A Precise, but Mirthless, Tribute to ‘Astral Weeks’


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Van Morrison was shouting his way through “A Fool for You” — “Ray Charles!” he yelled after the song’s opening line — when the cord fell out of his microphone, leaving the Irish soul man singing unaided for a brief spell before musing, “We’ll have to do that again, right?”

But even when the mic was rebuilt, he held it far from his mouth, roaring the words while still leaving the audience straining to hear. Everyone in the room was working hard. It was, as these things go, a moment: unprocessed, imperfect, jolting.

Still, surprise was not why a sold-out crowd was gathered at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. Mr. Morrison was paying tribute to Astral Weeks, his most well-regarded album but also, for a singer with several pop hits to his name, a surprise: it never appeared on the Billboard album chart.

This return trip wasn’t quite a celebration, though. Nor was it a re-evaluation or much of a revision. Instead, it often felt like obligation and, accordingly, Mr. Morrison treated it perversely for much of the night.

First came the delayed gratification: he began with an hourlong set consisting mostly of album cuts and curios. Occasionally he was clarion clear — the soft-loud dynamics of “So Quiet in Here” were arresting, and “Who Drove the Red Sports Car” was an impassioned holler (“Read your Bible! Read your Bible!”). When he strayed from his own songbook, he sounded invigorated, as if trying to renew his lineal claims: the aforementioned Ray Charles cover, soon followed by Mr. Morrison playing scraping, arch alto sax on the standard “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

But too often, Mr. Morrison mumbled, either in a race to get through lyrics or in a struggle to remember their outlines. And his communication with his band often felt fraught as well, leaving the impression of a brusque taskmaster, not an organic channeler. Rather than look at their instruments, the musicians mostly focused on him, waiting to see when he’d drop his elbow like a wrestler to cut them short, or when he might stop noodling on his harmonica, so everyone could get back to playing. Richie Buckley in particular, did yeoman’s work, on flute, saxophones, and on “A Town Called Paradise,” a bizarre, bonhomous call-and-response with Mr. Morrison that had the star cackling before he walked off stage for intermission, band still playing.

Mr. Morrison has said that he wanted to give the rarely performed songs on Astral Weeks a proper live treatment, which in this show meant a full backing band, superfluous string section and all, and a switch from white dress shirt to black, matching the rest of Mr. Morrison’s outfit, from fedora to leather pants.

Astral Weeks the album is eight songs long, though really it sounds like 30 small explosions stitched together. Recorded with an assemblage of jazz heavies, it’s full of tiny, impressive gestures, a clever and thoughtful showcase of bendable songwriting and casually assured arrangement,

Last week Mr. Morrison released Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Listen to the Lion/EMI), recorded in November. But this tribute, like that one, was somewhat deflated, with a presentation that was precise but often mirthless.

An oversize band may be required to pull off all of this album’s tiny flourishes, but often Mr. Morrison, and this very delicate album, seemed suffocated, a product of overinstrumentation and his own limitations.

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