The current trend in recreating classic albums in concert is a mixed blessing. At a base level, these are pure nostalgia exercises. Without overt sentiment there wouldn't be so many assess in seats or merch sold. Being blunt, rare is the artist/band that can remotely reproduce the magic of their original recordings. Try as they might Roger Waters and David Gilmour are never going to nail the enduring grandeur of Dark Side of the Moon in a setting where garlic fries and endless rivers of beer are hawked alongside their efforts. Often it is the very personal relationship possible between the listener and a piece of music that is key to such elusive classic-ness." Jostled and distracted in a concert hall, we're unlikely to feel the same connection we find inside the folds of headphones or blasted by speakers in solitary, candle-lit sessions. Still, nostalgia can be really tasty and it's hard to begrudge musicians that choose to go this route. The audience kick has to be extraordinary, the fiscal rewards astounding and there's the chance something new will surface in their re-visitation.
Thus, with all these things in mind, I slipped on Van Morrison's unexpected walk down memory lane towards one of the landmark albums of the 20th century. Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl (released February 24 on Listen To The Lion Records) reproduces for the first time ever in a live setting his amazing 1968 record. If you've never heard it, well, your life is poorer for it. The levels of spiritually charged, unflinching wisdom on Astral Weeks are staggering. One of those pearlescent, out-of-time marvels, there's nothing quite like it before or after, even within Morrison's own catalog.
In what is likely his most famous essay, Lester Bangs wrote, Van Morrison never came this close to looking life square in the face again, no wonder he turned to Tupelo Honey and even Hard Nose the Highway with it's entire side of songs about falling leaves. In Astral Weeks and 'T.B. Sheets' he confronted enough for any man's lifetime. Of course, having been offered this immeasurably stirring and equally frightening gift from Morrison, one can hardly be blamed for not caring terribly much about Old, Old Woodstock and little homilies like 'You've got to Make It Through This World On Your Own' and 'Take It Where You Find It.'"
With Lester's words ringing in my head and Morrison's own spotty, if largely enjoyable catalog from the past 30 years in mind, I tread with trepidation into this live interpretation that begins with an unmistakably Irish voice announcing, Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you Astral Weeks." Besides the sheer strangeness of Van coming back to this one, especially presenting the album in its entirety before an audience, there's the instantly off-putting cover shot of him smiling, clearly having a good time. I've seen Morrison a half dozen times over the years and in the parlance of Fight Club, always found him to be a performer that gives you the ass or the crotch depending on his mood. Never have I suspected he was having a good time. It always seemed like work for him, and as fine as his performances have been on a technical level, warmth" isn't the first word I'd reach for in describing them. So, with grinning Van ushering us in the front door and a cordial brogue taking our coat, Live At The Hollywood Bowl commences. And one's heart swells. Immediately.
Like a vision quest, sweat lodge experience, some things cannot be reproduced. But, they can perhaps be approximated, and Live At The Hollywood Bowl delivers as fine a facsimile of Astral Weeks as anyone could offer. The original's central focus, Van's un-reproducible poetic mutterings, remains intact but diffused by more active instrumental coloring, much of the original hyper-intimacy inevitably lost to crowd roar and the clear urge to entertain, something that doesn't always serve the naked humanity and skin-to-skin closeness the studio versions allowed. However, the absolute striking force of the title track swiftly seizes us. This is a more playful interpretation of this music, and Morrison mixes up the track order and inserts bits of non-album material as it suits him. There's downright laughter in his powerful, near ageless voice on Ballerina," and the more orthodox Astral Weeks fans aren't likely to dig his changes or lightness of touch in places. That said, it may be a better tactic to shake things up a bit rather than pursue some spotless reproduction, and Morrison quietly acknowledges this with his choices.
The presence of original guitarist Jay Berliner provides significant connective tissue to the '68 vibe, and the entire large band plays with appropriate reverence and restraint. Upright bassist David Hayes is very good but he's unable to fully capture the ebullient beauty of Richard Davis' original performance. At times, the ensemble sounds like a more acoustic version of Morrison's stellar, cosmically charged early '80s electric band with Mark Isham and Pee Wee Ellis (The JB's). Fittingly, they draw from that lineup's catalog for a Common One" encore, tacked on after Madame George" makes her exit, alongside a lively Listen To The Lion/Lion Speaks" from Saint Dominic's Preview. There are no liner notes, just lyrics to every piece inside the booklet, and in this way Morrison makes the music tell a story. It is a positive one, where Van invites us to, Take a walk with meTo a town called Paradise/ SO we can be FREE!/ We gonna drink that wine."
Regardless of the reservations and qualifications, one fact remains certain and fully intact: This is healing music. Even removed from the perfect bubble that produced the original album, these songs leach sorrow from us, drawing out black blood and increasing our circulation so that we might rise again. The back cover of Live At The Hollywood Bowl has a bit of stuttering, excited prose from Van, which announces, This is a Trainto be Born AgainGet on the Trainto the Mystic Churchto the Brotherhood of the Lightto the Light in the Head." Even curmudgeonly Mr. Morrison realizes how special this work is and how much it can do to shift people towards the positive, the healed, the renewed. Just putting these songs back in the world, providing a new spotlight for them is a gift. Thank you, Van.
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