By Colleen Taylor
Van Morrison, Tommy Sands and Mary Black need no introduction, but my grouping them together might. Amidst these three legendary singers exists a diverse and, in some ways, incongruous range of styles and interests. But in addition to cultural and international renown, these three legends also share a seemingly unceasing interest in producing new music, despite having done so prolifically for nearly five decades already. Each of these three singer-songwriters, although senior in their careers, exhibit a thirst to continue singing, continue writing new music, and we, as listeners, are the beneficiaries of their drive.
Rather than slowing down, Van Morrison seems to be picking up speed in the second half of his musical career. The Belfast man has released six albums in the past four years—an unprecedented standard for rock stars who first came to prominence in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. This time, his latest album, titled “Three Chords and the Truth” comprises 14 original compositions. So not only is Van Morrison busy in the recording studio, he’s also busy at the writing desk, somehow finding the creative resources to produce 14 new songwriting masterpieces.
“Three Chords and the Truth” does not stand out as a departure or reinvention of the Van we have come to know over the past 50 years, but it delivers a variation on the unique soulful Irish voice that stands as a historical and cultural constant—the soundtrack to so many Irish, American, and Irish-American upbringings. Van Morrison may not be young anymore (he has even written a song called “Bags Under My Eyes” for this new album), but you wouldn’t know it from his singing voice, which still projects that special marriage of youthful energy and deep, soulful wisdom. There is coherence and seamless connectivity throughout the album—one that seems perfect for filling the hours of a cross-country road trip. But I still have some particular favorites, like the catchy “Fame Will Eat the Soul,” the funky “Read Between the Lines,” and finally, “Nobody in Charge,” which will place you squarely in a 1950s nightclub. In a world of disheartening politics, we will all agree on the happy vibes of this album. In short, Van has done it yet again.
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And on top of the new songs, Van Morrison maintains his energy and reputation as a performer. He has already sold out three consecutive 2020 New Year’s shows in Belfast: on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Jan. 2. With this string of special concerts, Van demonstrates his loyalty to his roots and the unique place and historical background that made him the Irish voice of R&B.
On the other end of Northern Ireland’s musical spectrum sits Tommy Sands, the folk singer and social activist, who still remains most famous for his heartbreaking Troubles ballad, “There Were Roses.” Like Van, Sands remains a prolific and avid songwriter, as his latest album, “Fair Play To You All,” released at the end of September, evinces. “Fairy Play to You All” showcases a set of 12 new original songs from Sands. Whereas Van’s strength is in the style and soul, Sands stands out for his lyricism. His songs are poems as much as melodies, each one carefully imagined and constructed toward its message of peace and social equality. For example, his song “The Answer is Not Blowing in the Wind” is a reaction against society’s passivity and ignorance in the face of social injustice and warfare, which, Sands suggests, they disguise and justify under poetic niceties like the one crafted by Bob Dylan: “the answer is blowing in the wind.” In contrast, Sands asks listeners to face the answer staring them in the face and take action toward a better society. Whereas in the 1980s, and ‘90s, Sands used his songwriting talents to address the conflict and tragedy of the Troubles, the 2019 album “Fair Play to You All” looks outward to global issues. For instance, Sands critiques U.S. political hypocrisy in “American Dreams,” where he points out that the dream often exists only for the billionaires.
From a cultural perspective, Sands makes some interesting moves in this album, which includes Irish language songs as well as Dylan-esque folk songs. Most intriguing from my standpoint is a modern-day aisling, resurrecting the poetic paradigm practiced in feudal, Gaelic times in the Early Modern era. “Clanrye Side” is as close to a real aisling as the 18th-century compositions, and it imagines an idealized young woman that gives voice to the issues of our current times. Problematic for the Irish feminist, of course, but the song is interesting in its return to an ancient cultural form. “Clanrye Side” refers to the Clanrye River near Newry, which was an aquatic fixture in the landscape of Sands’s childhood. If Van has given us something with which to celebrate and exude joy, Sands has given us something to think about.
Finally, Mary Black has resurfaced from semi-retirement to present “Mary Black—Orchestrated,” a new studio album she recorded with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. This album revisits and re-orchestrates some of Black’s biggest hits over the years, reimagined with the help of conductor Brian Byrne. For example, the album includes Black’s well-known hit “No Frontiers” and the Joni Mitchell song “The Urge for Going.” The scope of the album reminds us of the popular singer’s prolificacy, including thirteen studio albums over the course of her career.
Mary Black has also recently been the subject of an RTE documentary, entitled “Mary Black: No Frontiers,” which proves, in and of itself, how Black’s voice has become an identity marker for late 20th-century Ireland. Her recent appearance on the Late Late Show,” available on YouTube, suggests the same. “The documentary also features a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Mary Black—Orchestrated,” which was just released at the end of November. Black will return to the National Concert Hall for a special and rare performance on St. Patrick’s Day in 2020.
Van Morrison, Sands and Black all remind us that there is no need to mourn the passing of the year—that there is always more work, more youthfulness, more music to look forward to.