Friday, September 11, 2020

Van Morrison 39: Astral Weeks Live

For decades, Van Morrison brushed off most questions about his legendary Astral Weeks album. Seeing as he’s never been the type of performer to go back to the well, it was surprising indeed to hear that he would do a series of concerts celebrating the album’ 40th anniversary, performing it as a suite.
Even more astonishing, given the evidence on Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, is that he was really into it. Because it’s his baby, he juggled the original album sequence, and enhanced four of the pieces with new codas consisting of possibly extemporaneous, certainly copyrighted lyrics over the established vamp. (Jay Berliner, who played acoustic guitar on the original album, does the same here, alongside accompanists from all stages of Van’s concert career.)
After a brief introduction we head right into the title track, which sounds as good as it ever had. The detour into “I Believe I’ve Transcended” provides a mediation and scat on Caledonia, important enough that he printed them on the back cover. “Beside You” nicely blends the dreamy arrangement from the album with the arpeggiated riff from the early take, and once again he’s on top of the swirling melody. “Slim Slow Slider”, moved up from the conclusion, actually fits in its new slot, at least until he does his best to break his strings via furious strumming for the “I Start Breaking Down” coda. (And the crowd goes wild.) The program gets back on track with “Sweet Thing”, complete with his singing-through-the-harmonica trick.
The halves of the performance are still split just like the side titles on the record. Ergo, there ends “In The Beginning”, and now, on to “Afterwards”.
“The Way Young Lovers Do” is played well, but his enthusiasm seems to have waned; maybe he shouldn’t have started breaking down two songs earlier. “Cyprus Avenue” doesn’t have the dramatics of the ‘70s rendition, instead extrapolating on the “You Came Walking Down” idea for a few minutes, for a smooth transition into “Ballerina”, which gains some seductive energy well before the “Move On Up” coda. “Madame George” ends the suite, and thanks to the lyrics printed in the booklet, for the first time we have confirmation that he’s been singing about “Madame Joy” all these years. The song proceeds as we’d hope, then he leaves the stage while the emcee pumps the crowd for recognition.
The break is short, however, as Van’s back to sing “Listen To The Lion” (incidentally, the name of his new custom label) that’s about half the original length with an instrumental section called “The Lion Speaks” marred by the emcee reminding us that the singer is “Van the man! The one! The only!” What’s called “Common One” pulls in lyrics from “Summertime In England” and “A Town Called Paradise” while the sax player parrots his words back a la Brian Kennedy. (If you buy the LP version, you get a bonus performance of “Gloria”, complete with the Doors’ John Densmore on tambourine. And yes, that really is how he’s identified in the liner notes.)
As album recreations go, Astral Weeks Live is entertaining. It helps that both band and strings follow the record very closely, so we always know where we are. It’s a nice souvenir, even more so on DVD, and only underscores why the original has endured all this time.

Van Morrison Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl (2009)—

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