Last fall, when I read Van Morrison would be revisiting his acknowledged masterpiece Astral Weeks in a live performance at the Hollywood Bowl, I was startled. Morrison has rarely played any of the tunes from the 1968 album in a live performance during his five-decade career. In fact, known for his sometimes surly attitude on stage, it’s been reported more than a few times that he’s scoffed at audience requests for some of those tunes admonishing “I don’t play those songs anymore.”
He’s also known to be, at times, a tempermental live artist. I saw him play at Lake Compounce in Bristol, CT in the early ’90s when that venue put on concerts. The highlight of the show was when Morrison wasn’t even on stage. At the time, jazz-pop vocalist Georgie Fame, who had several worldwide hits in the ’60s including Yeh, Yeh and The Ballad Of Bonnie & Clyde, was leading Van’s band. Fame came out alone and played two songs accompanying himself on Hammond B-3, Willie Dixon’s I Love The Life I Live in a Mose Allison style and Yeh, Yeh, both outstanding solo renditions. Van then came out, played a 50-minute set, left the stage and did not return despite a standing ovation.
He’s also been known for giving brilliant live performances and he looks positively happy on the cover of the CD release for Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, which will also be released on DVD (no date yet). There’s good reason. Morrison returns to this unique and inspired collection of songs and adds something new to each of them, starting with his impassioned, eccentric vocal phrasing to the impeccable arrangements for the ensemble, which expands on the original six-piece lineup.
The performance stays true to the acoustic concept of the original album but adds two acoustic guitars, including Jay Berliner who played on Astral Weeks, to Van’s acoustic, grand piano by Roger Kellaway, a member of several of Van’s bands in the past three decades, Paul Moran’s trumpet to Morrison stalwart Richie Buckley on flute and sax, and a four-piece string section, two violins, two violas. Longime band member David Hayes plays upright bass and iconic Van guitarist John Platania, who played on some of Morrison’s great early ’70s work, is added on two non-Astral Weeks tracks along with backing vocalist Bianca Thornton.
Morrison also loves to interpolate songs and he does this on Astral Weeks with I Believe I’ve Transcended, Slim Slow Slider/I Start Breaking Down, Cypress Avenue/You Came Walking Down, Ballerina/Move On Up and one of the encores Listen To The Lion/The Lion Speaks.
Morrison’s voice is in great shape for this outing. His lyrics are often almost unintelligible, except for the track Beside You on which he enunciates letter perfect throughout, but that is a defining trait to his vocal stylings. No one has mastered the combination of scatting and vamping on a single line over and over as well as Morrison, lending multiple meanings to a repeated lyric as in his stutter over “my tongue gets tired’ in Cypress Avenue. Truly one of our great R&B singers of the past half-century.
In many ways, each song is not only updated but somehow improved a little over the original. He makes use of a 6/8 jazz waltz on three of the tunes – Astral Weeks, Sweet Thing and The Way Young Lovers Do – and they all swing.
All the soloists are inventive and interesting, including a section of Slim Slow Slider in which three are back-to-back, including Buckley’s frantic alto sax. Sweet Thing features a poignant and fleeting string accompaniment, including Tony Fitzgibbon’s violin solo, and Morrison pulls out the harmonica to good effect on the tag.
Vibraphone is added to the opening of The Way That Young Lovers Do, a jazz waltz groove that burns for a scant three minutes, accented by tasteful strings and horns. Ballerina and Madame George complete the Astral portion of the set, leading into the first encore Listen To The Lion. It would be difficult to improve on the Saint Dominic’s Preview’s version of Lion, which breathes and swells as a living entity. This one doesn’t but is a fine rendition with complementing strings and Morrison’s mouthy harp in the instrumental section.
Common One, the second encore, is perhaps the highlight of the set. Morrison’s call-and-answer lyrics with Buckley, something they perfected in the ’80s and ’90s, is riveting and drives to a scorching Buckley solo before a reprise on the lyrics.
The last time I saw Morrison was at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT on a tour in support of 2002’s Down The Road, one of his best albums from this decade. That night, as on this recording, Morrison was in fine form and good humor, perhaps because of the addition of Solomon Burke, who opened for him and joined him on Fast Train.
It’s forty years on since Astral Weeks, an album that didn’t sell that well on first release but almost instantly became one of the most influential records of all time. This release is a wonderful reminder of that touchstone work and does the original justice and more. Rave on, Van, rave on.