When Van Morrison's essential work, Astral Weeks, hit the stores in 1968, it instantly was revered by critics and musicians around the world. It influenced future cultural icons such as Bono and especially, Bruce Springsteen, whose "Incident on 57th Street," "New York City Serenade," and virtually all of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. sounded like unintended tributes to the Celtic rocker. Named Rolling Stone's nineteenth best album of all time in 2003, it was Morrison's first long player for Warner Bros. Records, and his second solo album post his tenure with the rock group Them (his first being T.B. Sheets for Bang Records). Even though the LP's most "commercial" recording, "Sweet Thing," initially was perceived as its focus track, Astral Weeks featured no hit singles, sales were not impressive (it finally having turned "gold" by 2001), and to new listeners raised on pop radio, it was a challenging amalgam of folky-blues, jazz, northern soul, and singer-songwriter-styled lyrics. But historically, the LP was released at just the right time since, like the substances that supposedly were expanding the minds of a generation, this album did the same.
Apparently, expansion was on Morrison's mind during the landmark album's creative process that reached beyond mundane arrangements and traditional recording routines. Lots of musical freedom was encouraged during the sessions that, basically, were well-mapped jams. In one of his 2008 interviews, the artist recalled that Astral Weeks' material was "from another sort of place" (fyi, his first take on "Madame George" was included on T.B. Sheets). He revealed how the album's "poetry and mythical musings" sprung from his imagination in a unique way, saying, "The songs were somewhat channeled works...that is why I called it 'Astral Weeks,'"--its title an obvious shoutout to the astral plane. As far as it having been one of the great "concept" albums, Astral Weeks was considered one, though it really shouldn't have been stereotyped as merely that. Regardless of the original LP's side splits as "In The Beginning" and "Afterwards" (probably the result of vinyl's timing issues), it otherwise ignored symmetry and any intentional travel from points "a" to "z" as its musical journeys and stream of consciousness lyrics rejected normal structure. Characters, subject matter, lovers, and landscapes migrated throughout the work, often, at the most random of moments, in order to prove an emotional, not intellectual point. Springsteen took a fraction of this approach and applied it to his first two albums, amazing us in the process. However, Morrison remains the master of his transcendental craft to this day, using it most effectively during his live performances.
That brings us to Morrison's early November 2008 concerts featuring his new take on that seminal album. The CD Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl documents his album's initial vision with a slight makeover, it now taking creative license by extending song titles and tweaking the original sequence. (Morrison felt some sequence tweaks, such as concluding with "Madame George," were now more appropriate.) Originally written and sung from a young man's more innocent perspective, Astral Weeks' live revisit mostly benefits from the forty years of character lines and some graying that Morrison's reinterpretation now brings to it. From the moment he sings the title track's lyrics, "To lay me down, in silence easy, to be born again," you get the feeling it's not just the singer's implied transformation that's being announced, but Astral Weeks itself.
Through it all, Morrison is where he wants to be, onstage and in Heaven, singing, playing sax, guitar, and harmonica. The band's camaraderie is communicated musically, especially between Morrison and Astral's original guitarist, Jay Berliner. There are many featured solos and licks, and there's even some playful overacting, such as on "Cyprus Avenue"'s lines, "...and my t-t-t-t-tongue gets tied every time I try to s-s-s-s-speak." Morrison's new sequence works just fine, like how "Sweet Thing" leads into "The Way Young Lovers Do" ("Moondance"'s wilder cousin). His adding the bonus tracks "Listen to the Lion" from St. Dominic's Preview, and "Common One" (added from the show's earlier non-Astral set) don't detract, but instead, strangely feel like appropriate epilogues. In "...Lion," Morrison pumps his harp for a primal sound that's both humorous and masculine, and "Common..." with its echoed vocal replies, almost serves as the encore and one last reminder that this singer's got chops.
Almost as important as the performances, there is a real intimacy heard on this CD, perhaps from its players being recorded amidst tightly compacted stage gear and stacked instruments, giving it an old time Bleecker Street music shop vibe. And with a basic reverence for the original record, this live Astral's arrangements allow for musicians to add new layers of strata though jams, while acknowledging forty years has passed since the original was slated. Reportedly, Van Morrison wasn't aware of the anniversary when he thought up the live version, and in an interview with entertainment guru, David Wild, he said, "I had always wanted to do these songs live with orchestration. I thought I should probably get to it now--it's time."
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. Madame George
9. Listen To The Lion / The Lion Speaks
10. Common One