Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks Live At Hollywood Bowl

Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is viewed by many critics to be his defining artistic achievement. Largely forgotten at the time due to its inaccessibility and abstract nature, it has slowly become the dark horse of Morrison's catalog: worshiped by those in the know, and completely ignored by the disciples of Morrison's greatest hits. As such, the album has languished in its live format for many years. Van presumably wanted to cater his fans, and Astral Weeks simply was not at the top of most of those fans' lists. So it came as no surprise that when Morrison announced he would be playing the album in full at the Hollywood Bowl, there was a collective sigh of musical orgasm from critics the world over.

To be frank, the original Astral Weeks has always proved a tad elusive for us here at HAD. The age of the tapes serves to make them reasonably muddy, and the ethereal, "jammy" feel of the album simply seemed to lose something in the recording. We could hear that there was something special there, but the record simply never really reached out and grabbed us. Given that, we were of two minds with regard to Morrison's announcement: On the one hand, it might serve to enlighten us and allow us to finally "get" Astral Weeks. We're always partial to live recordings, and modern recording technology couldn't hurt things either. On the other hand, it had the potential to further confound us amidst further applause of genius or even be a complete artistic disaster.

Thankfully, the upcoming Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl puts us firmly in the former category. The record is a vital, crystal clear, stunningly executed live document of Morrison's 1968 album. Everything about the record is so right that it's hard to know exactly where to begin. Most obvious is Morrison himself: he simply delivers a vocal performance that completely transcends his 63 years. His voice is in top form, with a touch more of baritone, and he makes his way through the songs with ease. Backing up Morrison is the guitarist from the original sessions, Jay Berliner. Berliner serves not only to give the recording some vintage credibility, but his distinctive playing slowly reveals itself as one of the stalwarts of the original record. These two, combined with a stellar backing band, serve to lay the foundation for an amazing night.

Still, solid musicians a great live record do not necessarily make. There are so many more aspects to performance and recording that have to fit the bill and fall in to place to allow for a live record to be truly great. Surprisingly, Morrison apparently only had one rehearsal before these shows, and allowed no overdubs in post production. While this may seem to be a bit optimistic, it serves the record extremely well. The feel of the album has a truly live character: the audience is ever present in the background, and the band has a loping unity that truly brings home the feel of collaboration. No doubt if one had been sitting in the studio during the original recording sessions, it might have felt something like this.

For an endeavor that had so much potential for pitfalls, Astral Weeks Live At Hollywood Bowl simply managed to sail right past all of them. The music is immaculate, the performances exceptional, and the reality of the performance jumps right out of the speakers. The album is unquestionably a must-have, for both fans and skeptics of the record. For those who already love it, it's a no-brainer. Morrison's performance is a landmark event, and he pulls it off flawlessly. For those who haven't "found" the record, its equally as crucial. The record brings the songs to life in a new light, and does a great deal to illustrate what it is that makes the original such a landmark.

At the end of the day, Morrison has managed to successfully pull off something of a "reunion" with his former self, reaching back into his catalogue and pulling out its crown jewel for all to see. It should be a lesson to his peers, and even those younger, who are considering reunions of their own: the bar has been set, and if you can't do it this well, you might really want to reconsider doing it at all.

Astral Weeks Live At Hollywood Bowl is released on February 10th, 2009 on Morrison's own Listen To The Lion records.