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Van Morrison
Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl
Listen To The Lion Records
www.vanmorrison.com


Visiting my brother in the height of his Cure days, I pointed out a seeming contradictory album in his collection, "What's with this hippie shit?" I tapped at it with my Docs. Like any pusher worth his salt, he smiled sleepily and gently assured, "Try it. No really, it's alright." The sandaled jams I expected were pierced with Delta blues, jazz, Baroque-rock and spiritualized folk. Van Morrison's saxophonist leanings showed as he weaved, moaned and wailed amid meandering arrangements. We sat together in silence. Without the benefit of mind-altering substances we let the music soak in and surround us. And permeate us. And heal us. In the lingo, my mind was blown. I'd been turned on. I spiraled quickly, willingly into Morrison's realm. That album was Astral Weeks.

Morrison's never been one to replicate album cuts straight, he's got to change the color, meter and tone in order to keep his sanity. Perhaps because few of these songs are in his regular repertoire he keeps surprisingly in line for this 40th anniversary concert, even calling on principal guitarist Jay Berliner to reprise his 1968 role. The musicians reportedly had only a short rehearsal before the performances in order to keep it raw. On returning, Astral Weeks proves even more a foundation for Morrison's later work. The recurring themes both musically and lyrically appear as slipstreams, Caledonia trances, childlike visions and gardens wet with rain.

The title track delivered in a much matured growl, is slightly kicked up from the original and expanded comfortably like a secretary's derriere. Pianist Roger Kellaway sneaks in a touch of Floyd Kramer. Morrison as band leader works the dynamics from crashing crescendo to his hushed mantra, "Yeah." The bleak "Beside You" no longer has the brashness of Morrison's youth, instead he settles in to match the sorrowful mode. Here he changes the album order, inserting a sleepy but deceptively nimble take on "Slim Slow Slider." He scrubs his guitar viciously to wake things up, chanting, "I've got to stop this thing." Violin, sax and piano take turns pouring saltwater in the wounds before the tide recedes into a mellow boogie.

On the enduring favorite "Sweet Thing," lyrics fall out Van's mouth like a drunken ramble to the off-kilter rhythm. Slashing violins from the original now flutter like monarchs being released. He breaks out the mouth-harp to bring the train slowly to the station. As with "Beside You," a dose of vinegar accompanies the nostalgic romance of "The Way That Young Lovers Do." The velocity is brisk with hard-hitting horns and big-band vibes for a 60's spy movie motif. The harpsichord ushers in one of Morrison's signature walking tours "Cyprus Avenue." Here he plays up the stuttering with, "My t-t-t-toungue gets t-t-tied" to the delight of the crowd. Flipping the order again, "Ballerina" lopes through with a back-peddled beat. Morrison riffs emotionally like John Lee. He has such fun with it that we get the rare Van snicker. Arguably (mostly by Morrison) the most elegant and delicate ode to a transvestite, "Madame George" is the sparse response to Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane." Mournful strings drawing the pain from the singer and compassion for his subject.

The encore "Listen To The Lion" from St Dominic's Preview grows weary as the audience grows whiskers, even the girls. Whomever is milking the audience for applause at the end needs to find new employment. "A Common One" is good fun, with The Man leading his sideman on follow the leader down the stream of consciousness.

There's something gripping about Van Morrison that connects in a powerful way with many. A humanity, a comfort, some unseen that can't be overlooked. Astral Weeks was the start of something probably larger than even its creator envisioned. And it's too late to stop now.

-Ewan Wadharmi

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