It’s not exactly big news these days when a musician elects to play a complete classic album live in its entirety. But leave it to Van Morrison—he of the restless spirit and sometimes-idiosyncratic view of his own catalog—to choose his brooding and ethereal 1968 masterpiece Astral Weeks rather than something more overtly commercial, like Moondance, Tupelo Honey or Wavelength. It turns out to be a perfect choice: Astral Weeks was Morrison’s first great solo work—an amazingly unified-sounding meditation on the mystery, joy and insecurity of young love, as well as poetic evocation of the little moments and places that transform the mundane into the transcendent. With its skittering flute, assertive stand-up bass and open-ended song structures, the album is often described as “jazzy,” but as we would learn through the years, it’s really just Van Morrison Music; he creates his own genre.
The live re-creation of the album at the Hollywood Bowl 40 years later is a triumph. Van has lost nothing as singer through the years—indeed, his voice is richer, warmer, more assured—and the temporal distance vanishes immediately as he launches into the opening “Astral Weeks.” You can feel that he’s right there in that world again. He assembled a fantastic band for the occasion, including original Astral Weeks guitarist Jay Berliner, and a few veterans from his Caledonia Soul Orchestra of the early ’70s—violinist Nancy Ellis, cellist Terry Adams, and (upright) bassist David Hayes. In fact, the arrangements are similar to ones used on some of this material in the CSO days, and the overall sound recalls that group to a degree. Also notable are Richie Buckley, whose reeds work is appropriately imaginative and free, and pianist Roger Kellaway, who is solid throughout. But its Van’s vocals—always searching for and finding nuance, always exploring—that carry the eight tunes that make up the main suite.
Van has changed the order of the songs a bit, but that’s fine—“Madame George” makes more sense as a set ender than “Slim Slow Slider” for instance. And what a treat it is to get two “bonus” tracks, both of which fit wonderfully well with the vibe of the Astral Weeks material: “Listen to the Lion” (one of my favorite songs in the world) and “Common One.” A DVD containing the full Astral Weeks performances as well as several other Van tunes, will be out in the next couple of months.
Must play: “Astral Weeks,” “Sweet Thing”
Producer: Van Morrison. Engineer: Mick Glossop. Mastering: Bernie Grundman