When an artist decides to perform a classic album in concert, the possibilities for disaster are myriad. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks had never been performed as a cycle before these performances at the Hollywood Bowl. With only one full band rehearsal, Van responded by bringing this mythic material to life with a rock showman's sense of audacity, a poet's vulnerability, a jazzman's sense of timing, and the mastery of a singer who knows where to find the hidden magic in his material. Morrison took the original track order and shuffled it to make it flow better live. He extended most tunes, turning some into mini-suites while tightening others. His well-seasoned lower register voice turned the wonder of a boy in 1968 into the spiritual receptivity and wisdom of a man who has weathered 40 more seasons of discontent and heartbreak.
The title track opens the set with that familiar up and down acoustic bassline and Jay Berliner's nylon string guitar playing blues and jazz runs as Van keeps the first rhythm guitar chair down.(Berliner was lead guitarist on the original Astral Weeks sessions.) It's a tiny bit faster, but the flow is impeccable as skeletal strings come pouring through in the gaps. There is a beautiful sense of space as Tony Fitzgibbon's violin and viola solos come through in the middle and Richie Buckley's flute hovers from the margins. Morrison lets his players shine; he rises to improve with them, feeling his lyrics anew. He adds more gospel flavor to the tune, which is rooted there anyway with "I Believe I've Transcended." And you believe him. The live mix clicks and crackles; it's raw, full, and immediate, without overdubs.
The track order changes after "Beside You." It lilts and wanders with beautiful vibe work and Berliner's guitar. The first real surprise is "Slim Slow Slider," the closing cut on the original set and the third one here. The deep sorrow, helplessness, and dread in the tune is captured through melancholy memory, balanced by a sense of the previous, not weighted so much with trouble. But Morrison's present tense protagonist is engulfed in pain and confesses the weight is more than he can bear in the effortless segue called "I Start Breakin' Down." The drama is so arresting the listener can forget to breathe. The blues are heavy, the droning hypnotic Celtic ones that is, and they are never static. "Sweet Thing," and "The Way Young Lovers Do," are placed in succession here; they lock the listener in a breezy yet tight swinging groove. The strings caress Morrison's lyric without sweetness; the guitars create a bridge to deliver a strutting "Cypress Avenue," which is appended seamlessly with the killer bluesy soul of "You Come Walkin' Down." "Ballerina," slows it down again and Morrison delivers his best vocal performance of the evening, though "Madame George," which closes out the Astral Weeks material, is a close second; these cuts are simply an amazing one-two knockout. The band and the singer gel perfectly. There are two amazing encores: a dynamite, even shockingly spiritual autobiographical read of "Listen to the Lion" from 1972's Saint Dominic's Preview with saxophones, guitars, and strings all pushing against his vocal that moans and wails and roars before breaking through. The night ends with a sultry, scatting improvisation from the middle of "Summertime In England," from 1980's Common One.
Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is not Astral Weeks, but it's honest and intense. Morrison not only inhabits these songs 40 years later, but sings from a place where he understands them and remains fascinated by what they reveal. This This artist, who is sometimes disinterested in his own work still has plenty of fire in his belly when he wants to draw on it.