The accolades are lined up in advance for this: one of the most exalted troubadours of the past 40 years performing his critical darling album at a hallowed venue. It probably makes you wish you were there, even if you only know Van Morrison as the singer of “Brown Eyed Girl.” And if that is all you know, don’t buy this. There is no pop on Astral Weeks, and there’s no pandering in this performance.
If, on the other hand, you respect Astral Weeks as a sonic journey through dimensions of jazz and folk—with lyrics about sitting on stars and dreaming, cherry wine, cross-dressing, and love of 14-year-olds—then this is a fantastic rendition of that mystical mélange. Recorded in 1968 as a jam session of sorts between the singer and some hired musicians he’d never played with, what came together in a couple of days was a graceful bird’s-nest mix of folk guitar and jazz rhythm. Live, 40 years later, those breathy arrangements hold the extra weight of a full live band like perfect architecture. Everything smashes softly together: Van’s singing “To never wonder why it’s gotta be” and you’re walking the streets, so misty wet with rain, wishing that while this was being born again you coulda looked up at that Hollywood Bowl sky—the one that looks like anywhere but the guts of Tinseltown.
The new song order flows better than the original, probably because it’s been rehearsed. “Slim Slow Slider” moves toward the front, taking its sad last words away from the finale. “Sweet Thing” is followed by “The Way Young Lovers Do,” and that new transition—reverential desire sliding into ecstatic celebration of new love—is potent.
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