Jim Farber

A moving Van Morrison delivers fine work with 'Astral Weeks'

Friday, February 13th 2009, 4:00 AM

Courtesy EMI

Van Morrison's giving "Astral Weeks" another go.

Van Morrison started his solo career at a point many artists never reach, even at their peak.

In 1968, fresh out of his band Them, Morrison recorded his first fully realized solo album, "Astral Weeks." The disk found him uninhibited by commercial concerns and unmoored from the constraints of conventional song form.

Few songs followed a strict verse-chorus-verse manner, or honored tight time frames. Instead they rambled and raged, whispered and sputtered, roaming freely enough for Morrison to follow his feelings as far as they would go.

Not everyone got it, and it didn't make him a star. That didn't happen until the followup, the far more accessible "Moondance," in 1970. But "Astral Weeks" is what made Morrison a legend.

Four decades later, the Celtic-soul icon has rerecorded the album as a live disk, cut at the Hollywood Bowl last fall and now released on CD. The material sounds as daring as it did in '68, even if the instrumentation and arrangements take new liberties.

In the title track, Morrison's voice creates a fresh incantation, using repetition to create momentum and stoke emotion. In "Beside You," he shows how a song can keep coalescing, never quite arriving, yet still prove satisfying.

"Astral Weeks" has a few more conventional pieces, like the poetic ode to a Dublin drag queen, "Madame George." But its most transcendent moments showcase the pleasure of letting a singer take his voice to the limit.



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