Saturday, February 14, 2009

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Listen to the Lion, 2009)

Trying to remake one of the greatest and most unique pop music albums forty years after the fact is quite an audacious challenge. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks has stood outside of time and space for so long that the thought of going back to that mystic well seems like a fool's errand for even one so talented. But to his credit, Morrison and his band (apparently with only one rehearsal under their belts) were able to pull it off. His voice has has deepened over the years and the perspective of that older, wiser voice gives new life to these songs. Wisely, he doesn't try to recreate the hermetic studio environment, but allows the music to live and breathe anew, guided by his acoustic guitar and deep voice. The youthful enthusiasm of the spiritually seeking tracks like "Astral Weeks" is still apparent in Morrison's delivery. You still get the sense that he is seeking that metaphorical "home on high" when he shifts into an ecstatic "I Believe I've Transcended." One of the most impressive things about the original album was the compassion of the songwriting - lovers, friends and outsiders on the fringes of society were drawn with grace and dignity, and this quality also shines through here in the versions of "Madame George" and "Slim Slow Slider." The band swings hard on "Sweet Things" with is crescendo of strings, and the jazzy "The Way That Young Lovers Do" albeit without the strong saxophone solo of the original. It's interesting to hear "Cypress Avenue" remade and self-edited, the song that was about the unrequited love for a young girl has become a less threatening coming of age tale. Morrison encores with two of his secular spiritual songs from later albums "Listen to the Lion" and "Common One" to round out a remarkable performance. Not only is it a tour de force live album, but this is also a major achievement in looking back at a masterpiece of youth from the perspective of age and hard won wisdom and finding that the ideas and emotions are still valid today.

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