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Van Morrison discovers a new astral plane

Astral Weeks was the legendary album that established Van Morrison’s reputation. Forty years on and at the height if his talents he has remade it as a live album.


Van Morrison’s voice has changed by his singing is, if anything, even more extraordinary

In a cascade of flowing instrumentation, a swollen tide of tumbling bass and rising flute, washing around a lone, ululating voice, Van Morrison ventures once more into the slipstream, the 62-year-old Belfast singer delightedly repeating the phrase, "to be born again", as if he really has been. It is the extraordinary opening track for his new album, Astral Weeks.

The title will already be familiar to music fans. Astral Weeks was the legendary 1968 album that established Morrison’s reputation, after pop hits with Northern Irish band Them. Although not a big seller at the time, it has come to be regarded as a classic in rock’s canon, regularly named among the greatest albums ever made. Forty years on, Morrison has remade it as a live album, recorded with a 14-piece band over two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl last November.

The original is an album of mysteries, as much, one suspects, to its maker as its listeners. Raw and in-the-moment, it blends jazz, blues, soul and folk into an amorphous singer-songwriter extemporisation. The young, sharply tenor-voiced Morrison pulls together snatches of vivid imagery into a richly melancholic yet strangely uplifting song sequence. It is beautiful and strange.

In dispute with his American label, Morrison was in dire financial straits when Warner Brothers bought out his contract. Astral Weeks was recorded in just three live sessions with a handful of New York jazz musicians. What happened in the studio was an improvised collision of cultures, channelled through a young genius trying to convey the music he heard in his head.

Despite poor sales, it was influential among critics, helping shape the singer-songwriting boom of the Seventies.

Yet Morrison has often belittled it, claiming he didn’t have the budget to create the fully orchestrated work he envisioned. In an interview in Uncut magazine in 2005, Morrison disparaged producer Lewis Merenstein and his fellow musicians. "If you listen to the record closely enough, they’re out of sync a lot of the time, or sometimes they’re not sure where they’re going next. Those guys were just winging it. There was no rapport."

Morrison is a notoriously unpredictable and belligerent interview subject. A recurring theme is irritation at being viewed as some kind of heritage act. On Radio 4’s Today programme last year, he accused the music business of being obsessed with the past. "It’s like no one has moved on. The marketplace is going backwards." Which makes his decision to revisit Astral Weeks all the more curious.

What he has done, I suspect, is remake it the way he always imagined it. The running order is slightly different and the band (which includes only one original member) much larger. Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl is looser, jazzier, warmer, fuller. It is still spontaneous, the band having only had one rehearsal, yet there is an assuredness in working from a solid template. Morrison’s voice has changed, descending into a more baritone range, but his singing is, if anything, even more extraordinary.

Playful and celebratory, the live version doesn’t have the undercurrent of melancholy, sacrificing one of the most magical ingredients of the original. Only on Slim Slow Slider, which grapples with the death of a loved one, does his age add emotional weight. But Morrison fills those emotional spaces with other things, a mature musical talent at the height of his powers, leading an exceptional band on a journey to complete self expression. Astral Weeks Live is no slavish recreation but a new interpretation. Now there are two versions of the same piece of music, each distinct. "I believe I’ve transcended," he starts to sing during the title track. And we believe him too.

09/02/2009 13:08. plotino #. VAN MORRISON No hay comentarios. Comentar.

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