OC Register - BEN WENER
Van Morrison ventures into the mystic once more
His return to the groundbreaking classic 'Astral Weeks' four decades since its release was a thing of rare beauty at the Bowl.
So much has been said about Van Morrison's 1968 mystical masterpiece "Astral Weeks," so many accolades heaped upon it by every bastion of rock journalism, it almost seems redundant to extol its virtues all over again, even when Morrison's revival of it this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl demands it.
Recorded 40 years ago in roughly two sessions by a difficult, down-on-his-luck 22-year-old from Belfast, a budding visionary who up to that point was known only for the sweet single "Brown Eyed Girl" and (to a lesser degree) as the frontman for Them, "Astral Weeks" remains an unquestionably astonishing achievement.
A singular, impressionistic fusion of jazz and folk and spirituality with transformative power – a nocturnal stream-of-consciousness song cycle as rapturous as a sudden burst of sunshine after a thunderstorm – the work is all of a piece, with all but the haunting "Beside You" and the feverish feel of "The Way Young Lovers Do" roughly built out of the same three chords transposed to different keys. Yet pluck any of its eight meditative songs out of context and each stands as its own deep listening experience.
It's one of few truly perfect albums worthy of descriptors like "inspired" and "groundbreaking," and it consistently and justifiably places in at least the Top 20 (often the Top 10) of most any credible list of the greatest albums of all-time.
Elvis Costello has described it as "still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium." The critic Lester Bangs, in selecting it his "desert island disc" in the 1979 collection of essays "Stranded," once said of its tortured pain and devotional release that "there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work." At the time of its release, tumultuous both for its creator and the world in general, "It was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction."
Yet for all its significance, "Astral Weeks," like the Velvet Underground's output during that era, never sold especially well, failing to crack Billboard's Top 200 albums chart. And though some songs became part of Morrison's regular repertoire – particularly "Cypress Avenue," long his show-closer during the '70s – he was never able to properly tour behind it.
"It received no promotion from Warner Bros. – that's why I never got to play the songs live," he recently told Rolling Stone. "I had always wanted to play the record live and fully orchestrated – that is what this is all about. I always like live recording and I like listening to live records, too. I'm not too fond of being in a studio – it's too contrived and too confining. I like the freedom of live, in-the-moment sound."
Which brings us to these Bowl shows, in which Morrison played "Astral Weeks" in its entirety for the first time – and also to the ever-present question of just how in-the-moment Van would get while revisiting such heady material.
Answer: very, although not so much in the first half of Friday's opener.
Morrison has rarely been the sort of performer to burn from the get-go. Unsurprisingly, then, though his first set was loaded with thematically complementary selections – "Saint Dominic's Preview," the whole second side of 1979's "Into the Music," "the greatest side of music Morrison has created since 'Astral Weeks,'" critic Dave Marsh once declared – much of it felt like prolonged warm-up, enjoyably workmanlike rather than reinvigorating.
Entertaining as it was to watch the stoic, suit-stuffed 63-year-old conclude that opening portion with an unusually generous triptych of "Moondance" (played cooler, like Sting's "Consider Me Gone") and "Brown Eyed Girl" (blissful as ever) and "Gloria" (which never found its forcefulness), it nonetheless felt like it was done somewhat out of obligation, perhaps for having charged $350 for choice seats. ("OK, so that's what you want," he said after "Moondance." "I get the picture.")
The "Astral Weeks" set, however, was subtly magical, surely evoking memories for everyone in attendance of that first time they felt the album wash over them. In large part that sensation can be attributed to Morrison's attention to detail, starting with the inclusion of upright bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner, whose unmistakable styles were featured on the original recording.
Likewise, despite how Morrison brought his usual instinctive flair for expansion and clearer definition to these long-neglected pieces, he made sure to keep to set structures. When these concerts come out on vinyl (by Christmas, we're told) and CD and DVD (by January, most likely), compare his increasingly overcome vamping here on "Madame George" or "Ballerina" to the real thing. Check the way his "t-t-t-tongue gets t-t-t-t-t- … every time I t-t-t-try to s-s-s-speak" in "Cypress Avenue" to how it got all tied up in '68. I suspect the similarities will be striking.
How long, I wondered, has it been since some of these songs have been performed live? Were some of them ever played? And how far back at times did Van journey in his mind, to that place "way down home in the backstreets" where he ventured "in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams," found Madame George playing dominos in drag and came across a "sugar baby with champagne eyes … pink champagne eyes … who stole my heart away"?
And just what was the meaning behind rearranging the running order? Side 1's finisher "Cypress Avenue" was moved to Side 2. Album closer "Slim Slow Slider" became the third track of the set, and "Madame George" was its goodbye, before a brief encore of "Listen to the Lion." (The William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre at the University of California-size crowd wanted at least one more song; they stood clapping for five minutes after the house lights came up, trying to make the ultimate rarity – a genuine encore – a reality, but to no avail.)
Who knows why he did that? It's hard enough to properly assess why he felt compelled to revisit "Astral Weeks" so many decades later in the first place (though might I recommend "Moondance" gets its due in 2010?). As a lifelong fan of the album, though, I'm grateful he did return to it. This experience may not have been as profound an accomplishment as, say, Brian Wilson completing and performing his lost masterwork "SMiLE" after almost as long in the dark. But it was every bit as beautiful a thing to witness.
L.A. Weekly - Randall Roberts
Sell the rest of your portfolio. Forgo fancy dinners for the rest of November. Break your lame date and call your soul mate. Do what you have to do, I swear, to get a ticket to tonight's Van Morrison show at the Hollywood Bowl. If you at all have ever been moved by a Morrison song, if you've wondered whether age has worn his voice, tore away at his heart or passion, you should make a pilgrimage.
Last night he answered. It was everything you'd want out of such a performance: he played his 1968 album Astral Weeks with a what seemed like a 144-piece orchestra -- strings and brass and bells and flutes and guitars. (I think I counted 18 or so, but it's a blur.) Xylophones cascaded up the slope of the Bowl as if carried on chariots, strings slithered and swirled through the air, horns brayed. At one point Morrison cranked on his white acoustic guitar like he was Joe Strummer.
And, of course, that voice, purer, stronger, heartier, and way way crazier than ever. He went places no sane human could visit, deep, gutteral, angry, cornered-prize-fighter places. He whinnied, he honked, he trilled, he baaa-ed like a baby lamb, machine-gunned. He pushed mumbles through his harmonica solos, conjured Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, grunted out lyrics. During "Slim Slow Slider," the words rolled out of his mouth with anguish "I know you're dying baby#and I know you know it too#everytime I see you I just don't know what to do." During "Cyprus Avenue," his "tuh-tuh-t-t-tuh-t-tongue" got "ta-t-t-t-ta-tied" as he spit out his story.
What made it so magical, though, was the beauty that surrounded Morrison's voice, the lush yet loose arrangements that simultaneously drew on Nashville and Memphis, London and Dublin, New Orleans, New York and Chicago. The trio of vocalists doubled on bells and guitars, the band offered xylophones, a harpsichord, piano, precise percussion (that ever present high-hat, grooving above the fray), stand-up bass, violin. They didn't miss a note.
I'm angling for a ticket for tonight's show, so if anybody's got an extra, holler. Because if he plays "T.B. Sheets" in that first set and I miss it, I just don't know what I'd do.
Need further incentive? LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas sat down with Morrison and the Beverly Hills Hotel last week. It's a fantastic piece. Also, check Lester Bangs' brilliant essay on Astral Weeks.
L.A. Times - Randy Lewis
For anyone who wasn't at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night, there'd be little chance of explaining how Van Morrison's repetition of one seemingly innocuous sentence -- "This is a train" -- could turn into a deeply spiritual incantation.
But transcendence is what Morrison has been after with his music from the beginning, and it's what he achieved frequently on Friday, when he played his watershed 1968 album "Astral Weeks" live in its entirety for the first time. That included the repetitive vocal workout on the "train" phrase from "Madame George," one of the cornerstone songs of "Astral Weeks," an empathetic portrait of a transvestite's journey through the streets of Belfast, Morrison's birthplace.
To these ears, it evolved from statement ("This is a train") to question ("Is this a train?") to invitation~command ("Get on the train!"), an intensely moving progression that crystallized his alchemist's approach to music.
He's long known the power of a mantra -- the chanting of a word, phrase or verse has become a potent signature of his music. Every good gospel preacher knows the cumulative power of repetition. Morrison doesn't preach, he seeks -- an answer, or communion -- and the chant becomes his method in relentless pursuit of one or both. When everyday language just wouldn't do, he shifted to syllables, growls, moans, sometimes just phonemes, anything that would take him, and his audience, where he wanted to go.
In "Beside You" it was the phrase "you breathe in - you breathe out" looped back on itself enough to replicate the fundamental life process. For "Cyprus Avenue," he sputtered out words, "My Generation" style, about being tongue-tied in the presence of his beloved. Fiddle player Tony Fitzgibbon paralleled him with skittering bowed runs while pianist Roger Kellaway dribbled out notes accordingly.
And in the climactic "Madame George" it was the circular "the loves to love the loves to love the loves to love."
True to form, he showed no interest in recreating what he did 40 years ago in a New York recording studio, but was focused on revamping the song structure dramatically in service of the present.
The performance opened, as the album does, with the title song, and was followed by "Beside You." He then abandoned the original's song sequence by continuing with the album's closer, "Slim Slow Slider," and then moving into a 1-2 punch created by placing the two jazz waltzes, "Sweet Thing" and "The Way Young Lovers Do" back to back. The arrangement impressively balanced competing time signatures, a ¾ waltz seamlessly working in tandem with a subservient 4-4 pulse.
The wondrous youthful timbre of his voice then has evolved over the years into a richer, fuller instrument , with every bit of its remarkable elasticity very much intact.
The poetic imagery he crafted for "Astral Weeks" was light-years beyond the straightforward narratives of his early rock hits with Them, such as "Here Comes the Night" and "Gloria," or even his first solo hit "Brown Eyed Girl," the latter two reconstructed during the show's career-spanning first half. He reached forward as far as "The Healing Game" but spent most of that first portion tapping the '70s and '80s material he's visited only sporadically in concert in recent years.
It was easy to see why Morrison said he'd always wanted to do "Astral Weeks" live with the kind of large and resourceful band that backed him at the Bowl. As it turned out, that band did not include bassist Richard Davis, who'd been on the original recording sessions, because Davis had a last-minute family matter come up, Kellaway said Saturday. Instead, longtime Morrison band member David Hayes handled the woody stand-up instrument that's so crucial to the album's unique sonic palette.
The jazz-rooted compositions of "Astral Weeks" are poetic stories of young love and the quest to find one's place in life. They were, and remain, ideal source material for musical improvisation that gives way to the sense of wonder for which Morrison has always striven.
It was a magical night...Van dug deep into his soul tonight. Look for the set list...some surprises. After doing Astral Weeks (new order for the songs)...he ended with Listen to the Lion. It was Video
taped...lots to star sightings. Robbie Robertson was four rows in front of where I was sitting. It is great to meet so many Van fans from the four corners of the earth.
He did Troubadours from Into the Music along with Angeliou. Highlights for me were Ballerina and Madame George.
Get on the train...this is the train...the train..the train...the train...get on the train.
Spread your wings...angel child...all you got to do is ring a bell...step right up Ballerina.