strings on the tour, so I figured if I'm going to do a live album, I'll put this string section on it, because it's really nice and it freshens up the songs for us. Because that band at the time had been playing the same set for four or five years, so it was just a matter of touching up the set that was already existing and getting into it. I wanted to capture that set on an album, because I hadn't done it yet."
While Morrison's quote makes It's Too Late to Stop Now seem like a pragmatic decision, the record's stage setting helped free him from the stultifying atmosphere of the recording studio, where he'd long struggled to capture an honest representation of his music.
"The thing is, when it gets down to it, it is like most people's jobs," he told Rolling Stone in 1982. "Because when you're working in the studio and you're making an album, you have to be pregnant every year and give birth to material. It's not much different from other jobs. I mean, a recording studio is not different from a factory. It's just a factory for music. And sometimes there are moments when you get off, but it's moments. The rest of it is very hard work. And the environment is not a creative environment."
While Morrison had been known to have his own problems with playing live, this tour found him operating at peak performance, leading the band through arrangements of his songs that always felt fresh – and were occasionally even revelatory. And while a good-sized portion of the LP's 18-song track listing consists of relatively compact versions of songs like "Domino" and "Into the Mystic," the Caledonia Soul Orchestra was also capable of stretching things out with Morrison's precisely calibrated brand of Northern soul abandon, as they did with the album-closing one-two punch of "Caravan" (9:20) and "Cyprus Avenue" (10:20).
Unlike a lot of live albums, It's Too Late to Stop Now eschewed heavy post-production; although it was co-produced by Ted Templeman and went through the same mixing and mastering as any other major release, it's devoid of the in-studio overdubbing that's often used to bolster (or outright rescue) live recordings. In fact, Morrison's insistence that things be presented exactly as they were led to the removal of one song, "Moondance," because of an errant note from guitarist John Platania.
Although it wasn't a big hit at the time, getting no higher than No. 53 on the Billboard charts, It's Too Late was well-received by critics, and it's now widely regarded as one of the better live albums in rock history. But it also served as a farewell for the Caledonia Soul Orchestra: Morrison disbanded the group shortly after its release.
"I wanted to keep the band together, but it had got to a certain point where it had peaked and peaked a lot," he explained to Tobler. "It got to the point where it was getting overworked on one thing. I sort of tried bringing in other arrangements and some other new energy involved in the band, but it didn't work, even though I'd signed a new arranger, so we just decided to leave it for a while. ... I took actually a year or so off, when I didn't even play. I mean, a whole year went by, and I didn't even touch a guitar or anything, because I just needed the break."
That break ended up being temporary, of course: Van Morrison endured his share of critical slings and arrows over the years, but he's never stopped working. He's repeatedly tried to shrug off what he does as "a job," yet it's a job that, on any given day, is capable of offering a gateway to joy. Fecades after its release, It's Too Late to Stop Now remains one of the brightest and widest Morrison's ever opened.