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Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl – Van Morrison

Listen to the Lion

With Van Morrison there’s a demarcation line represented by his album Astral Weeks that separates the diehards from the mainstream fans who gush over the hits/compilation packages. Although it’s been included on a number of Best Album of All Time lists, I don’t recall how I became encouraged to pick up a copy of Astral Weeks. Maybe it was just one step among my ongoing collecting of Morrison’s massive recorded output. (Probably things slowed down due to the insanity of not only obtaining Elvis Costello re-issues but then dropping cash for his re-re-issues) In any case, it feels more like Morrison’s album chose me. Listening to it generates a calming, hypnotic effect that can be rarely found on any other release by him or anyone else.

While I have no doubt that much work was involved in its writing and recording, the collection of eight songs passes by with stream-of-conscious musicality and lyrics that give the impression that Morrison was merely a receptor who conjured the words from the heavens. Each instrument as well as the vocals seems to be coming from different paths yet, rather than being an excursion in free form chaos, they become a unified whole. At times, the title track or “Sweet Thing” seems ready to break apart but neither does; such elasticity ends up making them even more startling. And it’s in those specific places where the album rises to not only being a work of art but a sonic act of beauty. I never question it, never look too deeply for fear that the magic would vanish by peering behind the architect’s curtain. I accept it and allow myself to be bathed and absorbed by the Sound.

Hearing that Morrison would be transferring this material to a live setting felt almost sacrilegious like Picasso adding naturalistic elements to “Guernica” as it hung in a museum. Despite my trepidation, Morrison, the artist, the creator, has earned the right, and the trust, to tackle his own work. On Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, the song poem transitions from its ethereal jazz folk core to incorporate elements of his swing, soul and blues obsessions.

With a full band featuring a string section and Jay Berliner from the original 1968 recording on hand, the music takes on an immediacy missing from the studio version. Morrison even changes the sequencing of the 40 year old release by moving “Slim Slow Slider” from its spot as the final track to the third number performed. “Madame George” is now the last number and becomes a proper wrap up. Also, “The Way Young Lovers Do” and “Cyprus Avenue” switch places. A purist would look at this as tampering, but this reconstituted edition does not dilute the overall force. There’s even a bit of showbiz attached to the overemphasized stuttering (“My tongue gets tied/Every time I try to speak”) in “Cypress Avenue.” The title track is now renamed, “Astral Weeks I Believe I’ve Transcended,” and in its live form the song changes the balance from offhanded sonic majesty to something with that gains power through the sheer force of a live performance. A similar feeling is elicited with “Sweet Thing” while “The Way Young Lovers Do” equals its studio counterpart and, like the rest of the songs here, bursts through into a new dimension due to the energy given to it by Morrison’s crack backing unit.

The grandeur of “Beside You” remains true even in this new setting. The album ends with two non-Astral tracks that were played during the two-night run last November at the Hollywood Bowl. Both support the musical ideas of the source material. “Listen to the Lion The Lion Speaks” from Saint Dominic’s Preview sheds light that the sonic vision of Astral Weeks-imbued further material, while “Common One” (a number that is not the title track from the 1980 album of the same name, but contains lyrical portions of “Summertime in England” and “A Town Called Paradise”) juxtaposes the inspirations from several sources and blends them into an animated encore of call-and-response vocals.

Unfortunately, with these concerts and subsequent releases on CD, LP and DVD this would have been a perfect time for Morrison to toss in a couple of full numbers (or more) from the Common One album, a sequel of sorts to “Astral Weeks” that’s weighed down occasionally by indulgence but, just like its musical ancestor, deserves to find it devotees. That wish can be reality at a later date. For now we have two Astral Weeks to feed our minds at different times of the day and in different ways.

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