Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2009, Volume 16, #4
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue April 28, 2009, 00:30 AM CDT
In the 40 years that have passed since its release, Astral Weeks has become one of the most legendary albums in the pantheon of rock music. Quickly recorded on a minimal budget, the endeavor elevated Van Morrison from relative obscurity to the same lofty heights as fellow poets Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. Those desiring insight regarding how Astral Weeks was assembled should listen to material from The Bang Sessions, which has surfaced frequently in various incarnations over the years. Within the collectionís contents, one can hear Morrison, who then was only 22, as he guides a seemingly indifferent group of musicians through the challenging arrangements that he envisioned for many of the songs that found their way onto the final endeavor. Astral Weeks is a work that is both transitional and transcendent. Until recently, however, Morrison has been reluctant to play many of its tunes in concert. In fact, while the outing holds a cherished place in many music collections, Morrison has always been sparing in his praise of the set, which many consider his masterpiece.
Nevertheless, fans could be forgiven for thinking that Astral Weeks is part of a catalogue that Morrison would rather just forget. The piquing of his famous temper combined with his refusal to cater to the desires of his followers have contributed to this perspective, as has his tendency to avoid acknowledging his audience in concert. Morrison notoriously has gone so far as to perform with his back to the crowd. Indeed, his stance has often been openly hostile, and he has been known to berate people who have paid good money to see him, just because they want to hear a set stuffed full of his greatest hits. In hindsight, there have been indications in recent years that he was ready to reassess Astral Weeks, especially considering that songs such as Cyprus Avenue and Sweet Thing increasingly have become a part of his set lists without any accompanying snide remarks.
Morrison certainly isnít the first artist to revisit his earlier works in an official capacity. Bob Marley, John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot, and dozens of other singers have reinterpreted their albums and songs for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they have been compelled to reconfigure old tunes as an easy way of satisfying the demands of a record contract; at other times, dissatisfaction with the original recordings has driven countless perfectionists to try to improve upon their materialís perceived flaws. There also are those who simply have used this method as a means of regaining the licenses to their compositions.
For Morrison, all three factors undoubtedly came into play as he made plans to perform Astral Weeks in concert. As a musician who is older, more experienced, and has gained a worldwide reputation, Morrison now can afford to hire the right musicians to re-create the songs from Astral Weeks in a way that was not possible for him to do in 1968. Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl also represents the first release to be issued for his own Listen to the Lion imprint, and from a practical perspective, a new version of Astral Weeks is a safe entree into a troubled industry. Finally, Morrison conceded in a recent interview that he has never owned the original masters to Astral Weeks and, hence, has had no control over his compositions or their licensing.
In the end, the reasons behind Morrisonís decision to present Astral Weeks in its entirety last year arenít as important as how the results of his foray sound. Initial press from the shows was favorable, and rumors of a CD and DVD release of the concerts filled many fans with both anticipation and dread. After all, there is something inherently terrifying about the notion of messing with one of pop musicís sacred cows. Would the new version of Astral Weeks ruin the experience of the original recording, or would it reveal previously hidden textures and ideas that lurked beneath its surface?
Fortunately, the news is mostly good. While Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl will never replace the original album in the heart of any listener, it does provide an experience that is challenging and thoroughly satisfying. From a sonic perspective, the music is lush and masterful. Likewise, the instrumentation and arrangements are better, and, objectively speaking, the new rendition contains more depth. The meditative trance that was conjured almost entirely by Morrisonís voice on the 1968 effort is supported and enhanced on Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl by arrangements that elevate the whole affair to a level that surpasses the original. Other than a few problems with the tempos, all of which appear very early in the set, the music is transcendent.
Although his pipes are more ragged and his diction is more slurred, Morrison is a much better singer now than he was in 1968. He gets into the groove more easily than he ever could in the past. The songs on Astral Weeks are about a journey from innocence to experience. The pain of loss and transient joys of love are all underscored by a repressed and writhing sexual tension that runs unacknowledged through each of the collectionís tracks. Morrison now is able to explore these nuances with the authority that eluded him in his youth. While these songs in their original casting may have expressed a range of emotions that was revelatory and true, it isnít normal for a 22-year-old to possess the kinds of life experiences necessary for evoking all of the shades and subtleties of the subject matter that Morrison was exploring.
Consequently, within the original version of Astral Weeks, there is a sense that Morrison was approximating and mimicking experiences with which he had not yet come to grips. This tension is part of the magic and greatness of Astral Weeks, and it is something that would be impossible for a man in his 60s to re-create. There simply has been too much water under the bridge for a person who has lived fully to step into the shoes of his much younger self and attempt to evoke the same feelings and moods. Wisely, on Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Morrison never attempts to do this. Instead, he establishes a sense of sage-like oversight as he revisits his material. It is breathtaking to listen as his voice literally skips and jumps through planes and experiences that he obviously has pondered time and time again over the years. The subtle textures in his voice allow him to embody the wisdom of these songs in a way that sounds effortless. This is a presentation of Astral Weeks that occurs 40 years further down the road. It not only is better, but it also is more sensual and powerful than one could have hoped.
Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl includes all of the songs from Astral Weeks, but Morrison has altered the original sequencing in order to achieve a storytelling arc that is more satisfying. By moving Slim Slow Slider earlier into his set and finishing his tale with Madame George, the emotional journey through which the singer takes his audience becomes more comprehensible if only because the lyrical and musical ideas he presents are able to reach a more perfect sense of completion.
It is safe to say that as Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl progresses, the performances become more intense. After a tentative beginning with Astral Weeks/I Believe Iíve Transcended, Morrisonís vocals become more assured, the grooves shake themselves free, and the music gains power and fluidity. It is truly inspiring to hear Morrison become more involved, committed, and fully in control with every phrase he utters, and by the time he hits Slim Slow Slider, his voice seems to float above the arrangements as he offers some of the most sublime scatting ever to be committed to tape. Later in the set, he nails Madame George, and one cannot help but to be in awe of how words that had sounded tortured 30 minutes earlier now glide like honey from his supple throat. The grumpy and ungainly curmudgeon is nowhere in evidence. In truth, there are few moments in music as beautiful, perfect, and weightless as when, toward the end of Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Morrison intones "get on the train, get on the train, this is a train, get on the train." To experience only one such instance of creation and perfection would be enough for most music fans, but Morrison has been building on such moments for more than 40 years.
Given the relatively short running-time of Astral Weeks, Morrison returned to the stage to perform a pair of lengthy encores: Listen to the Lion and Common One. Both of these songs fit perfectly into the mood established by Astral Weeksí song cycle. Morrisonís impassioned performances ó especially during the latter cut, with its refrain of "come to the mystic church" ó provide a perfect finale for Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
To return to the original nagging question that inevitably comes with a release such as this, is the new version of Astral Weeks an improvement over its predecessor? In short, the answer is no, though this is somewhat misleading. To compare the two renditions is to argue over the differing qualities of apples and oranges. Astral Weeks told the story of a 22-year-old man who was standing at the threshold of adulthood and change. When Morrison sings, "I think Iíve transcended," it is with an air of uncertainty and awe. It is a topic that ó as the voice suggests ó needs further exploration.
Astral Weeksí beckoning powers formed a declaration of intent, a vow. It was the work of a person who could feel more than he could express and intuit more than he truly understood. Today, songs like Slim Slow Slider, Madame George, and Cyprus Avenue ring with the authority of a voice that repeatedly has lived through the experiences that previously had been merely romanticized and sketched. The sense of yearning that characterized the original material has been replaced by the poise of the mature singer.
Therefore, Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is an accounting and an explication of a life spent on the road less traveled. Together, the album and the original rendition of Astral Weeks form bookends that reflect upon lifeís experiences from opposing perspectives. Like pianist Glen Gould, whose early and late career readings of Bachís Goldberg Variations exposed differences in his approach, Morrison offers a shorthand glimpse of the artistic concerns that have characterized his life.
Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl will never replace Astral Weeks, but this isnít necessarily its intent. Instead, it traces arcs across time, connecting youth with maturity and past experiences with present circumstances. It links the ache and disappointment of late adolescence with the knowledge of those who have survived their ordeals. Four decades have passed since many first found a kindred spirit in an unknown singer from Ireland, one who mourned lost love, missed opportunity, and spiritual frustration as he wandered along the road to Cyprus Avenue. Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, like its predecessor, is a rare, polished stone that, with time, will increase in beauty and resonance. It doesnít matter whether fans are new to Morrisonís work or whether theyíve memorized every grunt, groan, and impassioned sigh from his original recordings. Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is an album for the ages.
Of Further Interest...
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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