album reviews

Van Morrison
Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl
Liston to the Lion Records/EMI (2009)

Sweet Thing: Van Morrison, 'Astral Weeks Live At the Hollywood Bowl'

Unless you could afford the steep ticket prices for Van Morrison's performances last November at L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl (it cost $75 for one of the cheap seats) or at the end of this month in New York City, his new live album (or the future live DVD) is the closest you'll get to hearing his seminal album "Astral Weeks" performed live in one sitting.

While most live albums add relatively little to the artist's overall oeuvre, "Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl" actually enhances "Astral Weeks": it both reminds us how good the original material was and gives enough different twists on those songs to prevent it from being just a carbon copy of the original album.

Those fresh arrangements are brought in part by the change in perspective these songs have when performed by a man who has aged 40 years since the album's 1968 release.

Sung by a man in his early 20s, "The Way Young Lovers Do" is a straightforward celebration of love; by contrast, the 63-year-old Morrison turns this song into a nostalgic yearning for the innocence of young love. Even the jazzy horn blasts in the chorus can't shake the yearning from his lines "Then we sat on our own star and dreamed of the way that we were / And the way that we were meant to be". The class struggle in "Cyprus Avenue" doesn't have the undercurrent of hope for a better future that the album version did, but Morrison's live stuttering of "my t-t-t-ton-tongue gets t-t-t-tied" certainly conveys the feeling of being caught somewhere he doesn't belong.

Another change is that Morrison chose not to perform these songs in their album order. Perhaps he wanted to introduce a bit of spontaneity into an otherwise predictable setlist, or perhaps this was the sequencing he preferred over producer Lewis Merenstein's ultimate tracklist — but either way, his song order flows remarkably well, even for an album we've all heard a million (or more) times before.

Somehow, it made perfect sense to end the performance with "Madame George" and to move the album-closing tune "Slim Slow Slider" in between "Beside You" and "Sweet Thing".

This show is certainly far from perfect — "Beside You" starts out a bit shaky and takes a few minutes to gel, and the concert announcer's over-exuberant (and repetitive) shouting of "VAN MORRISON!" at the end of "Listen to the Lion" is a particularly jarring way to be snapped out of the trancelike state this song induces. But this is the rare live performance that doesn't feel like one: sure, there are crowd whoops and applause to remind us, but it's easy enough just to get lost in Morrison's recreation of his masterpiece — and to be reminded yet again of the timeless strength of "Astral Weeks."

Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis

.: Originally published: 10 February 2009.
.: Re-published: express, a Publication of The Washington Post: 10 February 2009, Page 18.
.: Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl on