BORN AGAIN Van Morrison & Astral Weeks

The bard of Belfast reinvents his
transcendent classic.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

First of all, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is rock’s A
Love Supreme.

 

There’s no way you could ever listen to its title song, a
jazzy and modal riff that slowly but confidently builds in tempo and power as
Morrison scats around the impressionistic lyrics until he finds confidence in
repeatedly declaring “to be born again,” and not think the creator had a master
plan for Morrison to record this album – a song cycle – in 1968.

 

At the time, Morrison was just 23 and coming off his first
solo hit – the rockin’ “Brown Eyed Girl” – after leaving the British Invasion
band Them, for whom he wrote the garage-rock classic “Gloria.” Even with Them,
his voice  seemed far more soulful and
mature than his age, capable of instinctively going as gruffly yet
electrifyingly deep as a Tuvan throat singer at just the right moment.

 

Just before Astral Weeks, he had been signed to
Warner Bros. Records, which provided him with a producer, Lewis Merenstein, who
teamed Morrison with such jazz-sensitive musicians as bassist Richard Davis and
guitarist Jay Berliner. The result, in its singular vision, was as great a
late-1960s fusion album as Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way.

 

Yet, at the same time Astral Weeks is also rock’s
true walk on the wild side, courtesy of his hometown of Belfast. On “Cyprus Avenue,” he traveled down
dangerously bluesy side streets full of the kind of wailing, tongue-tied erotic
desire only hinted at in “Good Morning School Girl.” And on “Slim Slow Slider,”
a starkly mournful folk ballad, Morrison faced death itself – as a lover. He
was right there at Robert Johnson’s crossroads.

 

But most of all, Astral Weeks had seemed to belong to
– as Morrison sang in the title song – “another time, another place.” After
emerging from its hypnotic trance, Morrison retreated a little into dynamically
sung and composed, but more conventionally structured (and produced), songs
that reveled in rather than trying to transcend their genre roots. While he
occasionally could revisit his Astral Weeks territory for a song or two,
like “Listen to the Lion,” he couldn’t stay there for long. And he never seemed
to let on that he cared.

 

So how to explain the vitality and relevance of Astral
Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl
(Listen
To The Lion; www.emimusic.com)? Yes,
his voice is a shade darker and deeper now, but forty years on he not only has
kept in touch with all that is sublime about the original, he’s improved on it.
And the album, put together from two shows last fall, is truly live – Morrison
has declared there is no post-production trickery.

 

A line or two (on “Sweet Thing,” particularly) gets mumbled,
but he is otherwise so in touch with the original sense of discovery propelling
these songs that he generates chills. Morrison stretches passages in new ways,
seemingly willing to extend “the love that loves to love” on “Madame George” ad
infinitum. It’s frustrating when songs have to end.

 

On several, he makes changes. On the insistently rhapsodic
“Ballerina,” he adds on a snippet of Curtis Mayfield’s dance classic, “Move on
Up.” “Astral Weeks” melds into a piece called “I Believe I’ve Transcended” in
which Morrison chants (if I hear it right) “I believe I’ve transcended death”
and convinces you he has. (He’s also changed the order of the songs, moving the
original closer “Slim Slow Slider” up to the third selection, and letting the
almost nine-minute “Madame George” end the overall cycle.)

 

Morrison has brought his primarily acoustic accompanying
musicians – including a string section – right along with him on this peak
performance. The piano (from Roger Kellaway) has become a flowingly prevalent
instrument now; Tony Fitzgibbon’s violin and viola effortless swing back and
forth between classical and folk-style fiddlin.’ David Hayes’ upright bass
drives the songs, while Richie Buckley’s flute provides coloration. Morrison,
himself, plays several instruments, including a piercingly lively harmonica
toward the end of “Sweet Thing.” According to the liner notes, there was only
one rehearsal, which is yet one more reason the overall musical beauty of Astral
Weeks
is so miraculous. It does indeed transcend death – it refuses to get
old.

 

After completing Astral Weeks, Morrison treats his
audience to three extras – two from subsequent albums but similar in mood,
“Listen to the Lion” and “Common One” – plus “Gloria” with The Doors’ John
Densmore guesting on tambourine. (The last will apparently only be available on
a vinyl release; I could not preview it.) There will also be a high-def DVD of
the Hollywood Bowl shows at a later dater and Morrison is performing Astral
Weeks
again in New York
on Feb. 27th and 28th.

 

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