Friday, March 6, 2009

First night of "Astral Weeks" in New York: A Surprisingly Smooth, Funny Van Ride--But No Less Magical

By Duncan Strauss
Over the years, I've been fortunate--enormously fortunate--to have seen countless Van Morrison concerts. Oh, sure, I probably
could count them. We're not talking hundreds of shows, but we are talking dozens.

And the first one I wrote about took place some 30 years ago on the UC Davis campus, where I was ostensibly a student, and reviewing the Van Morrison concert at Freeborn Hall for the school newspaper.

Three decades later, I'd say that perhaps the most memorable aspect of the evening occurred just before the show started, when a woman working for the concert's promoter, Bill Graham Presents-- the whip-smart and wonderfully-named Queenie Taylor, who later became a major honcho in the Graham organization--sidled up to me and explained that I was in Van's sight line, and if he saw me taking notes, he might well storm off stage.

The fact that a no-nothing college kid scribbling in a reporter's notebook had the potential to short-circuit the concert provided quite a jarring first glimpse into just how artistically skittish the mercurial Morrison could be. Still, it was one helluva show (and it proceeded without incident).

In the ensuing years, there were lots of shows, lots of bands, large and small--Van sharing the stage with such truly stellar musicians as Georgie Fame, Pee-Wee Ellis, Lonnie Donegan, Linda Gail Lewis, one year sharing a bill with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell...

But I've never seen Morrison like I saw him in New York Friday, Feb. 27 at Madison Square Garden's Wamu Theatre, rendering "Astral Weeks"--it was a stunning, soaring performance (I believe he transcended, to paraphrase Van) that seemed truly singular for no less than three reasons:

(1) Improbably, his voice seems better than ever
(2) He seemed to be having fun, at times was downright playful and funny. I know:
Van Morrison!?!?!
(3) He was backed by a 14-piece magnificent band--that he never introduced! I can't remember the last Van Morrison concert where he failed to at least briefly introduce each musician sharing the stage.

Let's take them in reverse order. I have to believe neglecting to introduce the band was wholly unintentional, an oversight not entirely unconnected to some onstage jitters here and there, and a few more tech-oriented things that didn't go his way. (More on that in a moment.)

Still, when it comes to these musicians, incredibly accomplished and adaptable--often on the fly, with a quick Van hand signal or nod--it should be noted that their ranks did include players from the original, 1968 "Astral Weeks" sessions (but just guitarist Jay Berliner, apart from Van), and most but not quite all of the musicians featured on "Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl," the just-released concert disc documenting the two "Astral Weeks"-centric shows Van delivered at that outdoor venue in October.

Which means stand-up bassist David Hayes, violinist Tony Fitzgibbon and flutist/saxaphonist Richie Buckley, among many others, were all on hand to help re-create "Astral Weeks"--and freshly create musical magic that traversed that set and the preceding hourlong set that sampled the sprawling Morrison catalog.

If it was somewhat out of character for Van not to give the band props, it was even more so--delightfully so--to find Van in such good humor. He seemed to be enjoying himself to the point of occasional giddiness.

As a reflection of this, when things went awry a coupla times on the technical front, where the Van of yesterday (and, perhaps, tomorrow) would've surely soured, if not bailed out of the performance, at least figuratively, it seemed to tickle him. Or at least, not rankle him.

For instance, at one point about midway through the first set, during his spirited reading of "Who Drove The Red Sports Car?," his cord popped out of the microphone, just before he unleashed an otherworldly flight of vocal fancy.

Realizing what had happened, he chuckled and said "I have to do that again, right?" And did. Not the same way--this is Van Morrison, after all--but no less astonishing.

Later, to close the first set--not unlike the way the "Astral Weeks Live" CD concludes (and he's certainly done it in the past)--Van engaged in a call-and-response passage with saxophonist Buckley in which Morrison would utter a word or phrase, and Buckley would instantly repeat it.

It was a thrilling exercise, and entertaining when it reached a point where Van was clearly trying to trip up Buckley with a lightening-fast delivery, dissolving into laughter at one point. Yeah, I'm still talking about Van.

And then, Morrison started to make his way to the side of the stage, singing as he made his exit--but the drama of the moment was thwarted a bit because well before he'd disappeared backstage, his microphone cord wouldn't stretch any further.

Again, instead of the reasonably expected Vantrum, he shrugged, said "the cord's not long enough," dropped the mic and strolled off. It should probably be noted that the songs before this set-closer included his version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," and a mini-medley of "Mystic Eyes" and "Gloria." A wonderful mix of the surprising and semi-expected, or hoped-for, potently performed.

There was virtually no horsing, as we call it in our house, during the second set--in this case, Van opted to do "Astral Weeks" in the original album sequence, which hasn't been the case in the Hollywood Bowl shows and some of the ensuing New York City concerts.

But with the more sober-minded stance, Van seemed both truly transported and seeking a way to transport the band--and the audience--to new musical, emotional and spiritual contours of this eminently familiar material. Boy, it worked, and in no small measure because--defying logic, physiology and who-knows-what-else--his voice seemed at least as robust, soulful and strong as ever.

Really doesn't make any sense. The guy's 63. Just part of the Morrison Magic, I guess. In 2009, directly tied to re-exploring "Astral Weeks," Van seems to be somehow tapping a bottomless well of Morrison Magic.

“Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

1 comment:

marty said...

Your review has prompted me to address a major hole in my music library and music education by picking up my first version (LP, CD, etc.) of Astral Weeks. What a beautiful album. Just amazing. I'm not really sure how I missed it in my travels. Thanks for the musical prompt.