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Van Morrison: “Astral Weeks” At The Hollywood Bowl

Maximum Performance

It was an historic occasion by any standard, but not one without precedent. In the last decade or so, major artists such as the Who, Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee & Love and even the Zombies have taken to performing in concert the albums that have cemented their status in the pantheon of popular music's legendary masters. Quadrophenia, Pet Sounds, Forever Changes and Odessey And Oracle have enjoyed that treatment, and on Nov. 7th and 8th--unbelievably, to many longtime fans--Astral Weeks was performed by Van Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl.

Originally released in 1968, Astral Weeks is regarded by nearly every cultural commentator as one of the high points of popular music, Morrison's best-ever work, and indeed among the top three or four pop albums ever recorded. And in the 40 years since its release, with the exception of "Cypress Avenue," fans have had little to no chance to ever hear Morrison performing any of the material from this classic disc; indeed, aside from his earlier hits "Brown Eyed Girl," "Gloria" and "Here Comes The Night"--the latter two by his mid-'60s rock group Them--Morrison has focused most of his live performances on material that appeared on Astral Weeks' successor, Moondance, and the many albums that would follow.

Promoted as a one-time only affair, which would be recorded and filmed for swift release on DVD, CD and vinyl, the show represented the veritable chance-of-a-lifetime for any rapid fan of Van Morrison--and in the course of four decades, there are many rapid fans indeed.

The verdict? You should have been there.

Divided into two halves, the performance opened with a sampler of Morrison's more interesting non-Astral Weeks material, much of which he's performed throughout his career. Notably, though, the focus was on some of the dreamier, extended material he's recorded--"And The Healing Has Begun," "All In The Game/You Know What They're Writing About," and "Angeliou," for example--as well as "St. Dominic's Preview," "Wavelength," and--perhaps inevitably, since it was a night of looking deliberately backward--"Moondance," "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Gloria."  I for one was hoping for a taste of Morrison's other milestone--Veedon Fleece--but no luck.

Following the break, the second set was wholly devoted to Astral Weeks. Morrison's band was large and accomplished (though bassist Richard Davis, who'd played on the original album and had been promised, was absent and longtime Morrison bassist David Hayes stood in), and the initial moments, when the band began playing the opening chords of the album-opening title track, were absolutely chilling. Morrison remains in fine form vocally, and his tendency to scat and embrace verbal repetition--a trademark for him, really--worked to this classic material's advantage.

Interestingly, Morrison strayed from Astral Weeks' original song sequence: album closer "Slim Slow Slider" came third, after "Beside You," and "Madame George"--audibly sung as "Madame Joy" by Morrison--concluded the cycle. It was bizarre in one sense--if he was actually intent on literally performing the entire album live, why mess with a sequence that is considered near holy by some? That said, though, in the few, rare interviews Morrison has given--and the even fewer times he's referred to Astral Weeks, he's occasionally expressed some reservations with the final result.  [I'm likewise reminded of how another very classic album--Big Star's Third--had its initial sequence "fixed" upon its later CD reissue and, as a result, messed up the storyline personally envisioned by some of that album's more ardent fans. Oh well.]

The performance was wonderful--a little less intimate instrumentally, perhaps, but played and sung remarkably well. And to hear some of these songs actually performed live, onstage--the magnificent "The Way Young Lovers Do,"  "Beside You" and "Slim Slow Slider"--was very much the definition of magical. That the entire show will be available to the general public via DVD is, speaking as a Van fan, a blessing beyond belief.

In all, how reassuring that Morrison is comfortable enough with his talent to look back and serve up the material that in some ways must be something of a millstone for him. How often have we been subjected to artists so anxious to prove that they haven't lost it--that their new material is "just as good" as the music that made their career--that we sat passively and watched, waiting for a glimmer of former glories? Morrison closed the night with an encore performance of "Listen To The Lion," and the song--like the man himself--was, as ever, roaring.

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