Continuing in the new direction of tribute music that he took with his last album, Heroes, Manning now brings us Woodstock 2019, an intriguing pastiche of several prominent musicians of the 70s.
Unlike Heroes, though, this new collection is not just a celebration of the chosen artists. It's a wishful, whimsical venture into the land of might-have-been, the country of What If.
Taking as its starting point the sudden, early deaths of a number of pop icons in the 70s, Manning postulates what might have happened had it not been for those deaths. Taking as a starting point the influence these singers had on the youth of the day, he suggests that had those people lived, they might have been the catalyst needed to turn humanity, as it were, on its axis, to redirect us into a new era of civilisation, a world where there was universal peace, where countries shared instead of invading, and where climate change had been reversed.
This vision of an alternative future, of what might have been if humanity's eyes had been on the prize of civilisation rather than of prosperity, is heart-breaking in its distance from the world we know today, yet it is in the context of this vision that Manning's songs must be heard.
There has always been an element of the protest song in Manning's work, so it was no surprise to find Bob Dylan among the lineup in this album, along with the Beatles, the Doors, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. At this point I must confess to a certain inadequacy as reviewer; my limited familiarity with the oevres of both Hendrix and The Doors made it hard for me to evaluate those songs in the context of the overall album.
Be that as it may, the Hendrix songs did, to me, evoke the period wonderfully well - especially Sea of Tranquility, with its meditative hippie tone. The Bowie songs, in particular the sad, haunting Goodbye Earth, brought to mind the classic Major Tom. The soft voice of Bruce Haymes melded perfectly with the lyrics of the George Harrison tribute, What Might Have Been, and this one really had, for me, that authentic Beatles sound. The long guitar fugue in Behind That Door had a very Doors-like sound to me, although with these songs I rather missed the gritty voice of Jeff Burstin, who seems no longer to be part of the team.
It was in the Dylan songs that I felt Manning gave us his best. In Freedom Air we see a return to the style that works so well for Manning, the spoken poem with musical backing, with its wry, but never bitter, social comment, and in Life Happens, my personal favourite, the author shines through with his kindly, humorous observations of Melbourne life and his fellow humans. This is more the old-style Bernie Manning work that we saw in his early albums.
Sadly, there are none of the comic monologues that Manning does so well; I noted their absence with sorrow, although I must admit they wouldn't have fitted the rather sombre theme of this album.
All around, a good listening experience, and a timely reflection on just how far humanity has walked down the Dark Path.