So much has been said about Van Morrison’s 1968 mystical masterpiece “Astral Weeks,” so many accolades heaped upon it by every bastion of rock journalism, it almost seems redundant to extol its virtues all over again, even when Morrison’s revival of it over the weekend at the Hollywood Bowl demands it.
Recorded 40 years ago in roughly two sessions by a difficult, down-on-his-luck 22-year-old from Belfast, a budding visionary who up to that point was known only for the sweet single “Brown Eyed Girl” and (to a lesser degree) as the frontman for Them, “Astral Weeks” remains an unquestionably astonishing achievement.
A singular, impressionistic fusion of jazz and folk and spirituality with transformative power - a nocturnal stream-of-consciousness song cycle as rapturous as a sudden burst of sunshine after a thunderstorm - the work is all of a piece, with all but the haunting “Beside You” and the feverish feel of “The Way Young Lovers Do” roughly built out of the same three chords transposed to different keys. Yet pluck any of its eight meditative songs out of context and each stands as its own deep listening experience.
It’s one of few truly perfect albums worthy of descriptors like “inspired” and “groundbreaking,” and it consistently and justifiably places in at least the Top 20 (often the Top 10) of most any credible list of the greatest albums of all-time.
Elvis Costello has described it as “still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium.” The critic Lester Bangs, in selecting it his “desert island disc” in the 1979 collection of essays “Stranded,” once said of its tortured pain and devotional release that “there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.” At the time of its release, tumultuous both for its creator and the world in general, “It was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction.”
Yet for all its significance, “Astral Weeks,” like the Velvet Underground’s output during that era, never sold especially well, failing to crack Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart. And though some songs became part of Morrison’s regular repertoire - particularly “Cypress Avenue,” long his show-closer during the ‘70s - he was never able to properly tour behind it.
“It received no promotion from Warner Bros. - that’s why I never got to play the songs live,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “I had always wanted to play the record live and fully orchestrated - that is what this is all about. I always like live recording and I like listening to live records, too. I’m not too fond of being in a studio - it’s too contrived and too confining. I like the freedom of live, in-the-moment sound.”
Which brings us to these Bowl shows, in which Morrison played “Astral Weeks” in its entirety for the first time - and also to the ever-present question of just how in-the-moment Van would get while revisiting such heady material.
Answer: very, although not so much in the first half of Friday’s opener.
Morrison has rarely been the sort of performer to burn from the get-go. Unsurprisingly, then, though his first set was loaded with thematically complementary selections - “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” the whole second side of 1979’s “Into the Music,” “the greatest side of music Morrison has created since ‘Astral Weeks,’” critic Dave Marsh once declared - much of it felt like prolonged warm-up, enjoyably workmanlike rather than reinvigorating.
Entertaining as it was to watch the stoic, suit-stuffed 63-year-old conclude that opening portion with an unusually generous triptych of “Moondance” (played cooler, like Sting’s “Consider Me Gone”) and “Brown Eyed Girl” (blissful as ever) and “Gloria” (which never found its forcefulness), it nonetheless felt like it was done somewhat out of obligation, perhaps for having charged $350 for choice seats. (“OK, so that’s what you want,” he said after “Moondance.” “I get the picture.”)
The “Astral Weeks” set, however, was subtly magical, surely evoking memories for everyone in attendance of that first time they felt the album wash over them. In large part that sensation can be attributed to Morrison’s attention to detail, starting with the inclusion of upright bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner, whose unmistakable styles were featured on the original recording.
Likewise, despite how Morrison brought his usual instinctive flair for expansion and clearer definition to these long-neglected pieces, he made sure to keep to set structures. When these concerts come out on vinyl (by Christmas, we’re told) and CD and DVD (by January, most likely), compare his increasingly overcome vamping here on “Madame George” or “Ballerina” to the real thing. Check the way his “t-t-t-tongue gets t-t-t-t-t- ... every time I t-t-t-try to s-s-s-speak” in “Cypress Avenue” to how it got all tied up in ‘68. I suspect the similarities will be striking.
How long, I wondered, has it been since some of these songs have been performed live? Were some of them ever played? And how far back at times did Van journey in his mind, to that place “way down home in the backstreets” where he ventured “in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams,” found Madame George playing dominos in drag and came across a “sugar baby with champagne eyes ... pink champagne eyes ... who stole my heart away”?
And just what was the meaning behind rearranging the running order? Side 1’s finisher “Cypress Avenue” was moved to Side 2. Album closer “Slim Slow Slider” became the third track of the set, and “Madame George” was its goodbye, before a brief encore of “Listen to the Lion.” (The Greek Theatre-size crowd wanted at least one more song; they stood clapping for five minutes after the house lights came up, trying to make the ultimate rarity - a genuine encore - a reality, but to no avail.)
Who knows why he did that? It’s hard enough to properly assess why he felt compelled to revisit “Astral Weeks” so many decades later in the first place (though might I recommend “Moondance” gets its due in 2010?). As a lifelong fan of the album, though, I’m grateful he did return to it. This experience may not have been as profound an accomplishment as, say, Brian Wilson completing and performing his lost masterwork “SMiLE” after almost as long in the dark. But it was every bit as beautiful a thing to witness.