By Steve Weinstein
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"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, Morrison 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.
Now, as evidence that Morrison's Bowl shows really did happen and weren't his enthusiastic fans' collective delusion, he's released the CD Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (due in stores February 24), with a DVD concert film soon to follow. Owing to popular demand, he will also perform four more live Astral Weeks gigs, at Madison Square Garden and the newly renovated Beacon Theatre, beginning February 27. As with his L.A. appearances, each night will begin with an hour-long set of other rare classics from across his repertoire-a marked contrast from most recent Morrison concerts, where the set list, while constantly in flux, has favored his newer albums, with only a few familiar crowd-pleasers (like "Moondance" or "Gloria") sprinkled in.
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 favorite 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. At the time, a proper tour was never organized, and although Morrison, backed by a trio, did play a few Astral Weeks gigs on both coasts, few took note. "It's never really been done live, and that's kind of what my music is all about," he told me last fall when we met in L.A. a few days prior to the Hollywood Bowl shows. "I just wanted to check it out for myself and re-explore it."
Morrison's New York dates will also mark a homecoming of sorts, to the place where 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 by Morrison and producer Lewis Merenstein 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," he says. "It was an alchemical kind of situation, where the people involved could read the situation and come up with stuff spontaneously and not belabor 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 Morrison and 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," he said, speaking by phone last month from his U.K. home. Nevertheless, 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, heartwrenching eight-minute centerpiece. 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 vigor that it really was as if he were playing these songs for the very first time. To be born again, indeed.
The fact that I have now talked with Morrison at length on two separate occasions about his music is nearly as rare an occurrence as the Astral Weeks concerts, the singer having spent much of his career dodging-and, occasionally, confronting head-on-the media. During an interview for Rolling Stone in the early '90s, he allegedly walked out of a Boston restaurant midway through, leaving the reporter to tail him down the street; in recent songs like "New Biography" and "Too Many Myths," he has been harshly critical of the myriad websites and pseudo-biographies that have peddled purportedly authoritative accounts of his life and work. Coupled with his recalcitrant onstage demeanor, this has earned Morrison a reputation for being "difficult," when, in fact, these may merely be the tell-tale signs of a performer who doesn't suffer fools gladly, pay lip service to sycophants, or buy into the conventional wisdom that someone who endures the pain of artistic creation is obliged to be "nice" when discussing his craft.
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 Morrison's band members scurrying to keep pace 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 for Morrison to find musicians tuned into his wavelength. "It's difficult to get them to do . . . 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."