Astral Weeks: Hollywood Bowl Revisted

Posted: February 10th, 2009 | Filed under: Culture, Features, Music | 1 Comment »

And I’m caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue
And I’m caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue
And I’m conquered in a car seat
Not a thing that I can do

The CD release of Van Morrison’s first ever performance in its entirety of “Astral Weeks” in November at the Hollywood Bowl is now set for March 24. It was supposed to come out today (when I’m writing this), February 10. But, as those things go in the music biz, the release date was pushed back.

I did score a copy after much cajolery and obsessive pursuit of that goal. After all I’d been to the concert on a honeymoon trip and the time had long since passed to hear whether the show was as magnificent as the Film Babe and I believed it at the time.

Of this now confirmed tour de force performance, there really is only one question to ask.

Okay, that’s not true. There are a couple.

The first is why in the hell wasn’t Lester Bangs around to hear it? Bangs, the first rock critic and probably the best one too, ODed in 1982. He’s on record: “Astral Weeks” was “the rock record with the most significance in my life so far.” (He apparently didn’t think it was the best ever. Which designation he bestowed on Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.” Why is a contemplation far too peripheral, complicated and vexing for now.)

Bangs wrote about Morrison’s masterpiece in 1978, ten years after “Astral Weeks” was released. Hell, Bangs didn’t even publish any reviews at all until 1969 when he accepted Jan Wenner’s open invitation to readers for album comments. Bangs ripped MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams,” sent it in, daring Rolling Stone not to print it. It did. He became the ‘zine’s critic until Wenner, tired of what he perceived as Bangs’ depressive negativitude, fired him.

Anyway, you can google up Bangs’ take on “Astral Weeks.” It’s worth your time. It probably won’t give you any more insight on the album. But it will give you some sense of why folks, myself included, have been obsessed with Morrison’s stunning masterpiece.

There is lots of pain. But a sense of relief. The kind that comes from exposition. There is deep longing and heartache. And sweet affection. Expressed with exemplary poetic nuance and superlative musicianship.

It is a rock & roll magnum opus. Without a bit of teen swagger. Without an electric guitar. Without a back beat. Truth: Connie Kaye uses mostly brushes on the traps.

Filled with melancholy, it is all too beautiful. Maybe it’s not even rock & roll, But it’s too late to stop now.

And it remains as fresh forty years after as the day it was released to an unwitting listenership who had no idea the singer of “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl” was capable of such genius.

Not sure that same freshness can still be attributed to Van Morrison, the curmudgeonly savant who created the album. He’s released almost an album a year since “Astral Weeks.” Many are extraordinary, filled with Morrison’s obsession with spirituality and soulful musical innovation. The guy’s got major chops. And a voice that is beyond singing to instrumentation. Then again, many of his albums are simply mundane. Put ‘em on the shelf and wait for the next release.

As I’ve written several times before, Morrison in recent years has been a crap shoot in concert. He’s more liable to mail it in, go through the motions, as he is to be the Van we dream about when putting “Moondance” on the box one more time.

So be it.

Which brings us back to that question I mentioned in the lede.

How is that such an inconsistent sixtysomething performing curio like Van Morrison, forty years after the release of a seminal album wise beyond its years at the time but full of youthful introspection, could walk on stage at the Hollywood Bowl after but one rehearsal and produce one of the great concert performances in all of contemporary music?

How is that he was able to imbue his creation of two score years gone with a mature perspective while maintaining its original, youthful vibrancy?

How is it that his voice, now mostly scintillating instrumental scat with scant enunciation, expresses every emotion as if spelled out precisely?

I dunno.

When I first heard the title cut on the radio last week, I sat stunned. Truth be told, crying tears of joy. The resonance of his voice. The gorgeous layered texture of the musicianship. How it all adheres to the basic adage, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

How as hyperbolic my testaments to the show have been, how strong my memory of the brilliance of Morrison and the band’s performance that evening, how deeply visceral my emotional attachment to the album and that first fully rendered presentation of it, the reality of the CD shouts this: “Van Morrison: Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl” is actually better than I thought.

Am I willing to say it’s the best live performance of pop music ever recorded? Certainly not. That’s way too subjective to do, even for a fellow like myself ever willing to foist my opinion on the unwitting at every turn. It does raise to the level of my other two favorite live albums, “James Brown Live at the Apollo,” and the Allman Brothers Band’s “Live at Fillmore East.” Then again I was at neither of those shows when the albums were recorded as I was with “Astral Weeks.”

(Not that it matters, but I did hear Brown do that same show in the autumn of ’63 at my first college concert. And the Allmans do those numbers with the same passion in the summer of ’70 at the Atlanta Pop Festival.)

So, upon scoring a copy of Morrison’s latest live album, I sat in a parking lot.

Conquered in my car seat.

Transfixed. Listening.

Not a thing that I could do.

My heart kept beating faster.

My feet I couldn’t keep still.

Caught one more time up on Cyprus Avenue.

One Comment on “Astral Weeks: Hollywood Bowl Revisted”

  1. 1 Dood said at 2:28 pm on February 10th, 2009:

    I second that (and those emotions) emotion.

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