Van Morrison – Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl – Listen to the Lion, 50999 6 93423 2 5, 68:43 ***** [Distr. by EMI]:
(Van Morrison – vocals, Hammond organ, guitar, harmonica, producer; Jay Berliner – guitar; Tony Fitzgibbon – violin, viola; Roger Kellaway – grand piano; David Hayes – upright bass; Roger Ruggiero – drums; John Platania – guitar on tracks 9, 10; Paul Moran – harpsichord, trumpet; Richie Buckley – flute, saxophone; Sarah Jorey – 2nd rhythm guitar; Bianca Thornton – backing vocals on tracks 9, 10; Nancy Ellis – violin; Terry Adams – cello; Michael Graham – cello)
Few artists tagged as rock musicians have had the singularly individualistic career Van Morrison has enjoyed. For approximately 45 years, Morrison has charted a course that has produced over 40 solo projects that employ his unique combination of folk, blues, jazz, classical music motifs, Irish traditions, and poetic ruminations.
Morrison fans have their particular favorites, but many will cite Morrison’s sophomore release, Astral Weeks, as one of his most important song cycles and one of the best in his vast discography. Morrison chose to revisit his 1968 album for the first time in a live setting, and the result is Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, an ecstatic, myth-in-the-making performance that stands out as one of the momentous live recordings in Morrison’s or anyone else’s catalog. The ten tracks come from two Hollywood Bowl appearances held November 7 and 8, 2008, which were the apex of the Los Angeles concert season.
Morrison explains he reconsidered the older material because he wanted to perform his music the way he originally intended them to be: unabridged and raw, with sections of songs created live on stage. He succeeds beyond expectations. The ingredients still sound fresh and have a timeless quality. Morrison and his large ensemble, which includes Astral Weeks guitarist Jay Berliner, capture the essence of Morrison’s Caledonian soul music, while contributing new dynamics, cohesion, and a fluid spirituality.
Morrison decided to revamp the Astral Weeks running order to emphasize the connectivity of certain segments and provide for an overall unity missing from the initial placement. The title track opens the set with the vertical acoustic bass line that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has heard Astral Weeks, as well as Jay Berliner’s jazz-blues guitar runs. The live rendition has a slightly quicker tempo, but the tune flows flawlessly, with strings filling the holes. Tony Fitzgibbon’s strings and Richie Buckley’s flute float atop the arrangement. Morrison improvises with the players, delivering new vigor to his esoteric lyrics. He affixes a gospel flavor during the impromptu conclusion, “I Believe I’ve Transcended,” where Morrison sounds like an evangelist overcome by religious fervor.
Morrison follows with “Beside You,” which was decades ahead of its time and could have fit comfortably with Morrison’s ‘90s output, such as Hymns to the Silence. Basically a devotional love portrait, Morrison’s recounting of natural surroundings, and the essentials of living, are nearly cinematic, and he and the band remarkably convey the descriptive, visionary narrative. Morrison turns the refrain “To never, never wonder why at all” into a life-affirming mantra.
At this point in the proceedings, Morrison changes the sequencing, bringing in and also merging “Slim Slow Rider” and “I Start Breaking Down.” “Slim Slow Rider” is a pure distillation of Morrison’s Irish blues, illuminating Morrison’s pain, vulnerability, and foreboding. It’s a melancholy memory tale with almost too much emotional weight. But Morrison somehow keeps his confession from engulfing himself and the Hollywood Bowl crowd. Morrison and his band then effortlessly segue into “I Start Breaking Down,” a droning, bluesy drama where some may become lost in the moment.
While it does not seem possible, Morrison surpasses himself with the jazzy “Sweet Thing.” The mood is confident, and enhanced by his verse, “And I will never grow so old again,” and ambiguous references to champagne eyes and chariots. The strings give an ebullient feel juxtaposed by Morrison’s south side of Chicago harmonica and Berliner’s six-string picking. “Sweet Thing” is forward-looking and celebrates living in the now. Morrison again tweaks the running order, and maintains his hopeful stance, by swinging into an early St. Valentine’s gift to his audience, “The Way That Young Lovers Do,” which is fronted by Richie Buckley’s sylvan saxophone.
Morrison ratchets up the show with another one-two punch, dual-song combo: a bracing “Cypress Avenue,” which seamlessly blends with soulful “You Came Walking Down.” Morrison stutters out the words as he sings about being tongue tied when confronted by his lady love. Fitzgibbon and Berliner match Morrison’s stammering delivery with scurrying violin and elastic fretboard runs.
The Astral Weeks material reaches its zenith with character vignette “Madame George,” where Morrison takes the opportunity to reclaim lyrics he wrote as a young man and recast them with the wisdom that can come with middle age. Morrison embraces a representation of youthful good-byes and transforms it by using the richer timbre of his matured voice. The reflective temperament is complemented by a wistful orchestration highlighted by Fitzgibbon’s strings.
Morrison encores two bonus cuts, “Listen to the Lion” and “Common One,” which Morrison selected because they suited perfectly the evening’s universal theme and his personal nature. “Lion” is Morrison’s most autobiographical piece, from 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview. Saxophone, guitar, and strings surge alongside Morrison’s moans, wails ,and roars as Morrison does his onstage soul searching, culminating in an attempt to articulate the lion’s voice via a growling harmonica solo. The spiritual exploration, and the night, ends with a humid, scatting reading of the title cut from 1980’s Common One, where Morrison’s instincts come together: blue-eyed soul, revelatory poetry, and extended instrumental alchemy.
As conceived, Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is a purposefully uncut document. Per Morrison’s directions, there was no post-production maneuvering, the album is a straight-up account. The recording is resonant and unadulterated. When Morrison turns away from the microphone to ask for more strings in his monitor, the aside is not edited out, nor his almost inaudible comments to various band members. Despite only one rehearsal, the entire assembly is spot-on, there are no noticeably wrong notes or missteps, and luckily the engineering set-up encloses the whole gathering with visible precision, including the subtle bass, violin, and viola.
1. Astral Weeks/I Believe I’ve Transcended
2. Beside You
3. Slim Slow Slider/I Start Breaking Down
4. Sweet Thing
5. The Way Young Lovers Do
6. Cyprus Avenue/You Came Walking Down
8. Madam George
9. Listen to the Lion/The Lion Speaks
10. Common One
— Doug Simpson