Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Astral Travels of Van Morrison

Here's a great piece by Scott Foundas written in 2009 at the time of the Astral Weeks Live shows, CD and DVD.   The full article is at the SF Weekly site

"I believe I've transcended," Van Morrison repeatedly incanted toward the end of the title track from his 1968 album, Astral Weeks, during the second night of a brief November stint at the Hollywood Bowl. Indeed, frequently over the course of those two nights, the famously mercurial, 63-year-old Irish singer-songwriter seemed to transcend age, time, and whatever other ballasts turn some veteran performers into wan caricatures of themselves better suited to halls of fame than halls of music. All the more remarkably, he was, for the first time in his five-decade career, doing what could be loosely termed an "oldies show," performing Astral Weeks in its entirety, with a band that included Charles Mingus guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on the record itself.

But as far as Morrison is concerned, the resurrection of Astral Weeks isn't so much a journey into the past as an entirely new beginning. For all its enduring critical acclaim (Lester Bangs, for one, famously cited it as his favourite record), the album was a commercial non-starter upon its release and remains, along with 1974's masterful, defiantly uncommercial Veedon Fleece, one of his least-performed.

Astral Weeks was first recorded, in September of 1968, during a storied 48 hours at Manhattan's Century Sound Studios. Along with Berliner, many of the Astral Weeks session musicians (including bassist Richard Davis and late drummer Connie Kaye) were recruited because of their background in jazz. Most had never met or played with the singer before. "It was recorded like a jazz session, which is the way I like to do it," says Morrison. "It was an alchemical kind of situation, where the people involved could read the situation and come up with stuff spontaneously, and not belabour it, not overproduce or overthink it. Everybody on the sessions was like that, which was uncanny. That's the way it worked out."

Forty years later, a similar in-the-moment euphoria prevailed as another group of musicians--some old, some new--came together in L.A. "We'd only had one run-through, and even that wasn't a complete rehearsal," Morrison said. Nonetheless, when he and his band took to the Hollywood Bowl stage, the result was an inspired reimagining of the Astral Weeks song cycle, from a reshuffled track order to a dramatically expanded Slim Slow Slider, now transformed from a plaintive, three-minute album closer into a wailing, heart-wrenching eight-minute centrepiece. 

Meanwhile, from the first pluckings of the title track's pizzicato bass line to the final invocation to "get on the train" on Madame George, Morrison grunted, spoke in tongues, strummed his guitar, and blew his harmonica with such impassioned vigour that it really was as though he were playing these songs for the very first time. To be born again, indeed.

He doesn't suffer slackers, either. Pay close attention during one of his concerts--nearly two-dozen of which I've attended in the last decade--and you can frequently catch sight of band members scurrying to keep apace with their leader as he calls out sudden tempo changes or uses hand gestures to take a swelling crescendo down to a muted whisper and back again. 

For these and other reasons, it has not always been easy to find musicians tuned into his wavelength. "It's difficult to get them to go where I'm going," he told me during our first interview, in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "That's what you have to work on. It doesn't have anything to do with technical ability. Well, it has something to do with it, because they need the technical ability to start with, but then they need to drop that and follow me and break it down into something that's less complicated than that, so they can follow where I'm going."

Where he's going is, as often as not, into a stream-of-consciousness reverie where a single album cut is deconstructed and reassembled into a trance like epic often lasting a quarter-hour or more. In the '70s, songs like Caravan and Cyprus Avenue were regularly subject to such reinvention, while more recently, Morrison has favoured the likes of In the Afternoon and Burning Ground. These are the moments--the bedrock of any Morrison gig--in which the "healing" about which he's so often sung really begins.

The course that a concert takes depends on a couple factors. "One is, if you feel like the audience can go with you, then I can stretch out more. [The other is] finding key songs where I can get these particular musicians to go along with me, because every band combination is quite different. A lot of times, you can get musicians, but they don't have a rapport, so you have to build the set around where we can go. Some bands I've had can do anything, go anywhere, you know? Other bands can only do certain songs in a certain way. It just depends."

"Well, if you take it as a river, then it's got offshoots - this stream and that stream, north stream, south stream, slipstream. All sorts of streams, you know?" he says. "But it's all connected to the source. All that stuff that I picked up in the formative years is what I've been able to put together as my own thing, so to speak. For me, it's [about] going back to the source. That's where I first got the word, or heard that sound. You can't really say it is 'X,' because it just ends up being another word or a cliché. But that initial energy was turned on in me, and I was lucky enough to get to know some of the people--like John Lee Hooker, who was a very good friend over the years."

For the man who once sang that "my job is turning lead into gold," his own celebrity and its attendant pressures seem as much a double-edged sword as ever. "I never bargained on fame; it's just something I've had to deal with that came along with doing the music," he says. "It's like I've got these scars," he adds, pointing at his back, "and why do I have to keep showing people the scars all the time? You know what I mean? It's in the songs somewhere there. I still have to turn myself inside-out to do this. It's still got a price; it's not free. Doing these gigs--that's got a price. I have to act. I have to perform."

"The only thing I love is the music," he says, without hesitation. "The rest of it is pure shit. The kind of shit that fame attracts is very dark. It's very dark. I like the music, but that's it."

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