By Tim Page
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 10, 2008
LOS ANGELES -- It's always a risky venture for seasoned musicians to revisit the works of their youth. One recalls with dismay the Velvet Underground's "reunion" tour in the early 1990s, and Brian Wilson's live 2002 rerecording of the Beach Boys' 1966 song cycle "Pet Sounds" took a radiant and guileless expression of the heart and smothered it in Vegas cheese.
At age 63, Van Morrison has been a working musician for nearly half a century, during which time he has released some 30 albums of original material. And yet it is the very first recording over which he had any artistic control -- "Astral Weeks," released by Warner Bros. in 1968 -- that remains his masterpiece. Aching, haunted, entranced, obsessed, "Astral Weeks" combines bardic, allusive lyrics; jazz, folk and blues stylings and Morrison's own brand of two-chord minimalism. There is, quite literally, nothing else like it.
And so it was with some trepidation that devoted listeners gathered at the Hollywood Bowl Friday night to hear what was billed as Morrison's first-ever live performance of the entire "Astral Weeks," complete with two of the musicians -- bassist Richard Davis and guitarist Jay Berliner -- who worked with him on the album 40 years ago.
We needn't have worried. To be sure, there were slight differences (in the most notable structural change, he moved the almost unbearably desolate album closer, "Slim Slow Slider," to earlier in the set, and finished with the marginally more cheerful "Madame George") but it was still recognizably -- triumphantly-- "Astral Weeks."
What a paradox this work is: an exploration of emotional healing that never forgets, minimizes or smoothes over the original wounds, an opulently poetic expression of near-autistic inarticulation. Once, in the course of denying that "Madame George" was about a transvestite, Morrison nevertheless admitted that he hadn't "a clue what that song is about." He compared the songs on "Astral Weeks" to short stories: "In terms of what they mean, they're as baffling to me as to anyone else."
Igor Stravinsky famously said that he was not the composer of "The Rite of Spring" but rather the vessel through which it passed; without taking the comparison too far, I might suggest a similar process with Morrison and "Astral Weeks." It stands alone in his catalogue: With the possible exception of the two longest tracks on "St. Dominic's Preview" (1972), Morrison never visited this particular, fiercely reiterative musical territory again.
As it happened, Morrison also performed "St. Dominic's Preview" on Friday night, as well as his two biggest hits, "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Moondance"; the primordial punk rocker "Gloria" (a fun singalong); and a generous portion of another of his best albums, "Into the Music" (1979), in the first half of the program, before intermission. The rest of the evening was devoted to the eight songs of "Astral Weeks." Throughout the whole set, he was terrific -- engaged, nuanced, generous and seemingly tireless in his vocalizing, while offering the occasional masterly saxophone or harmonica solo as lagniappe. The band backed him to the hilt -- a delicious jam on "Ballerina" -- although the sound of Davis's bass was nowhere near so prominent as it is on the original album, where it provides the pulse for everything that follows.
The concert, repeated Saturday night, was recorded for release on CD and DVD by Morrison's own company. Roughly a dozen musicians shared the stage, including three female backup singers for the first half of the show, as well as a flute player and a small string section.
Any number of records released in 1968 outsold "Astral Weeks" many times over, but it never quite went out of print. And year after year, devotees passed on copies to new listeners with evangelical fervor, so that its legion of admirers is unusually multigenerational. Which prompts the question: How is it possible for something to mean so much to so many people without anybody, including its creator, able to say exactly what that meaning is? And how does Van Morrison take this strange motley of seemingly unrelated vignettes -- topics include voyeurism, mortal illness, urban grime and (if Morrison is not to be believed) a party of drag queens -- and make it both unified and curiously holy?
"The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully," Wallace Stevens, who knew something about such matters, once observed. For 40 years, listeners have been finding their own understandings of "Astral Weeks." May it resist, renew and reward us forever.