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Music Review: Van Morrison – Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl

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Written by Musgo Del Jefe

I write about movies. That's where I feel most at home. I've always loved the great directors. The ones that put their stamp on their films. The ones that tell stories that transcend the screen – that stick with you for years. But when a director makes a great film, he doesn't get a chance to remake it forty years later. It's that fact that brought me to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl.

Van Morrison's 1968 release, Astral Weeks has made just about every list of Top Albums Of All-Time that I've seen. I first encountered the album in my late teens as a budding fiction writer. I found the stream of consciousness feel of the lyrics drew me in. The combination of pop, jazz, and blues influences of the music held my rapt attention. The songs did not necessarily tell a coherent story as much as all revolve symbolically around love and the relationship of our desires to greater ideals of heaven. These amazing lyrics were written and sung by a very talented 23-year-old.

The same year, 1968, Stanley Kubrick released his most important work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also considered one of the most important films of all-time, 2001 also draws upon almost a stream of consciousness visual storytelling. Sounds and images (especially classical music) are used in telling a story in ways that were also groundbreaking at the time. The 40-year-old, Kubrick, used science fiction to symbolically discuss our humanity and our relationships with technology, Nature, and God. By 2008, Kubrick had passed away and he did not have the ability to remake his film with the knowledge he had gained in the past forty years.

In 2008, Van Morrison played for two nights at the Hollywood Bowl (November 7 and 8), working with a orchestral string section, and performed the entire Astral Weeks album. My fascination is with the interpretation of these groundbreaking songs over the forty years. Van Morrison has the luxury of looking back at the compositions and the lyrics from the perspective of a 63-year-old man. Simply singing the lyrics as written and playing the music as it is on the album would bring a different interpretation in itself. Like any crafty artist, Van Morrison used the opportunity to make 40-year-old lyrics seem like they were written this morning. The arrangements extend the jazz and blues themes of the original album.

"Astral Weeks – I Believe I've Transcended" tells you exactly what this album means after forty years. Easily my favorite song on this release. The lyrics and music meander like a wandering stream. The tempo rises and falls, continually rising to a new level. Transcended is the perfect word for what the 63-year-old man sees when he sings about love. The lyric "I believe I've transcended" is a new one repeated at the end of the song and it sounds like the ending of a gospel song.

"Beside You" is a love song about being spiritually together with you child. The song of hope in your 20s is a song of wise, melancholy in your 60s. The mournful strings make this a richer, fuller song.

"Slim Slow Slider – I Start Breaking Down" is the last song on the album, that's now placed as the third track. I always recall this as one of the more bluesy pieces on the original album. He stretches it out here, really playing up the jazz and blues angle of the piece. The additional lyrics of "I Start Breaking Down" clears up the symbolic theme of drug abuse. The music reflects chorus.

"Sweet Thing," my favorite song off the original album, is almost flipped on its head here. This song has the most evocative lyrics on the album. It's got beautiful symbolism of love as a blooming garden. The song envisions a future of growing old together – "You shall take me strongly in your arms again / And I will not remember that I ever felt pain." Sung with a swelling string section, instead of being a song about future love, it feels like an ode to a lost love that he'll be reunited with in Heaven. The meaning remains but the vision is even more poignant here.

"The Way Young Lovers Do" was my least favorite song on the original album and remains so here. Lyrically obtuse and musically the basic jazz arrangement just doesn't do anything for me – especially following the brilliance of "Sweet Thing."

"Cypress Avenue – You Came Walking Down" is both about Belfast and a mystical city. The progression of the song through Van Morrison's vision and impressionistic memories feels much deeper sung from the distance of forty years. There's a rhythm to the lyrics that is transcendent, much like "Astral Weeks." The urge to get back to a young love is so much more heartfelt here. The same lyrics feel so fresh here – this song may be the most improved over the years.

"Ballerina" is one of Van Morrison's best love songs. It doesn't sound much different than it did originally. That's not a bad thing.

"Madame George" is a short story in itself. Also, one to meander, not in a hurry to get anywhere, the song picks you up and just floats you along for almost ten minutes. I don't know if I even could summarize the story. But you feel like you are just watching humanity, plain and simple. And the feeling is of acceptance and love for everyone. It's a high concept and I'm amazed by how easily he pulls it off. It benefits from the beautiful string section in the live version.

"Listen To The Lion – The Lion Speaks" is a bonus song not originally from Astral Weeks. It was played as an encore to the concert. Following the celebration of humanity in "Madame George", this song is all about the internal search for one's Soul. It is the culmination of the transcendence started at the beginning of the set. Van Morrison finds the lion in himself as he approaches Heaven. A very deep concept that finds a comfortable home here.

"Common One" is the only truly disappointing track on the album. Not because it isn't a superb Van Morrison song. But mainly because I want the album to end with "Listen To The Lion."

I'd like to think that Stanley Kubrick would have been able to sit down behind the director's chair and tell the same story of 2001 but with the knowledge of a man in his 80s and tell an even deeper story that would open up even more thematic elements to the viewer. Van Morrison found the perfect outlet for his work. Not simply a rerelease, performing the songs again gives them even more soul than they did in 1968. There's a freedom to his voice that fills you up – like going to church – you feel deep inside. It's simple. It's transcendent.

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  • steve MacIsaac

    Just a short comment to point out — and it’s worth watching —
    VM used a chant-like “I believe I’ve transcended myself” as early as 1980 in the Montreux jazz concert.