Van Morrison Returning to Hollywood Bowl
The Bard of Belfast recently announced that he would be revisiting his 1968 album Astral Weeks at the Hollywood Bowl on November 6 and 7. He plans to bring a couple of the original musicians from the alum, and record the concert for release (digitally before the end of the year and on CD in January).
The concerts will coincide with the 40th anniversary of the album’s release. Which raises the question of how and why and whether artists should revisit their earlier material. Is it because they want to try and make it better, is it because the well has run dry or is it a legitimate exploration of the artistic muse? As the legacy artists begin their fourth and fifth decade of performing, fans are confronted with a variety of approaches.
Bob Dylan has famously reworked his earlier material into nearly unrecognizable versions onstage. His last four studio albums have exceeded all expectations in terms of quality. His latest release (the eighth in his authorized “Bootleg” series) is comprised of alternate versions of various recent compositions, and it sounds great.
In fact, the concert setting often presents the performer with a conundrum. He will often want to stretch and provide new insights into the songs, but many fans want the album version and not much variation. More than most legacy artists, Morrison has always had a jazz bent. Jazz has improvisation at its core, so perhaps it is not surprising that Morrison looks at much of his canon as ripe for transformation. I have seen him rework his biggest hits (“Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance”) into breezy, scatty numbers. His penchant for the saxophone leaves him room to explore deep inside his songs.
For his two nights at the Hollywood Bowl, Morrison plans an opening set of favorites. He will likely tee up several of the 150 songs licensed to films, with a dollop from his last few albums. I am hopeful he will spend time with the music from his mystical Irish troubadour period in the 1980s. That period hit its apogee with the aptly-titled A Sense of Wonder. Morrison will be ably assisted by John Platania on guitar and David Hayes on bass, fellow travelers with Morrison from 1970 and 1973 respectively. After a break, Morrison will return to the stage with Jay Berliner (guitar) and Richard Davis (bass), each from the original Astral Weeks sessions.
The album met with critical acclaim and general consumer indifference upon release. Like many masterpieces, its stature grew over time. MOJO placed it at #2 in its list of the next 100 albums, and Rolling Stone pegged it at #19 in its top 500 albums. Elvis Costello, himself no slouch in writing a huge catalogue of songs, described Astral Weeks as "still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium, and there hasn't been a record with that amount of daring made since." Yet I am unclear how Martin Scorsese cites the first half of his Taxi Driver as influenced by the album.
Guitarist Berliner comes from a strong jazz background, having played with Charles Mingus. (Mingus had an earlier album also called Astral Weeks).
Van Morrison allowed the band to play essentially on their own, with no lead sheets and reportedly little guidance. The result is comparable to an impressionist painting, evocative yet based on small fragments of specificity. The album is comprised of eight recordings from three sessions. Some of the best songs come from the final session: "The Way Young Lovers Do," "Sweet Thing," "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider." Given that many of the songs were edited for the album and given Morrison’s penchant for stretching, we should expect the versions in November to be longer than the recorded versions. Morrison has performed various of the eight Astral Weeks songs on his last tour, so he should be in good form. "This is a welcomed opportunity for me to perform these songs the way I originally intended them to be," says Morrison. "It's about the world of creation and of the imagination: That is what a song is, a little movie with melodies and music built around it, poetry in moving pictures in the mind… In the 60's and 70's the record companies did not support the music, so I never got to take these songs on tour, and I certainly did not have the money to do it. These songs are as timeless and fresh right now as the day they were written and I am happy about taking them to the Hollywood Bowl."
So, is it the case that artists make their best work when young? Other than a few exceptions (Dylan, Nick Lowe, among a few others) that seems to be the case for rock musicians. Painters often do their great work near the end of their days. Classical composers seem to hold steady over the years. Jazz musicians burn brightly early, and often glow well with age. Morrison touches on several of these phenomena.
Despite his curmudgeonly stage demeanor, he remains my desert island artist.
Many of us look forward to seeing what he’ll pull out of his fedora at the Hollywood Bowl next month.