By Mabel Suen
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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.
As evidence that Morrison's Bowl shows really did happen and weren't his enthusiastic fans' collective delusion, he released the CD Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl in February, with a DVD concert film to follow. 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 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 said last fall, from Los Angeles. "I just wanted to check it out for myself and re-explore it."
Morrison's live New York dates in February also marked 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 Kay) 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," Morrison 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."
Forty years later, a similar in-the-moment euphoria prevailed as Morrison and another group of musicians — some old, some new — came together in LA. "We'd only had one run-through, and even that wasn't a complete rehearsal," he said, speaking by phone in January from his UK home. Nevertheless, when he and his band took the Hollywood Bowl stage, the result was an inspired re-imagining 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 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.
Pay close attention during one of his concerts, and you can frequently catch sight of Morrison's band members scurrying to keep pace with their leader. "It's difficult to get them to do...to go where I'm going," he said last fall.
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 trancelike epic often lasting a quarter-hour or more. In the '70s songs like "Caravan" and "Cyprus Avenue" were subject to such re-invention, while more recently, Morrison has favored the likes of "In the Afternoon" (from 1995's Days Like This) and "Burning Ground" (from 1997's The Healing Game). These are the moments — the bedrock of any Morrison gig — in which the "healing" about which he has so often sung really begins.
"If you study psychology and philosophy, and you look at various types of religion, what you find out is that people call this these different names," says Morrison. "Aristotle would maybe look at it a different way, Sartre would look at it some other way, and Beckett would look at it a different way. What I end up with is energy, and I can't name it, and no one can really say what this energy is. So the healing thing is tapping into that energy, because I can't find a name for it, and I can't find it in any books. There was a time when I read everything I could get my hands on, because I was looking to find out what this is — is anybody writing about this energy? And not really."
The course a concert takes depends on a couple of factors, he says. "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."
Even on less-celebrated Morrison works like Days Like This or 1987's Poetic Champions Compose, you can find yourself enraptured by the dense networks of interconnected images and allusions in his songs, struggling to make some mental geography out of the mystical yet entirely tangible places he frequently sings about: an ancient highway, a town called Paradise, the viaducts of his dreams. Nearly all of those tropes, however, date back to Astral Weeks, which begins with its first-person narrator venturing into the slipstream and ends some eight tracks later with the funereal assertion, "I know you're dying/And I know you know it, too/Every time I see you/I just don't know what to do."
But if Morrison has rarely seemed eager to look back over the course of his own discography, his music itself is very much about conjuring a personal and collective past, hovering just out of reach and threatening to displace the present. It's a feeling that extends to the myriad cover/tribute albums he's produced in the past fifteen years, honoring traditional country with Pay the Devil and jazz with How Long Has This Been Going On, while elsewhere tipping his porkpie hat to such influences as Mose Allison, Lonnie Donegan, John Lee Hooker and Solomon Burke. It is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay those albums to say that Morrison's original compositions are frequently indistinguishable from the "period" songs written by others decades earlier.
"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?" Morrison 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."