Van Morrison — Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2009)


On the list of things I never thought I’d see (or hear), this re-visitation of Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 album, Astral Weeks, has surely lived at the top for more years than I’d care to count. On the face of things, Morrison has developed a thick-skinned persona that holds stardom and the chasing of the easy buck at a disdainful arm’s length. He is not going to be your trained monkey, no matter how badly you might want it. You want another Moondance? Bollocks.

I wouldn’t presume to ask Morrison to look backward any more than I’d ask for his autograph at a Holywood take-away. A more careful read of his journey reveals the threads that tie the disparate pieces of his 40-year-old solo career together. The return to certain tropes: the streets of Belfast, the green hills and mountain streams of an Irish dream-state, a town called Paradise; it all weaves together to create one of the richest imaginary tapestries of any artist living or dead.

Morrison has said he has always wanted to properly record this group of songs with a string section—the way he heard it in his head 40 years ago. Right off the top, the violin prominently featured on the lead track, Astral Weeks, adds to the sonorous gravitas of the original. The master’s voice has deepened with age and has taken on more of the characteristics of a band instrument—at times honking like a tenor sax, at others, vibrating and humming low like a cello cradled between the legs of a ginger lass, or more appropriately, an aging Dublin transvestite.

Which leads me to the most striking difference between the original album and the new performance: the sequence. Morrison has shifted around the order of songs, which fits the dream-like nature of the record. Astral Weeks always struck me as ephemeral, the more you tried to grab it on to it and put it in a box, the more likely it was to turn to smoke. That said, the two final songs after Madame George always felt like a coda, or a post-coital afterglow. In any case, coming right after such a masterful vision of humanity at its most exposed and fragile, they weren’t exactly in the best light to be recognized as the subtle masterpieces that they are. Slim Slow Slider and Ballerina are recast here as shamanistic trance state-inducing chants guiding the listener toward the heavy hitters of Sweet Thing and Madame George respectively and the state of bliss that Astral Weeks always promised.

I’m not going to ruin the surprise of all of the little tweaks and changes that Morrison has made to his songs. The hungry 22-year-old singer-songwriter has now become the 62-year-old veteran, and some perspective is bound to creep in. Half the fun of diving into the new versions is comparing them to the old mental tapes earned from spinning the original record hundreds, or possibly thousands, of times over the years.

It’s rare for an artist to fully grasp what a particular work means to its admirers—to be able to put his or herself outside of the memory of process and see what others see, hear what others hear. I think that Morrison must consider himself more in our camp than as the singular creator of Astral Weeks. I’ve read interviews in which he claimed to not know where these songs came from, and I tend to believe him.

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